The Missing 13th Floor: How Ancient Fears Influence Modern Architecture

If you’ve ever looked closely at the elevator panel of a high-rise hotel or residential building, you’ve likely noticed something missing: a button for the 13th floor.

4 minute read

January 13, 2023, 8:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Have you boarded an elevator in a high-rise apartment building or hotel and noticed that the buttons skip directly from 12 to 14? Perhaps there’s a button labeled 12A between them instead. Obviously, buildings over 12 stories tall have a physical 13th floor. But thanks to widespread fear and superstition surrounding the number 13, known as triskaidekaphobia, in American and Western European culture, many architects still opt to omit the number, skipping straight to the 14th floor or renaming the 13th floor instead. While the exact origins of 13 as an unlucky number is lost to time, the superstition continues to affect modern building customs. 

Like other phobias, triskaidekaphobia can trigger severe anxiety in its sufferers. In a 2007 Gallup poll, 13 percent of respondents (an eerie coincidence, evidently) admitted they would “feel uneasy” staying on the 13th floor, making the decision to omit the feared floor a logical economic decision for hoteliers and developers. According to a study by Realting.com, apartments located on the 13th floor of their building sold 18 percent less frequently. In the early days of high-rise construction, building height was a constant concern. In the early 20th century, New York architects were advised to build below 13 floors to avoid casting too much shade on surrounding buildings.

A 2002 estimate from Otis Elevators estimates that 85 percent of the company’s elevators do not have 13th floor buttons. In New York, a study of residential condominium buildings found that only 5 percent have a 13th floor. Many buildings use the floor for mechanical or administrative purposes, sometimes labeling it "M" for "Mechanical" or "Mezzanine," while others incorporate it into two-story units that only require an entrance on the floor above or below.

Sometimes, in buildings that originally labeled the 13th floor, such as Chicago’s Hotel Burnham, built in 1895, later owners removed the 13th floor and went to presumably considerable expense to change the room numbers on every floor above the 12th to fall in line with the superstition. Some famous buildings buck the trend, however: New York City’s Flatiron Building, Empire State Building, Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and all Hilton International hotels all have 13th floors. A similar belief impacts construction in China, where the fourth floor is commonly omitted because of the association of the word for ‘four’ with the word for ‘death.’

Naturally, conspiracy theories about nefarious goings-on on the ‘hidden’ 13th floor flourish, both in real conspiracist circles and in popular culture. Films, TV shows, and video games from The X-Files to Tomb Raider have featured the 13th floor as the site of secretive government experiments, portals to alternate realities, or sinister murder lairs. In an episode of the Nickelodeon horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark?, a young girl stumbles onto a mysterious toy testing facility on the vacant 13th floor of her apartment building, only to discover that it’s actually the portal through which her extraterrestrial parents can land on Earth to take her home.

Critics of the practice say the odd labeling can lead to confusion and misunderstandings by first responders and emergency personnel. Consequently, the city of Vancouver banned the practice of omitting floor numbers in 2015.

The missing 13th floor isn’t the only superstition common to architecture. During construction, when buildings reach their maximum height, builders still place “topping trees” or wreaths at the top of the structure. The evergreen tree can be traced back to Northern European traditions meant to honor tree-dwelling spirits, either expressing gratitude for the lumber used or acknowledging the sacrifice of the land. Today, construction crews around the world still hold “topping out” parties and sign structural pieces to celebrate the occasion. A tradition in the American South holds that a particular shade of blue, known as ‘haint paint,’ applied to porch ceilings wards off malevolent spirits, and the color can still be seen on many Southern houses. The gargoyles common on medieval European churches and buildings, in addition to draining rainwater away from the buildings, are reputed to ward off evil spirits, as are China’s curved roof lines. In a morbid twist, dead cats are frequently discovered embedded in the walls of newly constructed homes and buildings in the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and various other countries as good luck charms.

The next time you’re in a tall building, take notice of the elevator buttons. Chances are you’ll likely notice the lasting result of this ancient superstition. Happy Friday the 13th!


Diana Ionescu

Diana is a writer and urbanist passionate about public space, historical memory, and transportation equity. Prior to joining Planetizen, she started and managed a farmers' market and worked as a transportation planner in the bike share industry. She is Planetizen's editor as of January 2022.

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