If you go out looking for the 13th floor of a tall building in St. Louis, you may have a hard time finding it.
An informal survey by St. Louis Public Radio of 68 skyscrapers in the St. Louis area finds about 41 percent skip over 13 in counting their floors. Not surprisingly, most of them are hotels or residential properties where people pay to stay.
“A lot of clients do not like to have a 13th floor. They think that it is bad luck,” said Catalina Freixas, an architect and assistant professor of architecture at Washington University.
Freixas, who has worked on projects in which the architects were instructed not to include a 13th floor, said the issue has been around since the late 19th century when sky scrapers were first constructed.
Oftentimes, architects have solved the problem by putting mechanical components for elevators, and heating and cooling systems on the floor, rather than offices or living spaces, she said
“Sometimes it’s called a garden room. You know, or it has a restaurant or different things,” she said. “So, they tend to [refer to it in] different ways in order to hide that there is a 13th floor.”
By far the simplest solution is just renaming it the 14th floor, she said.
For most, the missing floor designation is easily overlooked. At the Renaissance Grand Hotel and Suites in downtown St. Louis, which has more than 20 floors, a bellhop named Lenny said most guests don't even notice.
“I’ve had a few guests say ‘I’m on the 14th floor; this is actually the 13th isn’t it?’ and I’d go ‘yeah, this is actually the 13th floor. But that's rare,” he said, declining to give his last name.
What Difference Does It Make?
As irrational as it is to purposefully mislabel floor numbers, there may be some value in the superstition as well. According to Kathryn Kuhn, an associate professor of sociology at St. Louis University, commonly shared superstitions can lend to individuals a sense control and significance.
She explains that living in secularized Western society typically requires a disposition that renowned sociologist Max Weber described as “disenchantment”.
“The world is knowable; there is no more mystery left. And, we think that science can explain everything. Even if it hasn’t told us yet how everything works, it eventually will. And I think people don’t like that. People like to have a little bit of mystery in the world,” she said.
These small quirks, says Kuhn, like avoiding 13, can function as a way to imbue meaning in a world that can otherwise seem oppressively mechanical and insignificant.
“You may not know why 13 is unlucky,” she said, “but you can do something about it by avoiding it. Otherwise, life would be pretty boring.”
It’s hard to track down the specific origin of our aversion to 13, which also extends to Friday the 13th, room thirteens and seats assigned the number 13.
Triskaidekaphobia is the Greek term for the fear. The earliest known reference is found in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, which omits its 13th law. Stories also from Norse mythology, and Christianity’s Last Supper, both involve very unlucky 13th dinner guests.
Even though there are a number of 21st C. buildings here in St. Louis and abroad that exclude 13 in their floor numbers, the fear may be waning among younger generations. Catalina Freixas said most of her architecture students were only vaguely aware of the tradition of omitting the 13th floor in building plans.
Her student, Hang Ye, for instance, is from Beijing and said he was familiar with the practice of leaving off a floor number, but said where he’s from it’s usually not the 13th.
“In some cities, especially some buildings, they think 14 is not a good number,” he said. “Maybe in some buildings they think 13 is okay, but 14 is not a good number.”
Ye explained that in Chinese, the characters for 4 and 14 share a similar pronunciation with the word for death or dying. Thus many high-rises in China leave out the 4th and 14th floors. In some regions, 13 is actually considered a lucky number, he said.
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