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The Lift Factor

As my son Connor gets older — he’s on his way to three now — it’s increasingly uncanny how much of myself I see in him. Of course, there are the obvious things, like his perfectly brown hair with reddish highlights, made all the more amazing by the fact that he somehow escaped his mother’s raven-black Asian tresses. Lately, though, personality traits have started making themselves known, and it would be almost frightening how much they remind me of myself — if they weren’t so blasted funny.

I’m a lifelong introvert and have never been happier than when I’m playing by myself, exploring things in my own world. Connor has emerged as a near-total facsimile of this character type, taking a shrugging lack of interest in play dates (although, like me, he does usually have a good time when he gets together with his friends). Instead he can often be found whiling away the hours with his Hot Wheels or Legos or teddy bears, happy as a clam while his mom relaxes or prepares a meal in the kitchen.

However, if I’m in the house, Connor usually eschews his self-motivated play and instead prefers that I play all sorts of games with him. We’re not talking board games or video games yet, though he has been known to enjoy a game or two of Forza on the Xbox One. (He’s much too young for Wolfenstein, though he already knows it as “daddy’s favorite game”.) Mostly, Connor wants me to regale him with all sorts of crazy stories about his bears, his toys and his room, as I rattle off tales that verbally transform his everyday surroundings into something new, imaginative and different.

Lately — and by that I mean in the last few months — we’ve spent over an hour at bedtime each day playing “the elevator game”. It began innocuously and without fanfare on some long-forgotten day when I happened to pick up one of his stuffed animals and slide it up the side of his crib, making elevator noises along the way. Now it’s morphed into a full-blown soap opera, where each night we visit the residents and employees of One Harvie Plaza, the posh corporate convention center and apartment tower that’s better known as Connor’s crib. It’s here that Harvie, the elder statesman bear who plays both the role of owner and superintendent, has to constantly deal with the crazy capers that his tenants get up to. Most of the time, it involves somebody getting stuck in the elevator.

It was mostly just that — elevator games — until this past weekend, when I started narrating some crazy convoluted story about Winnie the Pooh (a resident of a top floor apartment at Harvie Plaza) making a horrendous mess in the freight elevator whilst attempting to move fifteen industrial-sized drums of honey up to his flat. The freight elevator became overloaded and refused to progress past the fifth floor, so Pooh decided that he was going to have to eat the honey until he’d consumed enough of it to get the elevator moving again. In the process he managed to get honey all over the elevator, gumming up the doors and the fixtures to the point where total mechanical breakdown was the result. Connor was particularly fascinated with the part where I described how Pooh smeared honey all over the elevator’s security camera, to the point where his first words to me when I came home from work a day layer were to request that “Daddy talk about Pooh smeared honey on the security camera” again.

The more fascinated Connor has become with elevator stories, the more clearly I’ve begun remembering my own childhood fascination with these contraptions. At a base level, most people (including myself) will remark how much I always loved to push buttons. Surely, any kid who grew up watching Star Trek TOS had to love pushing buttons. But it was elevator buttons in particular that held a special place in my heart. As a child, if I got on an elevator and didn’t get to push the floor selection button, it was like I’d just woken up on Christmas morning to find no presents under the tree. Sometimes a repeat trip was required just so I could be the one to make that candy-like button light up under my finger.

Two of the most memorable places I can remember visiting as a kid were hotels, and not because of the locales they were situated in. Indeed; one of the hotels was just a few minutes’ drive from my house, and I don’t think I ever actually stayed a night in it. As a kid I called it the “Way Up High Place”, but it was better known to most as the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn, Michigan. This massive, 1970s modernist-style hotel with a facade made almost entirely of glass was very special to me for one big reason: the times my dad would take me there just to ride its incredible, scenic glass elevators.

Dad and I would drive to the “Way Up High Place” on weekend afternoons when I was little, sometimes in his ’79 Bandit Trans Am, and we’d ride those high-speed traction elevators up and down for the sheer thrill of it. The central lobby of the 16-floor hotel was essentially a hollow core, and each floor was essentially a balcony-like walkway running around the perimeter. The scenic glass elevators, their silhouettes traced by with Hollywood-style bulb lamps, traversed the central core at incredible speeds, yielding a view good enough to rival any amusement park ride. My favorite part was the hallway call stations: rather than simple buttons on the wall, each floor’s elevator lobby had a pedestal in the center, on top of which were two large, round, white plastic plunger buttons: one for up (which lit up white when you pressed it) and one for down (which lit up red). It was like a prop from a ’70s sci-fi TV series, and I had endless fun using it to summon those magnificent elevators for another trip.

Hyatt Regency Dearborn (photo by Dave Parker)
Hyatt Regency Dearborn (photo by Dave Parker)

The Hyatt is no longer a Hyatt, and thanks to YouTube elevator enthusiast TrueWolverine87’s recent video of the place, those amazing ’70s era fixtures have been replaced with more humdrum, modern equivalents. (They still have the pedestals, though they’ve just stuck regular ol’ call buttons on them now.) But I’ll always remember that hotel’s elevators — and those weekend trips there with my dad — as one of the most fun early childhood experiences I’ve had.

Next to the Dearborn Hyatt Regency, the other most memorable elevators of my youth were found at the Hilton Harbour Castle on the Toronto waterfront. Although the hotel was acquired by Westin in 1997, I’ll always remember it they way it was in the mid-1980s: 1) with a Hilton sign on the roof, 2) with a top-floor restaurant that revolved, and 3) for its Otis touch-sensitive elevator fixtures.

I’ve never forgotten the futuristic, hollow black buttons in the Harbour Castle’s high-speed traction elevators: the kind you only had to just barely touch with your fingertip, consisting of no moving parts or physical pushbuttons. Once actuated, a clear plastic ring around the button would light up with a golden orange glow. To my five-year-old eyes it was the coolest thing in the world, perhaps outdone only by the huge panel in the hotel lobby which indicated the position of every elevator in the hotel’s bank of six. It was like a treasure map, watching buttons light and darken in sequence as the elevators swiftly moved up and down the 38-story building, knowing where each of them was at any moment.

Since those days in the ’80s when we would make our traditional spring pilgrimage to Toronto, the Harbour Castle’s elevator fixtures were just another ethereal part of my childhood, memories clear as day but devoid of any detail — like a car you remember riding in once, without having a clue as to the make or model. This past weekend, though, when my “elevator story time” with Connor really started to take off, I started doing some research. And I discovered a whole world of elevator enthusiasts haunting one of the Internet’s many strange and weird corners.

For a start, there’s an entire elevator wiki. There are also numerous “elevator celebrities”, or just elevator enthusiasts if you will, posting dozens if not hundreds of videos of elevators on YouTube. ElevaTours by DieselDucy is perhaps the most well-known, and my favorite channel. It was through perusing all of these resources over a couple of late nights (I’m a nerd, what can I say) that I finally opened the right door, and those recesses of my mind were flooded with all the missing detail about those ethereal elevator fixtures at the old Harbour Castle.

The Elevator Wiki maintains an entire article just on fixtures used throughout history by the Otis elevator company, and within that article, there’s a subsection given to Otis’ famed touch-sensitive fixtures. Apparently these have been around since as early as 1948 [!] and originally used vacuum tubes to complete a circuit when your finger came in contact with the button. Designs from the 1960s and 70s reportedly responded to body heat to such a degree that they were blamed for several deaths in the infamous MGM Grand hotel fire of 1980, as the heat of the fire actuated the hallway call buttons and caused elevators to stop on fire floors while carrying passengers. (After spending several hours one evening reading about this tragic fire, I found myself wanting to rewatch The Towering Inferno.) This was in fact one reason why the touch-sensitive fixtures went out of production in the late ’80s / early ’90s.

Safety concerns not withstanding, Otis’ touch buttons have taken on a sort of “holy grail” quality amongst some members of the elevator enthusiast set, especially since they are so hard to find today. Most elevators of that era have been (or are being) modernized, with their classic fixtures among the parts being replaced by newer, ADA-compliant equipment which also, unfortunately, happens to have far less character. In one of DieselDucy’s videos, he rides an old Otis ‘lift with touch-sensitive fixtures up and down a hospital building while repeatedly calling the elevator “a treasure”. I had to laugh with glee at the realization that yes, there are other nerds out there who treasure buttons as much as I do. Of course, because this is the Internet, I can’t leave you without posting the video in question. I had a particular chuckle at the nurse who shares part of the trip on board the old Otis. She probably told her coworkers later about the strange guy who was fawning over the elevator like it was a priceless antiquity.

As I’ve spent time researching and watching video of vintage ’60s-’80s elevators in these last few days, I feel like I’ve unlocked another secret door that connects two weird and unusual areas in my brain. I now believe that I have an official fascination with vintage elevators, one that seems emotionally interrelated with my fascination with institutional buildings of the same vintage, particularly hospitals and complexes of that ilk. Finding elevator videos of those vintage elevators shot in vintage hospitals — like that one from DieselDucy up there — is about as much catharsis as I can take in one sitting.

One part of me finds this a bit strange. I was, after all, not yet born in the 1970s when most of the things that most fascinate me were seeing the majority of their use. Perhaps it’s the holdovers from that era which made it into my early childhood in the ’80s which I’m remembering; many of the schools I went to were of a 1950s institutional vintage, and I can easily remember department stores and other buildings whose fixtures were of a similar age. Just why I find this stuff interesting still eludes me, but there’s a dividing line somewhere in my head where the old, electromechanical and archaic meets the modern and everyday, and that line is drawn somewhere around the time I was born. I expect I’ll find myself exploring this further as I get older.

More important to the present day, though, is how I now find myself wondering — not just with elevators, but with many things — whether I am seeing the same fascination in Connor’s eyes when he latches onto something like this. Will he and I traipse around town when he gets older, like those YouTube elevator celebs, in search of unseen vintage elevators to photograph? Or will he move past this, file it in a corner of his mind and take it back out when he’s 30-something, only to peruse the Internet and pour all of the missing detail into his head like I’ve just done?

Clearly, I’m going to enjoy the years to come as I watch Connor grow and discover the unexplainable, inner fascinations that he himself holds. Perhaps he’s not yet even aware of most of them. I can’t wait to be the one who helps him discover them, and if I’m lucky, go exploring them together.