The end of an era for Smith Tower elevator operators
Smith Tower, Seattle’s first skyscraper, is haunted. At least, this is what I was told. So I contacted their media department to set up some interviews with people who work in the building. But three days before the interview I got this message via email:
Some bad news… unfortunately, I just learned that Smith Tower is very sensitive to speaking about ghost stories/the building being haunted — it’s a foreign investor concern.
This, of course, only makes the story more intriguing but, alas, due to foreign investor concerns, I bring you another story on Smith Tower: the story of the modernized elevator.
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Smith Tower was once the tallest building this side of the Mississippi and its bank of elevators are as old as the building itself — built in 1914.
“This is the original elevator,” said Tiffany, an elevator operator, as she took me up to the 35th floor. “It is 103 years old, but the cables are new. It’s still manually operated. That’s why I’m here. The button panel was added in 2002, so before then it was just the throttle and the operator. So that’s why we have glass doors because the elevator operators did need to see where they were going to know what floor they were on and who to pick up.”
But by mid-2018 elevator operators will mostly be a thing of the past at Smith Tower. They’re switching the elevators from manual to the classic push-button system every other building uses.
“We’re doing this to modernize and get up to the proper safety standards this building should be at,” said Smith Tower’s visitor experience general manager Marissa Brooks. “Fortunately, the visitor experience will not change. We will be retaining an elevator operator for Car Seven, which is the only car that actually accesses this 35th-floor observatory.”
But all the other elevator cars, that shuttle the building’s many office workers up to their floors each day, will no longer have elevator operators. So the three currently on staff will be laid off. And they will have to find a new line of work because Smith Tower is the only remaining bank of manually operated elevators on the West Coast. The elevator profession is on the verge of complete extinction.
Smith Tower elevator operators
Redmond’s Thaddeus Lalley thinks that’s a shame. His very first job was operating elevators at Smith Tower.
“I started there when I was 14 and I quit when I was 23,” he said. “I was working part-time after school and then when I got into high school I’d work full time in the summertime and when I graduated I went in full-time.”
Lalley’s mom, Jeannie Lalley, was an elevator operator at Smith Tower for decades. As a young boy, he would hang out in the basement of the building after school, while she worked, and then they’d take the bus back home to West Seattle after her shift.
“She was very eccentric. She liked to wear her hair big, lots of jewelry. She knew everybody, she was very outgoing, people loved her,” he said. “She just loved to make people smile. Every Halloween she would dress up like Elvira and run the elevators. She retired in ’98 and she worked almost to the day she passed away.”
Lalley said it was a great job, and 25 years ago it was great pay; he was making $17 an hour.
“It was a lot of fun, everybody says it has its ups and downs,” he said. “We would have our fun, we would race the elevators, see which one was the fastest. My friends would come down and ride the elevator with me and we’d go really fast up and then we’d jump all at once and let go of the handle and see if we can touch the ceiling with our heads.”
Smith Tower has already started the conversion process. All the elevators will be automatic by the end of next year.
Oh, and for the record, neither Lalley or Brooks confess to seeing any ghosts in Smith Tower.