Old-fashioned elevators take riders back in time

Nostalgiua: The operator-run lifts are nearly extinct in downtown Baltimore

July 26, 2004|By Matt Whittaker | Matt Whittaker,SUN STAFF

Just as drivers and pilots affectionately give female names to their sports cars or fighter jets, so has Josh Boyd christened the piece of machinery he operates daily.

"Baby Girl" is the early-1920s vintage elevator he runs in the One East Lexington building.

As long as the Atlantic Elevator Co. lift is maintained properly, he says, it runs better than modern ones. And it is more than just a conveyance.

"It reminds people of yesterday," he says. "It reminds people of their youth."

But these operator-run relics, like the telephone operators connecting calls with plugs at switchboards, are part of a bygone era. In 2002, at least nine remained in the metropolitan area. In August of that year, the four at 501 St. Paul Place were modernized, and another one likely won't last through the end of this year.

In addition to Boyd's "Baby Girl" on Lexington Street, two of the passenger elevators are at the Jefferson Building on East Fayette Street, one is in the Cokesbury building at 516 N. Charles St., and one is at the Oscar T. Smith Co. building at 309 E. Saratoga St.

"They've mostly disappeared," says Edward Donoghue, a spokesman for National Elevator Industry Inc., a trade association. "Most of them have been converted over to automatic operation. That's been happening since the '50s."

Parts and repairs for operator-run passenger elevators -- which can mostly be found in big cities and old industrial areas -- are rare and account for far less than 1 percent of the market, Donoghue says. Operator-run elevators are still widely used to carry freight.

The trade group does not keep statistics on how many of the old types of elevators are left in the country, Donoghue says. State agencies do not track the number of manual elevators remaining, either.

Walking into one of the elevators in downtown Baltimore is like entering a time warp. The quiet wood-paneled lifts accompanied by greetings from operators are an anomaly in today's automated age.

The operators are on a first-name basis with riders and usually don't even have to ask for a destination. But their jobs entail more than vertical logistics. They make small talk, commiserate and joke with passengers.

And the elevators are as unusual as their operators, with their wood paneling, flooring and the lever that guides the lift.

These visions of old Baltimore inspire some visitors to take pictures, just as if they're strolling around Fort McHenry.

As he steps out of one of the elevators in the Jefferson Building, Charlie Wilson, 65, of Lacey, Wash., admires the original black-and-white marble tile floor, brass railings and mahogany paneled walls of the Otis machine installed after the 1904 Baltimore fire. He says he hasn't seen one since he was a youngster in the 1950s.

"What's amazing about it is the smooth ride it gives," says Wilson, who is in town visiting family. "It's a point of history. I think that is so wonderful."

After he emerges from the elevator, his son videotapes him shaking hands with the elevator's operator, Jordan Crosby.

Crosby -- who lives in Southwest Baltimore and has had the $8.50-an-hour job for three years -- says it's not unusual for people to take pictures of the elevator.

"A lot of people don't believe we still have them," he says.

The 77-year-old retired janitor works three days a week, responding to buzzers alerting him when someone needs a ride from one of the building's 11 floors. A light flashes to indicate which floor needs his services.

"You meet a lot of interesting people on the elevator," he says. "They complain about this and that ... jobs, things in life. I just listen to them. I say, `Everything will be all right. Don't worry about it. It'll work out.'"

While sports arenas like Oriole Park at Camden Yards put staff in elevators to punch the buttons as a courtesy to customers, those jobs don't demand the skill of operating the old-time elevators, which require coordination to speed past certain floors and then slow to a stop at the right spot without jolting passengers or missing a floor.

A 4 1/2 -by-6-foot carpeted, wood-paneled passenger elevator, Boyd's elevator can be operated automatically or manually by tipping a small brass hand lever. But when the elevator is set to automatic, it can become stuck if people forget to close the elevator's metal screen door or the outside doors.

So the building's owners pay Boyd about $7 an hour to ferry business people, lawyers and musicians to and from the building's five floors. It's a job that goes beyond the mechanics of working the lever, he says.

"Just try to be kind and courteous to people," Boyd says. "This is a small area."

Not all the elevator operators are particularly fond of their jobs.

John Gibson won't be sad to see renovations begin next month on the 19th-century building that is home to the Oscar T. Smith printing company and the 1930s-era Otis passenger elevator he operates.

The job is boring, he says, and the 37-year-old Overlea man sometimes gets queasy going up and down the seven floors.

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