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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”