Taking the stairs

On Thursday, the elevators in the Surrogate’s Court building, which sits across the street from City Hall and was once the Hall of Records, were spotty. I’ve been doing some research there, in the New York County Clerk Office’s Division of Old Records on the seventh floor, where two centuries of paper-filing technologies succeed one another in a maze of rooms, on floor-to-ceiling shelves, interrupted only by the occasional gray metal locker from which spill oversize portfolios of maps of property that was condemned to build, say, the West Side Highway or FDR drive. It’s one of the city’s great and unacclaimed archival treasures. Last week I shone a flashlight through the back of an 1850 divorce case complaint, so that I could read the name of an adulteress, which had been pasted over a century and a half ago, perhaps to forestall a libel suit. (If you want to know the lady’s name, you’ll have to buy my book, whenever I get around to writing it.)

But I was talking about the elevators. In the morning only one of the four was working. When I left in the afternoon, I waited about five minutes with a fidgety stranger and then thought I’d try a set of stairs I’d seen on the other side of the building. I wasn’t sure if they went all the way down.

They did. They more than did. I wouldn’t call the building beautiful, but it’s in the idiom of those late 19th century, early 20th century monumental public spaces, like the 42nd Street New York Public Library or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Marble, wherever the eye falls. Vaulted ceilings. And, I realized as I descended, staircases that were meant to provide not a backup means of getting from one floor to another but the chief means of doing so. And not only that. The stairs in the Surrogate’s Court building are grand. They’re disproportionately wide and for the most part not very steep, and even though at least one flight is no longer lit, they seem to have been intended as a place where people in the building would see one another, stop, and confer, familiarly and formally. The architects probably never suspected that one day healthy adults would use elevators as the primary means of ascending to higher floors. Did skyscrapers normalize the use of elevators? Maybe it was automobiles that accustomed us to being carried by machines.

A loss related to the disuse of grand staircases: the absence of stoops from any building in Park Slope less than fifty years old.