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October 1, 1999

Some folks want a job that gives them a lift every day

Journal Real Estate editor

They gathered on Tuesday afternoon in the onyx-lined lobby of Smith Tower for the chance to operate an elevator for a living.

The help-wanted advertisement mentioned full benefits, including medical, dental and vision insurance; a 401 (k) plan and paid vacation. But the handful of applicants for the $8-an-hour service jobs ($10 for night work) seemed less in awe of the bennies than of the historic, beautifully restored building itself.

Their surroundings got even better at 4 o'clock when in two shifts the applicants were whisked from the lobby to the legendary Chinese Room on the 35th floor. There they talked about the importance of punctuality, teamwork and the like.

Of course, most were enthusiastic about the historic setting of the place. One applicant, Chris Bankston, talked about how intrigued he was by the notion of "driving an antique elevator."

Hiring the newest additions to the team of elevator operators is one of the last signs that the icon --which at 522 feet was the fourth tallest in the world when it was built in 1914 -- is entering yet another phase. The $21 million renovation is finished and one of the first new tenants, Avenue A, an Internet media and data marketing company, moves in today.

The changes are numerous. When the building first opened, there were more than 500 tenants. Now the building is 95 percent leased and will be full by the end of the year, according to William Justen, who heads the Samis Land Co., Smith Tower's new owner. But instead of hundreds of companies, there will be only about two dozen tenants.

Smith Tower elevators
Josephine Mumpar, an elevator operator at Smith Tower, will be joined be by six new colleagues. The tower is believed to be the only office building on the West Coast with elevator operators.
Photo by Marc Stiles
The late Sam Israel created Samis to manage his extensive real estate portfolio to benefit wildlife groups and Jewish education.

Some say the fact that several high-tech companies, including Infoseek, are moving to Smith Tower is another example of the landmark's transformation. Ellie Schroeder, a project manager for Samis, disagrees.

She noted that Lyman C. Smith's son convinced his father that building a skyscraper would be a great publicity move for his typewriter company -- Smith Corona. Typewriters were the way people processed words during the early part of the 20th century. That was high tech then; today, high tech is computers and the Internet, Schroeder said, so things really haven't changed.

One thing that obviously isn't changing is having a staff of elevator operators. According to a history of the building, Smith Tower is the last office building on the West Coast with live operators.

During the renovation, which entailed installation of new power and state-of-the-art communications systems, the elevators also were upgraded. The buttons found in every other modern day elevator were put in. Automatic doors, however, were not.

They would have been expensive to install. "But there's another reason we like having elevator operators," Schroeder said. "It identifies Smith Tower as a very fine Class A office building [as it was] in the time it was built.'

The elevator operator hopefuls quickly filled out the applications, not distracted by the breathtaking, 360-degree view or the surroundings of the Chinese Room. There's the hand-carved teak on the walls and ceilings that also are adorned with hundreds of discs representing historic tablets from Chinese temples. A rich red and green carpet stretches across the floor.

The room once was a restaurant but is now rented for weddings and parties. Tower officials said the room already has been rented for the next two New Year's Eve celebrations. But 20 tickets -- at $125 a pop -- remain for the Kingdome implosion next spring.

Schroeder and Erin Mitchell, Smith Tower's director of hospitality services, told the candidates that they were seeking cheerful, customer-oriented operators. Samis needs folks who will be able to greet the 1,100 people who will work in the tower when it's full.

The candidates didn't miss a beat. They smiled graciously, touted their people skills and said things like, "I really like working in old buildings."

One applicant, Laura McLane, said that when she saw the help-wanted ad, she anticipated there would be "about 400 people standing in line to work for the Smith Tower because it's so beautiful." Instead, only about 12 showed up.

Even so, competition is stiff. Mitchell and Schroeder said that they have positions for only six. The field will be winnowed when they hold individual interviews for those who want to rise to the top every day.