As humans, we tend to ascribe great meaning to numbers. (Exhibit A: How many times, as a kid, did you make a wish at 11:11?) But this fascination is summed up in no better way than our collective refusal to set foot on the 13th floor of any tall building. In fact, if you haven’t noticed by now, it’s generally not even possible to visit the 13th floor: most buildings just go straight from 12 to 14.
In nearly every culture, the number 13 is an ominous symbol—one that is steeped in centuries of superstition. Many historians believe that this fear of the number 13 perhaps stems from Jesus Christ’s Last Supper, where there were 13 people—Jesus and his twelve apostles—seated around a table. As the story goes, Judas, the 13th person placed at the table, ended up being the one apostle who betrayed Jesus in the end, so many began to relate Judas with the unlucky number.
What’s more—as if an infamous betrayal whose reverberations are felt literal millennia later wasn’t enough to imbue the number 13 with an unshakable sense of dread—there have been other strange occurrences in history involving the number that inherently conjure a sense of bad luck.
For example, in some ancient civilizations, 13 moon cycles were considered unlucky—and those in charge of calendars had to change their lunar calculations to account for the anomaly. And then, of course, there’s Friday the 13th. Our fears surrounding the non-holiday date all the way back to the Crusades: specifically, Friday, October 13, 1307. On that date, King Philip IV of France ordered the bloody torture and killing of the Knights Templar, a revered group made up of the most skilled group of fighters during the era. (Think of them as The Avengers of the 13th and 14th centuries. And imagine, for a second, what the reaction would be today if Iron Man and company actually got Thanos-ed out of existence. That’d be a bad-luck omen, if there ever were one.)
Eventually, this time-and culture-spanning superstition made its way to the architecture of America. Starting in the 20th century, when skyscrapers began cropping up in bigger cities, buildings overwhelmingly forwent marking the 13th floor because of simple economics: they didn’t want to give anyone a reason not to want to rent space in their building.
These days, it’s practically scripture. Samuel Lewis, general manager of the Lefrak Management Company, told the New York Times that the superstition has now affected the overwhelming majority of tall buildings in America: “If you took a survey of high-rises, I think you’d find 90 percent don’t have a 13th floor. Owners are simply afraid people won’t rent.”
For those who would rather play it safe when it comes to superstitions such as these, you can rest easy knowing that your apartment building is likely to cater to you. As reported by The Atlantic, research conducted by CityReality, the New York City-based real estate listing site, found that, out of 629 apartment buildings in New York City with 13 or more floors, a mere 9 percent actually labeled their 13th floor as, well, the 13th floor. Management companies for the rest of the buildings, according to the researchers, found creative ways to mark the floor: “14,” “M,” or, if 13 is the top floor, “PH.” (That stands for “penthouse.”)
However, despite the fact that this fear is ingrained into the consciousness of credulous Americans, it appears as though we care more about the 13th-floor view than about the mysterious omens that could be lurking around every corner. Case in point: every new apartment building added to New York City’s fast-growing Roosevelt Island in recent years has included a well-marked thirteenth floor. According to the New York Times‘s report, this hasn’t deterred renters one bit.
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