Elevator Operator

Americana, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on January 13, 2011
Mike Gullett Bunn demonstrates the sliding gate on the 1916 open-cage, wrought-iron elevator.

When a buzzer sounds and a green light illuminates on the brass call box of the 1916 elevator at the Jasper County Courthouse in Carthage, Mo. (pop. 12,668), operator Geraldine Bunn knows it's time to give someone on the third floor a ride.

"I'll be right back," Bunn, 82, tells a group of people she's been chatting with on the first floor.

As she's done thousands of times, Bunn slides the elevator's metal gate shut, then grasps a porcelain-knobbed lever and eases it to the right. The 1,000-pound capacity cage climbs slowly past a floor painted with a number "2." Bunn glides the elevator to a stop, aligning it with the third floor of the courthouse.

"Sometimes I hit it on the spot and sometimes I don't," she says, adding that if the floors don't align, she maneuvers the elevator until the floors are flush so riders don't trip or stumble when entering or exiting the cage.

For 14 years, Bunn's workday has been filled with the ups and downs of shuttling 200 or more passengers between the basement, first, second and third floors of the elegant 1894 limestone courthouse.

"People always ask me, 'Don't you get dizzy?'" says Bunn, who lives in nearby Jasper (pop. 1,011). "No," she assures them. She loves her mobile office.

Originally, the courthouse had only stairs. Then in 1916 holes were bored through the building's concrete floors, and the open-cage wrought-iron elevator was installed on steel cables and massive oak beams.

"In and of itself, the elevator is a tourist attraction," says Judge Joseph Schoeberl, as he descends from his third-floor office and courtroom.

When Schoeberl steps out of the elevator, he pretends to trip over a slight gap between the floors, making Bunn laugh. "He's always doing that to me," she says.

Bunn provides a lift in every sense of the word. "She's very cheery and brightens the day," says Schoeberl, 62. "She's like a cup of coffee in the morning."

Working as an elevator attendant in today's self-serve world is an "oddity," concedes Bunn, who began operating the courthouse elevator part time in 2008.

The nation's first automatic elevator was installed in 1950 at Atlantic Refining Co. in Dallas, Texas, according to Stephen Showers, corporate archivist for the world's largest elevator manufacturer, Otis Elevator Co. in Farmington, Conn. (pop. 23,641).

The system was called the Autotronic Elevator, which was short for auto and electronic and was advertised as "without attendant" or "operatorless," Showers says. By the 1960s, automatic elevators were commonplace and manual operators were becoming obsolete.

While modern push-button elevators are quick and efficient, they lack the personal touch of Bunn, who greets courthouse employees by name and says the best part of her job is meeting people.

"There are so many nice people," she says. "Even the prisoners will speak and tell me to have a good day."

Her passengers range from shackled and somber county jail inmates to happy hand-holding couples with freshly inked marriage licenses, as well as tourists traveling through town on Route 66. Older folks on tour buses and schoolchildren on field trips also line up for rides.

"Some kids are happy on the way up and cry all the way down," says Bunn, noting that individuals have different reactions to the 30-second rides.

Though the elevator is furnished with a small desk and a chair, Bunn seldom sits. When she's not transporting passengers, she's on the first floor greeting people visiting the courthouse.

"Can I help you, ma'am?" Bunn asks when she notices Kathy Baxter, 55, of Greenfield, Mo. (pop. 1,358), an obvious newcomer to the building.

"I need to take care of this traffic ticket," Baxter says.

"I can take you there," Bunn says.

As Baxter steps into the old-fashioned elevator, she marvels at its fancy ironwork and walls decorated with vintage photographs of the courthouse. "This is very cool," she says. "This is so historical."

Bunn smiles as she pushes the lever to lift them to the top floor.

"Careful. Watch your step," she says.