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103-year tradition halting at Seattle's Smith Tower

KOMO Photo

SEATTLE - For 103 years, there’s always been elevator operators in Seattle’s iconic Smith Tower.

Because all of the seven elevators can operate manually with handles, levers and throttles, the operator’s learned touch is needed to prevent the elevator from stopping between floors.

Now the Tower’s Seattle-based owner Unico Properties is modernizing the elevators.

In June, it began to remove the 103 year old motors, old wiring and replaced it with a modern lift system that no longer needs an operator.

For a half century, the Smith Tower was the tallest building on the west coast until it was replaced by the Space Needle in 1962 and the operators were always part of its lore.

“You develop a relationship with the attendant, they know your name, they know what floor you are going to without you telling them,” said Marla Folsom, a tenant on the 33rd floor.

“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," said Scott Brucker, Vice President of Unico Properties in a statement to KOMO News.

Brucker says most of the changes will be made to elevator equipment in the machine rooms, rather than the car interiors. 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.

The elevators will basically look the same but will be automated just like a modern elevator.

“The positives are very logical, the negatives are very emotional," said Sam Crumley a tenant on the 17th floor. “We have an emotional reaction about losing these people we see every day but it makes complete sense to our logical brain.”

Attendants were told not to talk about the modernization, but Sam McLachlan says he enjoys running the elevators in manual mode and knows the nostalgia behind it.

“We try and not to operate as much as possible in manual but I’ve got to tell you there's something about just having a little bit of a race you know, makes it really fun," McLachlan said.

Eventually all but one of the operators will be gone by mid-2018 except for one, who will remain to operate the Car 7, the only elevator that goes the Observation Deck on the 35th Floor.

“We will make sure that each and every elevator operator is well-taken care of during and after the modernization,” Brucker said in his statement. He did not say what “well-taken care of” means.

Folsom wonders if the impatient world we live is destroying a Seattle tradition.

“It’s personal relationship and it's a shame," Folsom said. “I think it’s worth it to have to wait for a few extra minutes for that.”

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