For all the change that has come to Seattle over the years, and especially during the city’s transformative tech boom, one constant has remained: the manually operated elevators at the city’s oldest skyscraper, Smith Tower.
Walking into the ornate, marble lobby of the 103-year-old landmark is like stepping back in time. Elevator operators stand next to golden carriages, ready to pull doors and levers by hand and push buttons to shuttle office workers to the floors above.
But modernization is catching up to what was once the tallest building on the West Coast. Work is underway to convert the historic elevators to automatic operation and improve their service time to the tenants who work in the building.
Seattle-based Unico Properties purchased Smith Tower in 2015 and immediately went to work on renovating the property, creating a revamped home for businesses and a worthwhile attraction for tourists.
Permit records show that Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board granted a certificate of approval on Aug. 16 for proposed alterations to Smith Tower. The proposal to modernize the elevators is aimed at improving “safety, reliability and accessibility while respecting the building’s history,” documents show.
Modifications will be made to call buttons, interior cab doors, operating panels and much more. (View a PDF of the documents at the bottom of this story.)
In a statement to GeekWire on Thursday, Unico said that elevator modernization began in June in an effort to meet modern service and safety requirements, while preserving the “grandeur” of the historical building.
“It is important to us that the elevators, including the ornate hallway glass doors, will look essentially as they do today when the project is complete,” Unico said.
As for the operators, the company said they will no longer be required as of mid-2018.
“We will continue to provide at least one elevator operator to preserve the historic significance this role has brought to Smith Tower, to demonstrate our appreciation of the operators, and as a nod to the history of the building,” Unico said, adding that they will be “well taken care of during and after the modernization.” (Read the company’s full statement at the bottom of this story.)
The building opened in 1914 with “eight high-powered, cutting-edge Otis elevators to move busy people around 600 offices,” reads one of many markers providing tidbits of historical information to visitors to the tower at Second Avenue and Yesler Way. “The motors move 2,500 pounds at 550 feet per minute.”
On a visit to Smith Tower this week, we found a few of the elevators already out of service. Five of the elevators were lit up and operating as usual — still powered by original DC motors — with operators controlling the ride.
Hamilton Beale has been one of those operators for 18 years.
Beale, 76, said he “chased a girl” to Seattle 43 years ago, when he came to the city from Virginia as a merchant seaman. He worked as a security guard around town, including for eight years at Rainier Bank, before beginning his run at Smith.
Dressed neatly in a white shirt and dark tie, Beale wore a blue fleece jacket with Smith Tower’s design emblazoned on it. Married twice over the years, Beale has no children and lives in Seattle’s Mount Baker neighborhood. He works 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. during the week.
Beale said he’s fully aware of the plans to automate his job, and said that change is part of the reason why he plans to return to Norfolk, Va., next May and live closer to family.
“I’ll miss the people the most,” Beale said. “That’s what kept me here — the tenants. It’s been good to me.”
When asked how technically difficult it was to perform his job, Beale laughed.
“It’s just opening and closing the door and pressing the button — that’s all,” he said. “Going up and down.”
Update, Oct. 6: Folks who worked for years in Smith Tower at the former interactive advertising agency Avenue A have started a gofundme for Beale to show their appreciation for him as a “familiar, friendly and wonderful human being.” The crowd funding campaign is aiming to raise $20,000 to help Beale retire with an extra cushion and a “thank you” from his Seattle community.
In a ride to the Observatory near the top of Smith Tower, it’s like riding in a softly lit golden box. The operator stands quietly, chatting courteously with a tenant who might engage on the way to work. The glass doors allow for a view of the floors streaming past as the elevator races upward.
Formerly known as the Chinese Room, the bar and viewing space on the 35th floor underwent a remodel and rebranding to attract workers and tourists looking for a “Depression-era-styled” cocktail, as Eater Seattle put it — and the chance to drink in views of Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, the sports stadiums and the waterfront’s Great Wheel.
Just blocks away, the 76-story Columbia Tower dwarfs Smith. And the new angular, glass F5 Tower stands next to it as further proof that Seattle has been growing up and up for years, beyond where Smith topped out at 484 feet.
An operator in the building’s Tower Express Elevator — the only one which goes to the Observatory — is dressed in a white shirt and vest and blue pants with yellow piping to further look the part in the historic setting. She’s clearly rehearsed her lines for those who step into her car.
“It has its ups and downs,” the woman joked about her line of work.
When asked who occupies the apartment at the very tip of the building’s pyramid — detailed wonderfully in this 2010 New York Times story — the operator said she tells people Michael Jackson lives there.
Off to the side of the dining room in the Observatory, a small room houses an elevator motor and a sign invites gawkers to “take a gander at that motor!” through a window.
“When we opened, six Otis elevators traveled from the basement to the 21st floor, one from the basement to the 33rd, and one from the basement to the 35th,” the sign reads. “The freight elevator carried 6,000 pounds at a speed of 70 feet per minute, to lift heavy office equipment.”
Seattle’s King Broadcasting Co. was founded on the 21st floor of Smith Tower in 1947 and operated in the tower for 35 years, according to the building’s website. Tenants today include a range of businesses and tech companies including Pixar, Rubicon, Cozi and Portent.
Hal Mueller is a Mac software developer at Panopto, a company that makes video capture and content management software, mainly used for online lectures and flipped classrooms.
A Seattleite since 1999, Mueller started at Panopto’s 16th floor office just this summer. He said he was slightly familiar with the history of Smith Tower, but hadn’t been inside until his interview.
“I’ve always liked it. The building was an attractive aspect of the job during the recruiting process,” Mueller said. He was also attracted to the elevators and the novel aspect that real people helped power them.
“I remember Hamilton from taking the elevator down after my final interview for my current job,” Mueller said. “My host walked me to the elevator lobby and we chatted a bit while we waited for the elevator. As I rode down, Hamilton said, ‘It sounds like you just had a job interview.’ ‘Yes, I did,’ I said. ‘Well good luck, I hope you get the job.'”
Mueller said when he did start work, he mentioned to Hamilton that he remembered him from his interview and told him that the good luck worked.
“When I walk into the building each morning, I know I’ll see a familiar face,” Mueller said. “I get a smile and a friendly greeting, and then watch the ritual of closing the outer and inner doors, engaging the motor, opening the doors, ‘watch your step.’ Even the sounds of the doors and motor are part of the experience.”
While he may be surrendering his occupation to the tide of change and automation, Hamilton isn’t too worried about the historic place he has called home for 18 years.
“Smith Tower can last,” he said, leaning on his elevator. “It’s 103 years old.”
Here is the full statement from Unico Properties regarding the changes to Smith Tower:
“As the owner and manager of the iconic Smith Tower, we are thrilled to revitalize Seattle’s first skyscraper from the ground floor to the Smith Tower Observatory. Since the grand reopening to the public last August, we have reintroduced the city’s 1914 landmark to tourists, tenants, locals and visitors with a new Visitor Experience, interactive tours, and 360-degree views of the city. From a 1920’s Halloween Soiree, to a Bubbles & Bites Holiday Open House, a New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball, live music, and private parties for local Seattle companies, we’ve hosted numerous special events since the grand reopening.
“As part of our multimillion-dollar investment in the renovation and preservation of this historic Pioneer Square building, we embarked on an elevator modernization in June to upgrade all seven elevator cars to provide fast and reliable elevator service that meets fire, life and safety codes, while preserving the grandeur of this historical building. The elevators currently operate using their original 1914 motors and components. Upgrading car operations will improve and enhance the performance of the elevators and reduce wait times, especially for tenants in the building, while retaining their current charm and unique character. Most of the changes will be made to elevator equipment in the machine rooms, rather than the car interiors. It is important to us that the elevators, including the ornate hallway glass doors, will look essentially as they do today when the project is complete. The primary components of this modernization include replacing the more than 100-year-old equipment with modern, energy-efficient equipment, upgrading to modern controls, installing Seismic Detection Sensors, and replacing the scissor gates with glass doors (maintaining the same appearance, character and rider experience) for added safety and improved elevator dispatching, among others. This operational upgrade is a necessary element in our renovation process.
“Upon completion of the project, elevator cars will be equipped with automatic glass cab doors replicating the current gates. While elevator operators will no longer be required as of mid-2018, we will continue to provide at least one elevator operator to preserve the historic significance this role has brought to Smith Tower, to demonstrate our appreciation of the operators, and as a nod to the history of the building.
“While bringing the elevators up to code is vital to the building, we care deeply about the livelihood of the elevator operators. To express our sincere gratitude for the operators, their service, and for the one-of-a-kind experience they’ve brought to Smith Tower, we will make sure that each and every elevator operator is well taken care of during and after the modernization. And, to celebrate the elevator operators, we are hosting a party for them this fall to express our gratitude and allow tenants to celebrate them as well.
“Smith Tower has stood as a Northwest cultural icon for more than 100 years and we look forward to continuing to delight tenants and visitors and maintaining its status as a premier office space for companies of all sizes and industries.”
— Scott Brucker, Vice President of Unico Properties LLC
Here are the documents from the Landmarks Preservation Board outlining what’s in store: