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Floor, please?

Elevator renovations bring aging towers to the next level

June 01, 2001 |

Elevator renovations come in many flavors, but most can be classified as modernizations, retrofits or restorations. Each approach offers its own set of challenges, but each now benefits from a number of novel technologies and services tailored to the nation's stock of aging cabs and machinery.

High-profile reconstruction and adaptive-reuse projects demonstrate the advantages of rehabilitating vintage equipment. At New York City's Irving Trust Building and at the new Hotel Burnham in Chicago, period elevators have been immaculately restored and fitted with up-to-date technology. Others, such as at One Market Street in San Francisco, show how the economy of replacing elevator systems can far outweigh the benefits of historic preservation.

In fact, restoration is rarely economical and often not desirable, especially when a building is being totally refurbished or when equipment, controls or finishes are lagging behind the times and a facility's new uses.

Such was the case at 175 W. Jackson St. — a 1912 office building in Chicago's financial district — that last saw its elevators renovated some 30 years ago, says Randall Deutsch, senior designer with Lucien Lagrange and Associates, the Chicago architectural firm that handled interior and exterior renovations completed this year. In this case, the goal was to bring the interior of the 22-story former Insurance Exchange building into the 21st century, says Deutsch.

The client "wanted that message to really come across immediately as you approach the building from the outside as well as in the lobby, with the finishes," Deutsch explains. "We wanted to carry that into the elevators as well, to show that the elevators had been upgraded. The elevators were one of the larger challenges."

To serve 1.8 million square feet of space, the building had been fitted with a total of 38 cars. One was taken out and two were added, including a hydraulic elevator that goes to the parking level and a freight elevator. The modern theme of the lobby was extended into the elevators to make them attractive to old-line law and accounting firms, while at the same time appealing to its younger, more entrepreneurial tenants. Of course, the materials had to be maintenance-friendly to hold up to visitor traffic, such as messengers, which can be harsh on the finishes.

In addition, Deutsch says, the original elevators were sized for the way buildings were used 80 years ago. "It was really up to us to try to make the elevators feel more spacious, even though we knew that we were limited to the exact same size as before," he explains.

Cabs from another era

The original cabs were stripped completely down to the frames. Out came the plastic laminate; in went a well-conceived combination of Italian marble, stainless steel and cherry trim. The back wall of the cab is a curving cherry wood panel that peels away at the top, introducing a hidden cove light that bathes a ceiling made of curved stainless-steel mesh.

The effect "makes a normally very small elevator feel very spacious," says Deutsch, with warm finishes and incandescent lighting that conveys a homey feel. "One that's very welcoming," he adds, "and makes people feel comfortable for the ride up."

Of course, comfort is one thing; historical accuracy is quite another. The restored elevators at Chicago's Hotel Burnham, for example, take visitors back to the era when Daniel H. Burnham designed the Reliance Building, the original 1895 landmark housing the trendy hotel. Ornamental grillwork in the open-cage design evokes images of elevator operators opening and closing doors and asking, "Floor, please?"

Of course, the operators are long gone, as are the original elevators, but not the sense of history in this acclaimed reuse project. In fact, the elevator restoration is part of what seems to be a growing movement shaping historic landmarks and aging properties across the country.

Restoring elevators can be challenging, however, because often there is little documentation of what the originals looked like.

In this case, the original elevator cabs had been pulled out in the early 1940s, according to David Kelley, project architect with Chicago-based A/E Antunovich Associates, which completed interior renovations of the 16-story building in 1999. "And then they put in these somewhat new cabs, which had kind of an Art Deco feel to them. But when we came in, the goal was to bring [the building] back to its pre-1910 look," Kelley explains. "That's when they started doing exterior renovations."

Fortunately, the elevators on the upper floors still had the original grillwork, which had been plastered over. Kelley recalls riding in the elevator with the doors open and sighting the grillwork. The building team cleaned off the plaster and bolted the recovered wrought iron to the new cab interiors.

The decorative grillwork outside the elevators in the historic lobby is a replica of the original design. The lobby contains two passenger elevators that were paired with two faux elevator entrances to match the four in the original lobby.

The cab interiors hint at the décor of the hotel's historic upper floors. Along with the grillwork, the interiors feature mahogany trim — the same kind that is found on the seventh through 14th floors. The cab ceilings, adorned with a mahogany grid Venetian glass panels, also match the interior skylight at the top floor.

"I think we were lucky to find some historic elements, hidden behind walls and still intact, that we could integrate into the cabs," says Kelley. "Some projects aren't as lucky."

Restore or replace

Besides luck, another issue that affects every elevator project is the condition of the original machinery. At the Reliance Building, says Kelley, the systems were in good mechanical condition, but the team elected to install new equipment for about the same cost as making necessary modifications to the existing equipment. The decision would also make it easier for the owner to find qualified maintenance and repair vendors.

In fact, a similar decision was made for elevators at the old Southern Pacific Railroad headquarters along the waterfront at One Market Street in San Francisco.

Built in 1916, the 380,000-sq.-ft., 11-story building was then the tallest steel-framed structure west of the Mississippi. The original project included eight passenger elevators and one freight elevator. The last time the elevator cabs had been modernized was during the 1950s or 1960s, according to Matt Field, a partner with the San Francisco-based Martin Group Companies Inc., a real estate developer that purchased the building in 1998.

"So, there wasn't anything we were trying to replicate there," Field says of the renovations, most of which were completed last year.

Initially, the project team planned to modernize the original elevators, which had been converted from attendant-operated to automatic service in 1956, recalls George von Klan, vice president of Mill Valley, Calif.-based elevator specialist Edgett Williams Consulting Group.

Von Klan says elevator restoration can be tricky because there are thousands of parts to be reconditioned or replaced, and the finished product must be up to code. "You really have to look at what you're going to keep and what you're going to get rid of," von Klan says. "You don't want to end up triggering things in the code that can snowball and create not just extra elevator costs, but extra building costs."

At One Market Street, the cost of putting in almost entirely new elevators was only about 15 to 20 percent more than the lowest bid to modernize the elevators. The hybrid approach employed a few elements of the old elevators with a brand new system and eliminated two elevators and two hoistways, leaving six passenger elevators and more leasable space.

The original guiderails, or vertical tracks, were retained, realigned and reinforced structurally. Original hoistways, machine supports, hoistway entrance frames and cast-iron doorsills were also retained. "So when you walk into the elevators, you're walking through the entrances of the original 1916 elevators into brand-new elevators tracking on the 1916 rails," von Klan explains.

The cabs were custom-fabricated to fit the hoistways of the building, which are smaller than current standards. The new system is an energy miser, operating with variable-voltage, variable-frequency drives for its AC motors. It also features closed-loop door operation and a dispatching system incorporating "fuzzy logic," a type of artificial intelligence.

The cab interiors carry the modern theme of the lobby and leave little hint that "Landmark at One Market" is a circa-1900 building. The cabs are fitted with arched, perforated stainless-steel ceilings, a Carrara marble floor and bleached sycamore paneling with stainless reveals.

"We did what you see in Europe: contemporary interiors in historic buildings," says Field.

Original cabs restored

In the United States, on the other hand, elevator cab restorations are increasingly common. New York City-based elevator consultant Robert Klein contends that the approach hinges on two basic questions: Is a given elevator worth saving? And, if so, can it be modified properly?

"You have to have something there that is worth saving before you look to save it," says Klein, currently working on two restorations.

One of Klein's projects involves 32 elevators at the Irving Trust Company Building — now the Bank of New York — at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway in lower Manhattan. Built between 1929 and 1932, the 50-story limestone Art Deco skyscraper was designated a landmark in March.

"The whole goal was to keep the elevators as close to the originals as possible," Klein says, so while equipment and controls were completely overhauled, the cabs were restored. "The elevator cabs there are worth restoring because they are so unusual, with nickel/silver castings in the corners and cab interiors of beautiful koa wood, a very hard wood veneer from Hawaii."

On another of Klein's projects, a high-end residential cooperative building at 101 Central Park West, in Manhattan, the cost of restoring three passenger cabs far outweighed the cost of putting in new ones. But residents cherished the old cabs in the circa 1920 building, so restoration was the goal.

To work with the new elevator equipment, the original cabs had to be removed, the walls cut to reduce the interior dimensions and then reinstalled. Klein retained open decorative grillwork along the top of the walls that provided ventilation, but baffled the outside so it wouldn't be open to the shaft. The main restoration challenge, says Klein, was matching and joining intricate original wood moldings.

At $40,000 for each of three cabs, restoration was certainly not the low-cost option for the cooperative owners.

"They paid a premium for that," says Klein.

Karen L. Wagner is a freelance writer based in Forest Park, Ill.

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