Tour Recap: National Elevator Cab and Door Corp. Factory

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If you’ve ever taken a train out of the city to the north or east, you’ve ridden right past the National Elevator Cab & Door Corp. factory. Located on a side street in Queens tucked into the split where the elevated tracks for Amtrak’s Acela line and the LIRR part ways, this unassuming brick building produces hundreds of elevator cabs every year, serving New York City’s uniquely robust market for vertical transportation. The factory is surrounded by a mix of warehouse and factory buildings—many of which still contain industrial businesses—and tightly packed single family homes and apartment buildings housing a diverse, working class community.

On August 1st, 2014, National provided a rare glimpse inside of its facility through two tours organized as part of Open House New York’s (OHNY) and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) Making it Here series. Led by the family-owned business’ third-generation owner, Jeff Friedman, participants learned about how elevator cabs are produced here in the city, within view of the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan.


This massive press bends metal panels with an ease that is almost startling to see in person. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

“If your elevator is broken,” Jeff started off, “we’re useless. If it’s ugly, we can help.” While a few very large companies like Otis manufacture elevators all over the world, custom cabs, entrances, and fixtures are often contracted out to firms like National. Otis provides customers with a catalog of options; if you want something distinctive, or even something simple that the larger firms don’t already make, you go to National. In a city like New York, where elevator rides are a fact of daily life for people across the socioeconomic spectrum, a large market exists for this kind of work.

According to Jeff, there are around 100,000 elevator cabs operating in New York City today, with the majority located in Manhattan, the borough where National does most of their annual business. National produces hundreds of cabs each year. The average job calls for 10 cabs, though the company will often work on skyscraping landmarks that require a much heavier lift. On the morning of the tour, Jeff noted that the company was just wrapping up a job building 72 cabs for 1WTC; work was just getting underway for the refurbishment of the high rise cabs in the Empire State Building, and had just finished the refurbishment of 31 cabs in 10 and 30 Rockefeller Center not long before.


Several mammoth pieces of machinery are clustered in the factory’s westernmost area, clanking and clomping away. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

National’s factory is actually made up of several industrial buildings that have been cobbled together over time as the company has grown. It started out in Midtown Manhattan in 1929, and moved from the east side to the west before heading out to Queens in 1965. Entering the factory from the loading dock on the westernmost side, the tour led participants through a maze of shearing machines and punch presses where huge sheets of metal are cut, bent, and shaped to create the hundreds of interlocking pieces of elevator cabs and doors. Jeff paused at the welding station to talk about one of the key reasons his company stays in the city: access to skilled labor.


“These guys have to be able to take blueprints and drawings and figure out what goes where, how to get the dimensions right, what order to do things in.” (Photo: Daniella Shin)

“It takes talent to weld well,” Jeff told the group. “That’s a skill that not everybody has. These guys don’t just have to weld, either; they have to be able to take blueprints and drawings and figure out what goes where, how to get the dimensions right, what order to do things in. Their work has to be structurally sound, yes, but because of the nature of our business, it also has to look architecturally sound.”

Because National does custom jobs, its production process is far from a traditional assembly line. Aesthetics are important, since the cabs, doors, and fixtures are the “face” of the larger elevator structures, the parts that the public actually sees. A company like Otis doesn’t need to worry about how the inside of an elevator shaft that it produces looks, so long as it can safely do its job. National’s work, by contrast, requires a high level of craftsmanship and attention to detail.

This cab, the 73rd and last cab built for 1WTC, was the result of an estimated 1,000 hours worth of work. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

This cab, the 72nd and final cab built for 1WTC, was the result of an estimated 1,000 hours worth of work. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

In the next section of the factory, participants had the opportunity to see the last cab built for 1WTC, a glass box that will be installed in the lobby atrium to facilitate wheelchair accessibility. National assembles each cab that it produces on-site to make sure that everything fits together and to test the different working components. Pre-assembly also gives architects the chance to visit the site and work directly with Jeff and his staff as custom cabs are produced to ensure that everything looks right. Once the cabs have been tested and given the architect’s stamp of approval, they are disassembled and shipped in pieces out, before being re-assembled on-site at their final destination. Between cutting, drilling, polishing, assembling, and many other steps involved along the way, Jeff estimated that the single 1WTC cab the group was looking at was the result of nearly 1,000 hours worth of work.


The red and gold panel in the foreground will eventually be installed at the Helmsley Building as part of a restoration of the building’s landmarked elevator cabs. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Participants saw a variety of cabs in various states of construction. A standard NYCHA elevator cab stood, fully assembled, across from the 1WTC cab. NYCHA has around 7,000 elevators across the city, and is a large and reliable customer for National (as well as a number of its competitors). A gleaming cab for 7 Bryant Park, designed by Pei Partners, was in the process of being assembled, while just across the aisle workers were producing meticulously crafted replicas of the red and gold wall panels for the elevators in Park Avenue’s iconic Helmsley Building, one of only two buildings in New York City with landmarked elevator cabs.


Panels hang in a row, awaiting the day when they’ll be shipped off to a job site. “Generally,” Jeff explained, “the time between when an architect approves a drawing to when we can ship the cabs is about 12 weeks.” (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Notably, National has a number of repeat clients. The average age of a commercial office building in the city is 75 years, according to Jeff, and elevator cabs need to be refurbished every two to three decades. The company refurbished the cabs in the Twin Towers in the 1990s, and did the previous refurbishment for Helmsley back in the late 1970s. National has built a reputation for quality work over time, encouraging repeat business that gives the company a competitive edge that helps to offset the added costs of doing business in the city, where real estate is at a premium.

“It’s actually a strategic advantage for us to be right here,” said Jeff. “When you consider the transit access, the proximity to the Queensboro Bridge and the BQE, we’re in the transportation hub of the city. And our factory is like the United Nations; we have people working here from all over the world. We’re proud of that, and quality of life for our employees is important to us. It’s important for us to be near transportation for them, and important to be near our suppliers, our clients, our market.”


National’s Jeff Friedman, center, led the tour as part of OHNY and NYCEDC’s Making it Here series. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

While urban real estate is more expensive for manufacturers, New York’s distinctive form—its density and verticality, as well as the physical diversity of its neighborhoods and its appetite for quality architecture—has created sizable niche markets for businesses like the National Elevator Cab & Door Corp. that have historically made the benefits of an in-city location worth the higher costs. As a result, when manufacturers with less direct ties to the city headed out to suburban industrial parks or new factories overseas, National made the very deliberate decision to stay in New York.


A laser cutter is used to create many of the smaller components that are used in elevator fixtures. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

But if space for manufacturing continues to shrink, the cost benefit balance will eventually tip. And beyond the pressures of real estate, there is the desire to grow. National has been able to expand to adjacent buildings several times, but with a limited (and shrinking) amount of industrial land, at a certain point the very same dense and diverse urban fabric that makes National’s business possible becomes a constraint, limiting the company’s ability to expand. While new, nimble manufacturers are generating a lot of excitement right now, the question as to whether New York can still find space for its legacy manufacturers remains. In order for these companies to continue to grow and add the stable, well-paid jobs that they are valued for creating, they need room.

“Frankly, this is not the cheapest place to be,” Jeff admitted. “We would love to have more space, but it’s hard to come by. We’ve looked at other areas where you can get more square footage, but they just don’t have the transportation access. So, here we are.”

(Photo: Daniella Shin)

National is the only manufacturer of its kind to make cabs, doors (or “entrances” in industry terminology), and fixtures all in the same factory. (Photo: Daniella Shin)

Tour Recap: Edison Price Lighting Factory

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“Our niche is people who want quality lighting that will last a long time,” explained Emma Price, the President of Edison Price Lighting, when asked about her company’s specialty. “You have to do high-quality [if you want to manufacture things] in New York City. You can’t just make cheap stuff, here.”

Established in 1952, Edison Price has over 60 years of experience designing and manufacturing high-quality energy-efficient lighting fixtures at their factory in Long Island City, Queens, in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. The company has completed many high-profile projects, including the refurbishment of the lighting fixtures for the United Nations, and lighting the new 9/11 Memorial Museum. Emma’s father was a friend and frequent collaborator of legendary Modernist lighting designer Richard Kelly, and the company worked with him to light the Yale Art Gallery, the Seagram Building, and other architectural landmarks.

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Nina Rappaport (left) and Emma Price (right) welcome tour participants to Edison Price Lighting’s Long Island City factory (Photo: OHNY)

In that time, the company has witnessed the city’s economic and technological landscape transform dramatically, and its physical surroundings are now following suit. On July 16th, Emma and her team hosted a factory tour, organized and presented by Vertical Urban Factory curator and project director Nina Rappaport, as part of Open House New York’s (OHNY) and New York City Economic Development Corporation’s (NYCEDC) Making it Here series.

In the 1900s, Long Island City was a vibrant manufacturing center, thanks to the area’s efficient transportation networks and large skilled labor pool. But as technology advanced and outsourced labor became more economically strategic for many manufacturing firms, the area’s industrial community took a huge blow. “After NAFTA, a many cities simply let the manufacturers go,” Nina noted in her introduction. “Many planners thought that manufacturing wasn’t something that was needed in cities anymore. As a result, we wound up with land zoned for manufacturing sitting empty, which was an impetus for rezoning to other uses.”

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Just outside, glittering new residential buildings are on the rise. (Photo: OHNY)

More recently, large sections of New York’s manufacturing districts have been rezoned for residential and commercial uses as the land values of waterfront property in the city have soared due to the increased interest in urban living. This is especially true of LIC, but despite mounting pressure to leave the area, Edison Price has chosen to stay right where they are. The area’s transit access, still important to attracting skilled workers, also makes it easy for architects and lighting designers—the company’s core clients—to get to the factory themselves.

By specializing in the production of high value added goods, companies like Edison Price provide essential services to the more glamorous, high-profile sectors of the city’s economy, architecture and design among them. The symbiotic relationship between design industries and manufacturers that specialize in creating unique products is one of the mainstays of urban economies. For Edison Price, that means working directly with the people who design the lighting for the buildings in which we live, work, and play. Both architect and manufacturer are able to fine-tune what they do in order to produce better results based on their collaborative work, and are thus better off for being near each other, Nina noted.

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The factory tour was led by factory manager George Closs (left). (Photo: OHNY)

After Emma’s and Nina’s introductions, factory manager George Closs led tour participants through the almost 50,000-square-foot facility to learn more about how custom lighting fixtures are made. On average, Edison Price manufactures $20 million in product per year. George emphasized that Edison Price is “made in New York City,” and that its products are American to the core. For the past 60 years, Edison Price has done all design, research, and production work within its LIC facility. Furthermore, every material and machine used to produce light fixtures at Edison price is made in the United States.

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Bins of metal shavings are collected and sold to metal recycling firms. (Photo: OHNY)

During the tour, the factory floor buzzed with the rhythmic sounds of dozens of machines drilling and making calculated cuts and punches. George pointed out an impressive group of machines that cut and shaped metal into light fixtures, and a laser-cutting machine larger than most New York City bedrooms. “We have zero inventory,” he told the group, explaining that the factory manufactures its products using just-in-time scheduling to send out orders as soon as they’re finished being made. This cuts back on the space that the company needs to occupy, allowing for the more efficient use of space.

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A large punch press makes precise, rapid cuts through metal sheeting. (Photo: OHNY)

Edison Price also stands out for a unique factory layout that allows the company to take advantage of the city’s aforementioned skilled labor pool. The company utilizes small teams of workers who are cross-trained to be able to work on fixtures at any step in the production process, rather than using the more common assembly line model, where workers specialize in a single monotonous step. Here, employees are valued for their adaptability and flexibility, rather than serving as cogs in a machine.

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At Edison Price, employees are valued for their adaptability and flexibility, rather than serving as cogs in a machine. (Photo: OHNY)

Afterward, Nina discussed her Vertical Urban Factory project, explaining that she is working directly with manufacturers like Edison Price to think through how they might be able to continue growing in place while also taking advantage of changing trends in urban real estate like those affecting Long Island City. “Could you have a situation where Edison Price is able to develop a residential project above its factory, have mixed uses in place, which is something rarely considered, and stay in its building in the long term?” Nina asked, before hinting that she’s working with the city’s planning department to think through potential future scenarios.

A visit to a facility like Edison Price Lighting’s is an eye-opening experience. It illustrates why creating adequate space for manufacturers is still so important to New York’s economy. Creative types benefit greatly from being able to work directly with the people who make their ideas work, and vice versa. In order for the city’s creative industries to thrive, both sides of the coin have to be considered.

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A visit to a factory like Edison Price’s illustrates why creating adequate space for manufacturers is still so important to New York’s economy. (Photo: OHNY)

OHNY and NYCEDC thank Nina and Edison Price Lighting for welcoming participants into the factory for this tour.