Nineteenth-century “elevator buildings” were mystifying places, on the report of the grandmother of Rochelle Elstein, one of three curators behind the Northwestern University Library’s exhibit “The Elevator and the City.” At the turn of the last century seven-year-old Florence Given, who lived downtown, was spooked by the first elevator she encountered. “Florence was a very independent sort,” says Elstein. “She once set off and came to a building. She walked in and ran home and told her family that she saw people who went into a room and when they came out they looked totally different. That really scared her.”

Elisha Graves Otis demonstrated the first “safety” elevator 150 years ago at the Crystal Palace Expo in New York City. His invention lessened the frightful prospect of accidental free fall with ratcheted tracks that promised to stop a car’s descent if the rope or pulley broke. Diagrams for this “Improvement in Hoisting Apparatus,” patented on July 15, 1861, are on display in the exhibit, which traces both the technological advances since then and the role of the elevator in American culture. “We borrowed from every single one of our collections,” says Elstein, a bibliographer at the library. “Government documents gave us photocopies of patents. From special collections we got a book published by an elevator company where the back cover shows the various colors of metal finishes available for the doors.” Material in the library’s main collection yielded information on how elevator companies proliferated in Chicago in the late 19th century, including a photograph of Adler and Sullivan’s Borden Block, built in 1881 at the northwest corner of Randolph and Dearborn (and demolished in 1916). It was the first building in Chicago with two safety passenger elevators.

Other items on display include a book on the history of elevator music opened to a photograph of the genre’s alleged inventor, General George Owen Squier, and a computer loaded with a selection of cinematic elevator scenes: from D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Being John Malkovich and The Hours. The menu is a button panel modeled on the library’s own elevator cars.

“The Elevator and the City” runs through March 19 on the first floor of Northwestern University Library, 1970 Campus Drive in Evanston. It’s free; call 847-491-7658 for more.