Elevator cars that still come with drivers

  • Article by: CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2008 - 11:34 PM

Judy Kuczaboski is still overseeing the last elevators in the city driven by people.

A hurried fellow bellied up to the information desk at the Pioneer Building in downtown St. Paul on a recent weekday.

He remarked to the woman behind the desk, Judy Kuczaboski, that the building appeared empty. It had been a while since he'd been in the landmark and was looking for a law firm.

The building at Fourth and Robert streets has been empty since June, Kuczaboski told him. She also directed him to the law firm's new digs across the street.

She never forgets a tenant. Not after 28 years on the job and years of tests by her bosses requiring her to know which office was on which floor and who worked in those offices.

Kuczaboski supervises the elevator operators at the Pioneer, the only building left in the city that has elevators driven by people. It's on the National Register of Historic Places.

She started on the night cleaning crew in 1980. She worked her way up and, 17 years ago, became an elevator operator. "They talked me into it," she said. "It was a lot easier than I thought it was."

This coming, of course, from someone who hugged the walls when walking the halls of the upper floors to avoid the view down the center atrium of the 16-story building. It made her knees wobbly.

But controlling the elevator cars -- there are four of them that, at one time, could travel 900 feet per minute -- was just as easy as having a good conversation.

Good conversation is the best part of the job, Kuczaboski says, although there aren't as many people to talk with as there used to be. "You couldn't keep up with all the people," she says. Rush hour began at a quarter to 8 in the morning and it was up and down all day long.

"It's not the best paying job, but it's a unique job," she says.

One must be a certain type of person to be an elevator operator, or pilot, as some might say.

"What is said in the elevator stays in the elevator because you can't go around spreading gossip," Kuczaboski says. You don't want to get somebody in trouble with the boss. And you don't talk religion or politics. Also, be friendly.

"If you're crabby at home, you can't be crabby here. You're representing the building."

The building, designed by architect Solon Beman and constructed in 1889, has housed "a little bit of everything," Kuczaboski says, including the Pioneer Press newspaper, a radio station, advertising and law firms, restaurants, and bank offices. In the late 1920s, nearly 10,000 passengers a day rode the elevators.

The building, purchased last year by a Texas firm, is barren. There's no word yet on what's going to happen.

Getting a ride to the top floor isn't going to happen right now, but Kuczaboski and her crew are happy to move people from the main floor to the second floor, which has access to the skyway system.

Parents will stroll in with their kids to show them the sweeping spiral staircase and the old-time elevators. Other folks stop by for a bit of nostalgia. Some who used to work in the building still come around to visit Kuczaboski and bring her gifts. A teddy bear, snacks, Wild tickets.

Kuczaboski's 61, going on 62.

"I'd probably be here till I'm 90 if they'd have me," she said. "Hopefully it will come around and be busy again. I hope it will be.

"They will do something wonderful with the building, I'm sure."

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542

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