THREATENED: Chicago’s Last Manual Elevator at the Fine Arts Building to be Replaced

“Among the city’s last human-operated elevators, the Otis cars are expected to be replaced in the next two years with modern counterparts.

“We have been holding on to them as long as humanly possible and the time has finally come. Truly, it’s harder to get the parts and it’s far more expensive to maintain, said Jacob Harvey, managing artistic director for a building that first opened in 1898 and was built to display and repair Studebaker carriages and wagons. (New York had the very first Otis passenger elevator in 1857, powered by a steam engine.)

“But it’s going to mean the loss of something the tenants — puppet makers, piano teachers, yoga instructors, dancers, luthiers (not to mention countless tourists and architecture enthusiasts) — have held dear for decades.” (Stefano Esposito, Chicago Sun-Times, 8/28/23)

“Some historic buildings embody intangible experiences that are as important as the buildings themselves. Nothing demonstrates this statement more clearly than the Fine Arts Building elevators slated for removal, as recently reported by the Sun-Times.

“Having live interactions with an operator is one part of the experience, and watching each floor leisurely pass by through plate glass windows is another. Add the sounds of mechanical parts meshing together and the experience of pushing the lobby call buttons enframed by highly ornamental medallions creates another layer.

“The development of efficient elevators was a key component in Chicago’s nurturing of the modern skyscraper. The Fine Arts Building elevators constitute the last surviving place where this emerging technology can be seen and actually experienced. Installing new elevators will trigger a chain reaction that will likely eliminate all the intangibles cited here.

“This situation calls for a creative rethinking of what encompasses the practices and priorities of “historic preservation.” Can forces be organized by the preservation community to financially endow continued operation of these elevators as they are but with reliable and renewable tweaks of contemporary technology to make them efficient for the long haul?

“These elevators run on the fundamental physics of machinery and electricity that will never irreparably go out of date like their computer-chip counterparts of today.

“If the skills and devotion of classic car buffs can keep their ’57 Chevys and vintage Thunderbirds running, so can the same skills and attitudes be devoted to the Fine Arts Building elevators.” (Samuelson, Letter to the Editor, Chicago Sun-Times, 8/30/23)

Read the full Letter to the Editor at Chicago Sun-Times

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