Door closes on Capitol elevators

State attendants bid farewell to obsolete jobs as 1881 marvel makes last stop today

RICK KARLIN Staff Writer
Section: Main,  Page: A3

Date: Friday, February 24, 2006

ALBANY - The life of an elevator operator has its inevitable ups and downs, but it will all come to an end today. The state Capitol's last two staffed elevators are scheduled to be closed for renovations.

The closure of elevators 3 and 4 on the building's southeast side marks the end of an era dating to the 19th century in which uniformed attendants, barking "going up" or "going down," would whisk people between floors. Today's half-dozen elevator operators, some of whom sit in office chairs, are the last of a vanishing breed.

"We were on borrowed time," said Capitol architect Jim Jamieson, who said he knew of no other elevators in the Capital Region that rely on operators.

Mostly, elevator operators today are there to provide atmosphere, added Bob Caporale, editor of Elevator World magazine. The job started to become obsolete after World War II as elevators, like so many devices, adopted electronic rather than mechanical controls, he said.

Certainly, these elevators were due for an upgrade. Installed in 1881 and last renovated in 1912, the units were growing increasingly unreliable. Spare parts were no longer available and had to be specially fabricated, and officials were starting to worry that the elevators posed a danger. "They could break down at any time," said Christine Burling, a spokeswoman for the Office of General Services.

Renovations, which are scheduled to take 18 months but which could easily take two years, will include replacing almost everything but the original steel cabs, which are being refurbished with modern button controls, said Jamieson. Like elevators one and two on the Capitol's northeast side, these will have new carpeting and bronze plating on the interior as well as decorative arches on the outside landings.

But the biggest change will surely be the operators, who are being reassigned throughout the Capitol and Empire State Plaza Complex.

Some will be janitors while others, such as Maria Xythalis, will be greeters and help people who use wheelchairs negotiate a temporary lift that will allow them to move between the plaza's Concourse and the Capitol's other elevators.

Like others, Xythalis, 58, was resigned to the change.

"I like to do what I'm doing but I don't have a choice," said Xythalis, who has worked here for 31 years, including the last five as an elevator operator. She enjoyed meeting and greeting the dozens of people, from senators and assembly members to state workers and tourists, who rode in her cab each day.

"I don't want to think about it. I'm just going to think about the good things," Anthony Freeman said of the coming shut-down. He had no real complaints though, his hours would be the same in his new role as a cleaner and he counted himself fortunate to have a state job with a good pension at the end of it.

While the new elevators will be safer, more efficient and shinier, a bit of Capitol lore will be gone. Passengers will no longer be treated to decorations, be they Christmas reds and greens or Valentine hearts that operator Sandy Raus used to put up (she decorated for St. Patrick's Day early this year), nor will they get to see her occasional costumes.

Raus gained a measure of good-natured infamy one Halloween when she wore a gorilla suit and scared the daylights out of some unsuspecting visitors. She was so well known in the Capitol, the Legislative Correspondents Association gave her a walk-on role as herself in last year's roast of politicians.

Said the 20-year veteran hoister: "I'm really going to miss the elevator."

Rick Karlin can be reached at 454-5758 or by e-mail at