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Chicago’s Last Manual Elevator

Automation be damned. There’s something beautiful about seeing the inner workings of a people mover.

Waclaw Kalata holds one of the few jobs left for elevator operators Photos: Ramzi Dreessen

Through the doors of the Fine Arts Building and into the hallway, a bank of elevators sits on the left. Their dark gold doors are embossed with raised carvings of wreaths and frame dark windows that reflect the faces of a small group of people waiting for the elevator.

A sharp-nosed woman with a British accent stands next to a child ballerina. A man talks into his headphones. A sign nearby directs visitors to an open board meeting for the Opera Association.

Then the elevator arrives. The doors open to reveal a grate that’s pulled back with a creak, and the group steps inside.

Up. Down. Stop. Thud. “Ten." "Six.” “Three, please.”

The elevator in the Fine Arts building is not your usual elevator. For one, instead of the usual tense silence of elevators, people are calling out their floor numbers. There are no buttons to press. Instead, an elevator operator sits on a small stool and uses a lever to shift the metal box up and down.

It’s a manually operated elevator, among the last of its kind in Chicago.

Architecture experts point out that the Brewster building in Lincoln Park, a private apartment building, also has one. And most freight elevators are manually operated, though few have attendants like the Fine Arts Building. Then there are electric elevators where attendants push the button for you.

But if you’re an average Chicagoan who wants to see how elevators functioned before technology made the experience much more seamless (and solitary), the Fine Arts Building is your best bet.

The stately structure was built in 1885 as a carriage assembly plant for the Studebaker company. Then in 1895, it was remodeled to be a home to working artists, according to the building’s website. It’s housed the studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, the birth of Poetry magazine, and Chicago Little Theatre. Today it hosts a violin maker, a yoga studio, and a bookstore, among others.

The owner, real estate mogul Robert Berger, says he fell in love with the building when he got out of the army 60 years ago. “My friends who are real estate people say, ‘Don’t fall in love with a building,’” Berger tells Chicago. But he did, and though it took him a long time to buy, it’s a sister building to the other arts building he owns, the Flat Iron Wicker Park.

As for the elevators, Berger says they are charming and that, for now, they’re working just fine. “The tenants like walking into an elevator where the operator knows them and doesn’t need to ask for the floor they want,” he says. “It’s a neat experience.”

Visitors to the building agree, and it’s mentioned on a variety of travel sites. “The elevator is manually operated, and aside from the Tower of Terror in Disney Hollywood Studios, no elevator experience really compares,” raves one Yelp review. Another extols one particular detail of the experience: “I have a primal love of seeing the floor rush toward or away from me through the glass doors.”

Along with disappearing manual elevators, the job of elevator operator is nearly gone. A 2017 report in Quartz called it one of the few jobs that has disappeared almost entirely because of automation.

On the fall afternoon when I visit the building, the operator at elevator 1 is Waclaw Gutt. He runs the evening shift from 3 to 10 p.m. Gutt smiles slightly under his gray mustache and gives a small, nearly imperceptible nods to people as they enter his elevator.

He’s been doing the job for 26 years, and doesn’t even look at the lever as he switches it back and forth. He found the job through an acquaintance from Poland who was also an elevator operator in the building. “I came over here a few days and learned,” he says of his first days. In Poland his parents had owned a farm, and his first job in Chicago was in a meatpacking plant. Since then, he hasn’t looked back. “Everything [is] so far so good,” he says.

The manual elevators and century-plus-old murals aren’t the only things that make the Fine Arts Building feel like it comes from another time. There is also the way the lives of the people who work the elevator intersect.

The next morning, another Waclaw—Waclaw Kalata—will take his place for the morning shift.

Kalata has been working the elevator for 25 years. The most important part of the job, he says, is knowing how to stop the elevator exactly level with the floor. Like Gutt, Kalata plans to stay in his job as long as the elevators are running.

Amazingly, the two Waclaws were originally neighbors in Poland—they lived on nearby streets. They both heard about the elevator job from another former neighbor in Poland, who began working at the Fine Arts Building several years ahead of them—a cross-Atlantic connection to a building that connected Chicago’s art scene for decades.

The Last Holdouts is an occasional series where Chicago looks at the people, institutions, and groups that are sticking around while everything around them transforms. If you have ideas to pitch or submit, email holdouts@chicagomag.com.

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