Elevators are indigenous to city life. They may even have helped to instigate the high-rise phenomenon. Consider what the skyline of New York would look like if it weren't for these mechanical lifts. How many people would be willing or able to work in a building taller than five stories?
Like many urban creations, this form of vertical transportation can release strange inhibitions. Some riders, when they find themselves alone in the cab, like to undress, gambling that the doors won’t open too soon. Others take the opportunity to scream at the top of their lungs. With more restraint, some riders strike dramatic poses, sing fortissimo, or just make faces, until the next passenger steps on and the masks of propriety are resumed.
While many people find this boxed-in privacy liberating, as many others fear it. Acrophobia and claustrophobia are common problems for elevator riders.
Timid San Diegans may be able to avoid using elevators, but then they will never know the richness of vertical travel. The few high-rise buildings here are equippped with new and efficient elevators. The older buildings. with less confidence-inspiring lifts, usually do not have more than six stories.
Most of the older elevators are in (he hotels sprinkled around downtown and in the Hotel del Coronado. Their installation dates are lost in the mists of antiquity; no one can say for sure how old they are. These elevators have no inside doors, to protect careless passengers from losing limbs, so they must be worked by operators. Estimates of when they were constructed range from ll) 10 to 1920. The Hotel St. James believes it has the oldest elevator in San Diego. The Hotel del Coronado, of course, disagrees.
Hotel del has an enclosed elevator that is more than 60 years old. Their more famous lift, though, two or three years younger, is the caged elevator in the lobby. Open wrought-ironwork forms the walls of the cab. and passengers can sec out of all sides. A broad stairway winds up through the center of the hotel and the elevator runs up and down the center of the stairwell. Metal screening only partially fences in the elevator from the open stairs, so the counterweights are all visible, moving up as the cab descends, gliding down the rails as the cab is lifted up, through the floors.
Bellmen must operate the elevator. which gives the hotel a friendly atmosphere. A guest asks the bellman through the grate, “Is there a room 247 on this floor?” And the bellman gives directions. “It's one of the easiest rooms to find in the whole hotel,” he mutters as he releases the gear to ride up.
Another guest gets on the lift for its return trip down. “Is this hotel fire-safe? Look at all the wood.”
“Oh yes.” the bellman assures her. “The sprinkler system makes it safer than some of the newer buildings in town.”
“Well, I'll sleep better tonight knowing that.”
But he warns her about the heat-activated sprinkers: “If you smoke in bed, you just better know how to swim.”
George Chapman is in charge of maintenance at the hotel, and he explains why the old elevators can’t be updated. They are considered antique, so' are exempt from some of the safety standards in the building codes. If anything new were to be put on the elevator, then the whole set-up would have to be modernized.
As long as the owners only repair what is already in place and have a few rudimentary safety devices, such as the entrance doors locking when the elevator is not at that floor, the lifts can be kept in their original style.
Operators feel very proprietary towards their elevators. Jim Smith in the Hotel San Diego on lower Broadway claims the guests couldn’t run the elevator without him. His common name belies his uncommon Scot accent as he explains the working of the three buttons and two gears necessary to start the machine.
“They wouldn’t know what to do. See that?” He stops the elevator three inches above the floor level. “They’d b-r-r-eak their necks.” Then he drops it two inches too low, then eases it exactly right.
Two automatic elevators also serve the hotel, but only the bellman’s lift goes to the sixth-floor rehearsal rooms and the basement performance rooms of the Broadway Dinner Theatre.
In the basement, the little wrought-iron lift opens to a gaudy world. The theatre’s ceiling is black, the walls are red. and the statues, ferns, and peacock feather arrangements are all sprayed brilliantly silver. Mucha posters and Beardsley mirrors in silver and black cover the walls.
In a quieter color scheme is the St. James Hotel on Sixth Avenue. The shabby gray exterior conceals a surprisingly rich interior. In the lobby hangs a giant tapestry of horses in black and tan,- commanding so much attention it’s hard to notice the little elevator across the way.
St. James has almost the smallest passenger elevator downtown, but it is a little beauty. The walls and ceiling are all wood, completely carved in crenulated rows. On each floor, the entrance doors are half wood, half pebbled glass.
Rudi Saucedo has been the operator - bellman - jack-of-all-trades for the hotel for eight months. He says it didn’t take him long to know people. “ I learn to spot them. They play a lot of games but I know what they’re doing.”
On the tenth floor, Rudi picks up three men who’ve been partying in their room early this morning. A fourth friend is helping them on and tells Rudi, “Take good care, you got a fisherman on there and we don’t want him to miss his boat.”
“That’s not my problem,” says Rudi good-naturedly.
The fisherman is a lachrymose fellow, short and burly with a Baretta muscle-shirt. The merrymakers tumble off at the lobby.
All these older buildings need operators for the elevators and, in the St. James, for the people that come through. Rudi is the unofficial bouncer. “It’s not the hotel,” he says. “It’s the people.”
The vice squad comes in with a description and Rudi can tell them, “Oh yeah, he checked out this morning.” Which makes his life a little dangerous.
“There was a while 1 was losing sleep over some guys that threatened me, but,” he shrugs, “what can you do? I know 1 take up people with guns on them. 1 won’t say I’m not scared. I’m scared. But that’s all life is-a gamble.”
Baretta the fisherman gets back on, more morose, if possible. than before. Rudi starts up to the tenth floor.
“Take me with you on your boat, eh? 1 used to fish, you know, on the Seatrain. Do you go for tuna, albacore?”
“Not no more, I don’t.”
Rudi tries to reassure him. “Two, three months, you'll go out again.” Me hauls the door open on the tenth.
“Yeah, he missed his boat,” Rudi shakes his head and answers a call on the seventh floor. “But like I told ’em: that’s not my problem.”
Too recent to need operators and too old to move fast are the elevators in the U.S. Grant Hotel. Even the most intrepid rider could feel a little nervous in these sarcophagi. The elevators go along with the stifling decor of the lobby. The wallpaper is two shades of maroon: dark and darker. The coordinated carpeting is maroon and black. Purely ornamental are the chandeliers; they don’t illuminate the lobby one bit.
Following the construction of the older lifts, there seems to be a middle age in San Diego architecture when the designers faltered in providing attractive elevators and put their energies and ideas into dressing up the stairways.
In the ornate Spreckels Building on Broadway, the elevators are dingy and functional, while the stairways are all light and open. Marble steps lead to the second floor; after that there are polished wood handrails and filigree iron balustrades.
Marble stairs can also be found in the Center City building at 200 A Street. The broad, fat balustrade climbs next to the standard-issue elevators.
The lift in the Granger building on Fifth and Broadway requires an operator, but more interesting is the stairwell that wraps around it. The risers on each step of the six flights are open iron-work in a delicate design, so that one can see through to the floor below.
Fringe benefits go along with a ride in the Robinson building on Fifth and E Street. The entryway is paved and walled in marble. Each landing is framed in marble, as are the doorways and hall trim in this ten-story structure.
Concession stands are common in the taller office buildings near the elevator doors with their heavy traffic. Mail chutes are usually built into the elevator wells, and the Robinson building has both of these, fitted into the old brass and marble.
San Diego Trust and Savings' elevators are a bridge between the ornate old and the streamlined new. The bank at 530 Broadway is a celebration of Italian Renaissance architecture inside. Tall thin columns reach to the ceiling and branch out to hold balconies and high windows.
Entrance to the elevator lobby can be through the bank but is more direct through the canopied, smaller entrance on Broadway. The lobby is a miniature of the bank, separated from it by tall gates. Huge chandeliers light the arched hall. A security guard monitors the elevators.
For the 14-floor ride, the elevators are noiseless, except for the Muzak, and fairly fast. The entrance doors on the ground floor and thick, deep sunburst designs in brass.
Just about the fastest set of elevators in town and the most sophisticated system is in the San Diego Federal building on “B” Street. U.S. Elevator Corporation, a San Diego-based firm, installed and maintains the 800 feet-per-minute machines.
The cars are jet-age design. Selector panels are not on the walls, as in most elevators, but on a console, set out at an angle, like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Lighting comes from the armrests and only shines on the floor; the top half of the cab is shadowy darkness. Panels of light glow in the roof, but they don’t illumine, only further obscure the recesses. The number indicating the floor seems to float unattached in the upper reaches of the car.
Tracking the paths of these transporters are a control man in the lobby and a U.S. Elevator man on the roof. Ron Buop usually monitors the computers in a rooftop room above the 24th floor. He can .tell, from the dozens of constantly changing blips on the computer, which floor has signaled for a car, which car responds to the call, how long the people wait, how many get on, where they want to go, and, says Ron, “we can pretty well estimate their weight.”
Of course, if anything goes wrong, they know it immediately. When elevators malfunction, jokes Ron’s relief man, they turn upside down. “Just like a fish,” he flips his palm over, “they turn belly-side up.”
If a Big Brother watches the elevator world, it is a benign attention. In the lobby, the security guard at the controls follows the elevators, too. He answers the emergency phones if something should happen in the cars. Claustrophobics may panic, coronary patients may suffer attacks.
“We had a tenant in the San Diego Trust building with a bad heart I always worried about. If he would have an attack, we had his doctor’s number to call.”
Not everyone is impressed with the elevators at San Diego Federal, though. The maintenance man complains there is no freight elevator, so they have to pad one of the passenger cars.
For a smooth ride crowned with a view, it’s the California First Bank, further west on B Street. The cars go up with a whine of power but a minimum of pull to the 24th floor where a set of windows looks north over the city. At this height, incoming jets can be seen below, skimming between the buildings on Fifth Avenue, their shadows gliding over the houses on the way to Lindbergh Field.
As much as ten percent of the construction costs of high-rises goes towards the elevators. Many of the architects, then, dress up the hallways to compliment that investment. California First Bank has dramatic black panels between the elevator doors on the upper landings.
There is a strict hierarchy in these buildings. The upper floors are more lavish, hence more expensive, and boast the names and companies that make San Diego news. The upper floors of the new Central Federal building are not occupied yet, so the computer-run elevators won’t travel that high. The cabs have a natural-fiber wall covering and digital read-out of the floor numbers. It should be a nice ride when it’s open.
Security Pacific’s elevators are modern and fast but inexplicably rock from side to side. An example of jarring bad taste is in the Union Bank building. Plush benches and new sculpture in the lobby don’t prepare the rider for the mustard-and-black color scheme of the upper floors. The elevator Muzak is coordinated with the hallway Muzak, and it’s all tediously annoying. Wrought-iron lamps with rippled yellow glass mark the office doorways.
Some of the dullest elevators are in predictably dull buildings. The Bank of America’s are uninteresting. The City Administration building only deserves mention because it has some newsworthy passengers. The somber black exterior of the Bank of California is repeated in their elevators: they’re a claustrophobic’s nightmare.
Westgate Hotel has perfectly correct cream-and-gold elevators, not gaudy or smudgy or individual. Only the Oriental carpeting gives a touch of color. They also have a problem the other, shorter hotels don’t: a 13th floor.
“We couldn’t rent rooms on the 13th floor,” say the desk clerks. So there simply isn’t one, and the guests on the so-called 14th floor never suspect. It does make the lineup of the numbers uneven, though, in the otherwise scrupulously proper cars.
San Diego Gas and Electric Company has both escalators and elevators in their Ash Street building, a contemporary design rare in San Diego. But the escalators may be all that the general public ever sees. A security guard intercepts the would-be tourist.
“The Gas and Electric Company owns this whole building: we don’t lease to nobody. I have to talk to you ‘cause you’re a customer. You probably helped pay for this building. But we don’t encourage people using our elevators.”
That’s all right. They're mediocre anyway.
Stretching across three city blocks is the new Federal building, southeast of Horton Plaza. This may be the only office building where vertical travel is a democratic experience. All the riders in the other large buildings are white-collar and rather homogenous. The Federal building alone provides a good cross-section of society at elbow proximity.
The sharp angles of the courtyard sculpture are repeated in the diagonals of the escalators. This effect is softened, though, by bulgy tubes surrounding doorways and balconies.
Federal regulations prescribe efficiency, clarity, and a minimum of frills, and the elevators reflect this. They even have plaques in each cab detailing what the car will do and what passengers should do in different emergencies.
The glamor of elevators may be most apparent in the glass ones that climb the sides of buildings. The Royal Inn at the Wharf provides a good view of the harbor by day and an enchanting view of the harbor lights by night. El Cortez has the oldest outdoor lift in San Diego, dating from about 1955.
Many new department stores combine escalators with glass elevators to better display their merchandise to customers. Walker Scott’s downtown store has old, hand operated lifts and vintage escalators.
Some of the old factories around San Diego still use freight elevators that run on maple rails. That puts them in the era of the bellmen’s lifts.
As ubiquitous as elevators may be in urban life, people still don’t trust the machines. This is obvious watching any car unload: the passengers reflexively hold their hands against the doorways, guarding against them shutting suddenly and squashing the unwary.