Elevators. We take their utility for granted. They take us where we want to go. But really, they’re magical. You enter a tiny room and on the wall is a panel of numbered buttons waiting to be pushed. Select one, watch it light up. Doors slide shut to seal you in, and then you feel a slight rising or falling sensation. Then the doors open and you’re in a different place. As my toddler son used to say, “Up, down, up down, that’s the elevator!” (He would say this while pointing one index finger toward the sky and one to the ground. Yes, it was adorable.)
It was through my son’s reactions that I realized how captivating the elevators of Minneapolis can be. He loved riding in them, and so elevator expeditions became a regular diversion for us as soon as he could walk. “Up” and “down” were among his earliest words in fact. He’s now three years old and taught me taught me to appreciate the design of elevators.
For example, in some elevators the call buttons light up in a peach color. In others it’s bright white, or maybe red. There are sleek modern elevators with silver reflective insides and outsides, with bright red, blue, or green indicator lights.
There are Nouveau elevators with stained glass ceilings and golden panels, and modernized Deco elevators with old-fashioned letter boxes and digital lights. There are warm wood-paneled elevators. And there are whooshing glass elevators.
We recently decided to check out the elevators in downtown Minneapolis. First stop is the Medical Arts Building at 825 Nicollet Mall, which was completed in 1924. My son loves the stylized golden designs on its ornate elevator doors, the golden lion wallpaper in the lobbies, the golden number panels for the floor buttons, and the light-up golden panel over the interior doors that indicates your current floor.
We walk over to another distinctive building from the 1920s, Young Quinlan, at Ninth Street and Nicollet Mall. This five-story building was the brainchild of Elizabeth Quinlan, proprietor of the first ladies’ ready-to-wear dress shop in the city. It was an elegant ultramodern department store with underground parking, and one can imagine a trip downtown to shop for the latest in fashion in the 20s and 30s. The store closed decades ago, and through preservation efforts it became an office building, retaining a few features from its grand retail days. It is the last building in town that still has elevator operators regularly on duty. The familiar Otis brand name is emblazoned in bold script on the operator’s equipment. It’s not hard to imagine the operators calling out the features of each floor: Ladies’ shoes! Sportswear!
We spend a decent amount of time at the Rand Tower, 527 South Marquette Avenue. Dating from 1929, this structure features details characteristic of the era.
The terrazzo skyway level elevator lobby floors are bedecked with moons and stars. And not only are the elevators fun to look at, with grey scale Art Deco designs, but they talk. We are delighted to hear “Going down,” “Floor two,” and so forth, as we investigate the levels.
Next we walk over to the Lumber Exchange Building at Fifth and Hennepin, completed in 1890. We walk across the marble floors to the building lobby, open to the second level, which features a brass revolving door, an elaborate chandelier, and a sweeping staircase in grand scale. The doors of the three elevators are gleaming brass, and above each door a large stained glass circle illuminates to signal the arrival of an elevator car, with the top half of the circle lighting up when the car is upward bound, and the lower half lighting to indicating a downward car.
Interior dimensions are small, but look up: the ceiling features backlit stained glass. The side walls are mirrored, and the back wall is a clear glass window. Going up, the reason for the window becomes obvious as elevator occupants get a view of an interior courtyard when the car rises above the second level.
We press the “1” button in our Lumber Exchange elevator to reach the skyway level (the street level is “L” for “lobby”) and cross Fifth Street to The 15 Building. The skyway elevator lobby is undistinguished, but go down a floor to the street level. The structure’s previous incarnation as headquarters for a major utility company is apparent from one glance at the doors of the elevators, which bear “Northern States Power” scattered across the brass surface. This lobby, though dark and not especially inviting, contains an interesting feature once common in urban office buildings, and now nearly extinct: an ornate mailbox mounted between two of the elevators.
Of course, the day has to end somewhere, but we’ll be riding elevators again soon. Someday we might even make it to a European city that still has a working paternoster lift. Until then, we’ll be noticing and appreciating the elevators all around us.
Jen March is managing and poetry editor for Mizna: Prose, Poetry, and Art Exploring Arab America.
Anne Loring is the elevator riding boy’s grandmother, who loves to watch him enjoy elevators.