Meet one of Chicago's last elevator operators, a community fixture in the Fine Arts Building

Monday, May 6, 2019
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Walking into the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue feels like stepping through a time portal. Marble floors and antique exit signs line the hallways. The light fixtures are from another era.

But most of all, the building feels old-fashioned because it still uses a mechanical relic: manually-operated elevators.

"Why automate everything?" asked Brian F., who requested that ABC7 not use his last name.

Brian has worked as an elevator operator in the Fine Arts Building for the past six years. Prior to that, he worked in the Marshall Field's warehouse for more than two decades, until they moved their operation away from the city.

"I've worked for two Chicago institutions. I'm proud of that," Brian said.

Manually operated elevators might seem outdated and out of place anywhere else, but they fit right in with the eclectic mix of tenants and businesses at the Fine Arts Building.

"This whole building is full of artists. We have people who design computer programs, we have ballet, we have youth orchestras. We have artists, sculptors, just about all the arts," said Lee Newcomer, owner of Performers Music store on the ninth floor. "There's one man who is a lawyer, but he practices viola in his office."

The building is host to several concert spaces, yoga and dance studios, instrument makers, bookstores, music studios, design and architecture firms, and even a puppetry shop. Every shop seems to have a story of its own, from a hand-crafted glass paperweights store on the second floor to the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra on the eighth.

Brian said operators develop a comfortable rapport with most full-time tenants, even though their conversations only last a few seconds.

"A lot of (the full time tenants), I know their birthday even. That surprises them every year, when I throw that into the mix as they exit. 'By the way, happy birthday!'" Brian said, before imitating their shocked response. "'How did you know that?'"

Manually operated elevators bring unique charm to the building and operators add to the feeling of community among tenants. But the job itself isn't an exciting one.

Pull a lever down to unlock the doors. Slide the door open. Slide it back. Push the lever up. Close the gate. Crank a handle forward to go up, backward to go down.

"Not to make it sound drudgery-like, but when you do this every day, some of that magic is lost. It's a job," Brian said. "But I realize how it's appreciated, especially by the people who come here on a regular basis."

Talk to any of the tenants and they'll confirm it. Grace Sangant Gian, a yoga instructor on the fifth floor, loves the simple fact they're operated by people.

"I love these elevators. Every time I come up the elevator, I feel like I'm going into a really special place," Gian said.
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