Since its construction in 1914, the Smith Tower has maintained one piece of now-century-old technology: manual elevators, controlled with handles and throttles by trained operators.
That’s about to change. Unico Properties, which manages the historic building, started replacing the elevators’ equipment back in June. They estimate that all but one of the elevators will be of the more modern kind by mid-2018.
Most people’s experience with the Smith Tower elevators comes from taking the trip up to the observation deck. The one elevator that makes that trip will still use an operator, although not for actually operating the elevator—that operator also serves as a kind of tour guide, giving a history of the building during the ride to the 35th floor.
The rest of the elevators, which serve various offices located in the floors in between, will be modernized—halting a 103-year tradition, but making everyday travel between floors a little more convenient.
That means adding call buttons and replacing the elevators’ gates with automatic glass doors “replicating the current gates,” said Unico vice president Scott Brucker in a statement.
That also means that several elevator operators will be out of a job—while “at least one elevator operator” will “preserve the historic significance this role has brought to Smith Tower,” said the statement, the rest will be “well taken care of during and after the modernization.” It’s unclear what “well taken care of” means.
When it was originally built, Smith Tower was the tallest building west of the Mississippi. It was replaced as the tallest building in the city by the Space Needle in 1962. (That honor currently goes to Columbia Center, more than double Smith Tower’s height at 76 stories.)
Unico bought the property in 2015 and has been undergoing various renovations since, including a makeover to the 35th floor that includes a speakeasy-style bar.