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The Ups and Downs of History PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jack Money   
Monday, 15 September 2008 02:26

elevators at the Colcord HotelOklahoma Cityans who worked in the Cravens building -- today known as the Robinson Renaissance -- were forced to take the stairs, at least temporarily, when its seven elevator girls and the building's woman elevator starter walked off the job this week in 1952.

The girls decided to strike to protest low wages and difficult working conditions.

The elevator starter, Bonnie Bell, told The Oklahoman that the girls, who were making 45 cents and hour, sought the same 75 cent an hour pay as their counterparts in the Liberty and First National Bank buildings.

"He (the building manager, Burl C. Graves) said he wouldn't pay that but offered me a raise," Bell said. (1)

Graves was able to get the elevators going in the building by borrowing operators from the First National tower across the street. He told The Oklahoman he considered the issue to be "a personnel matter" when the operators left the job.

The concept of using women to operate manually controlled elevators in downtown office buildings came about during World War I, when young men everywhere left the workforce to serve in the nation's military. After the war, Oklahoma City's downtown building owners said they would continue to use women to operate the elevators, for a variety of reasons. (2)

"They are cleaner and neater," said George M. Holt of the Lee-Huckins hotel. "Besides," he added, "they don't butt into the conversation of the guests who travel on the elevators."

Sometimes, elevator operators made the news just with a wardrobe announcement.

That was the case in 1931, when owners of the brand-new Ramsey Tower announced its elevator operators would dress in burgandy whip-cord uniforms, gray shirts and black ties. The uniforms were to be trimmed in silber braid. The tower's owners also announced the building would feature express cars, the same as it does today. These express elevators take building visitors to higher floors while other cars serve lower floors within the tower. The new building's elevators were capable of traveling up or down at a rate of 800 feet per minute, said officials with Otis Elevator Co., which built the building's elevator system. (3)

But even then, new high-rise buildings still featured manually-operated elevators. In 1932, the new Biltmore Hotel featured seven manually controlled elevators to wisk its guests up and down the building's 26 floors. (4)

Hotel Manager James E. Barrett said the hotel would emply 17 full-time operators, and that there would always be operators to spare during rush hours and convention crowds.

While some elevators already featured automatic doors, Barrett noted the Biltmore's would not. And each of its elevators were serve every floor of the hotel, he noted.

But operating elevators could be dangerous work. James Harrison Davis, a 19-year-old extra elevator operator in the Cravens Building fell and was fatally injured when he stepped into a shaft, thinking a car was on the building's ground level, when in fact it was parked at a higher floor. (5)

And a 20-year-old elevator girl at the nearby Commerce Exchange building was seriously hurt as well when she stepped into an empty elevator shaft by accident and fell 35 feet to its bottom. Faye Bailey suffered a broken right leg below the knee,, a possible skull fracture and internal injuries, her husband told a reporter. (6)

Elevator operators caught the attention of City Hall in 1948, when officials notified managers of four department stores, two hotels and two large office buildings they would have to shut down their elevators if operators failed to obtain city-issued licenses.

Officials said they had learned that operators working at the Harbour-Longmire, Kerr's Swartz and Sears Roebuck Department Stores and at the Mercantile and Terminal buildings and the Hudson and Black hotels were not licensed.

The building's owners told city officials they had not known the city required operators to be licensed, but Walter Nelson, the city's building inspector, said the city law had been around since Jack Walton was Oklahoma City's mayor.

"These tests and licenses are safe-guards for the public, to insure that operators know what to do in the event of accident, fire and emergency," Nelson said. (7)

On the next day, 69 eleavor operators from 23 downtown buildings went to City Hall and got their licenses, city officials reported. (8)

That crackdown, however, prompted a spurt of union activity downtown, when unions rushed in to sign up operators as new members. (9)

The effort did not make it to the girls at the Cravens, though. Once a union did represent them, a few short news items appeared related to negotiations between building owners and the group, but a resolution -- if there was one -- didn't make the paper, apparently.

And elevator operators were on their way out, anyway, as buildings began updating their elevators with new, "Robot" versions that only required passengers to press a numbered button corresponding with the building floor they desired.

"Susie, the elevator operator, will be among those missing when Kerr-McGee opens its rebuilt and remodeled office building on NW 2 near Robinson," wrote a reporter in a column for The Oklahoman. (10) The building, the writer explained, would use two Westinghouse "selectomatic" elevators.

These automated elevators, the writer said, would be able to adjust themselves to meet traffic demand, could weight the passenger load, count the calls in each direction, count the stops and even measure time to provide proper uniform service to all floors during peak traffic periods. An electronic eye would automatically control the doors, holding them open until all passengers in a car had exited safely.

By the end of 1962, automatic elevators had replaced 40,000 operators in New York City. (11) The same type of transformation was happening within downtown Oklahoma City, though it happened more gradually.

Betty Buchanan, an operator at the City National Bank Tower told a reporter in 1976 she knew her days as an operator of the building's seven elevators were numbered. She often observed people trying to reach across her to push the floor buttons on her cars, until she told them she was the operator, she added.

"In time, it (a completely passenger-controlled elevator car) will take over, but it should be awhile," she said, grimacing as she added, "I hate to see it happen, though." (12)

In 1985, the manually-operated elevators at the Cravens Building were shut down as its new owners prepared to renovate the building into the Robinson Renaissance and replace the old cars with their automated counterparts.The Hightower office building still used them as well.(13)

But in 2005, the era ended when the building finally retired the last of its manually-operated elevators. Harold Burney, the Hightower's manager, said it had been impossible to find parts to fix the old Dover elevators, and ultimately decided to begin replacing them about a year before.

"A lot of the tenants are disappointed. They're used to having someone take them where they want to go," Burney said. (14)

1.) "Elevator Girls Not Organized--Strike," The Oklahoman, Sept. 20, 1952
2.) "Women Are To Stay On Elevators," The Oklahoman, Feb. 23, 1919
3.) "800 Feet Per Minute, Pace of Elevators," The Oklahoman, Oct. 4, 1931
4.) "Hotel To Use Seven 'Lifts'," The Oklahoman, March 8, 1932
5.) "Elevator Boy Dies In Fall," The Oklahoman, Oct. 21, 1935
6.) "Elevator Girl Seriously Hurt In Plunge Down Empty Shaft," The Oklahoman, April 18, 1951
7.) "Stores Warned About Elevators," The Oklahoman, Feb. 29, 1948
8.) "Operators Get Licenses, No Climbing Up Stairs Now," The Oklahoman, March 2, 1948
9.) "City Officials Deny Their Lists Used in Elevator Union Drive," The Oklahoman, April 24, 1948
10.) "Trade Talk: Robot Elevators Quite Versatile," The Oklahoman, Sept. 15, 1957
11.) "Operators Replaced," The Oklahoman, Dec. 16, 1962
12.) "Operator Likes Job," The Oklahoman, Aug. 27, 1976
13.) "Elevator Operators Won't Forget Lost Art," The Oklahoman, May 6, 1985
14.) "UP on job DOWN to retire Elevator operator to make final stop," The Oklahoman, Jan. 14, 2005
Last Updated on Monday, 15 September 2008 03:14