Behind a sheet of plexiglass at this unassuming Potbelly Sandwich Shop in Washington, D.C., sits a very very old open cage elevator. Local lore has it that it is an Otis elevator installed in 1853, which would make it one of the oldest in the world. However, a well-researched investigation by the Otis Elevator Company archivist for Invention & Technology debunked this myth and showed that it’s actually a Bates elevator, most likely dating to the 1870s or 1880s, so a historical oddity nonetheless.
Before Potbelly moved into the space in recent years, the building was occupied by an antiques store run by several generations of the Litwin family. Now deceased, Fred Litwin was a locally beloved figure who didn’t miss an opportunity to tell any and all about his prized elevator. As a result, there was a surprising amount of coverage about the device in the local pages of the Washington Post and the Washington Star over the years. In one characteristic piece he describes the elevator as “a marvel of ingenious gears and levers and things,” that under his doting care “never, never breaks down.”
It is a miracle that the elevator and the Litwin building have survived to the present day. There was tremendous political and industry pressure to tear down the entire block in a 1970s urban renewal campaign. Luckily, local opposition spearheaded by Fred Litwin saved the building, as well as four adjoining addresses that were all given National Historic Landmark status.
Fred retired in 2003, and the fate of his shop and historic elevator were again thrown into peril. He described to a Washington Post reporter during this period how, “It’s awful when you have a love affair with a machine and find that nobody wants it … We’ve called a lot of people involved with elevators to try to make a home for this.”
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Potbelly ended up buying the property, and because of the National Historic status, the shop is not allowed to remove the special elevator.
Know Before You Go
There used to be a plaque, but it has recently gone missing.