It’s known as the place where conversations go to die.
Not this one.
This elevator is every bit the center of attention and starter of small, and not so small, talk.
First-time visitors to the downtown Colorado Springs office building can’t really see the thing — the shiny piece of steel that has carried people up and down for more than 100 years — and not talk about it.
So they say something to Gary Wallace, the man who appears from a side room to give them a ride.
“This is such a cool place,” a woman says on her way to a hair appointment on the top floor.
Wallace can tell she’s never been here before. He’d know.
“This is your treat for the day,” he says.
He doesn’t mean the haircut.
It’s the ride from the first floor that tends to make someone’s day. The birdcage elevator is ornate and painted gold and very old. It was built the same time as its five-story 1912 building on the corner of Kiowa and Tejon streets. Like its name suggests, there are thin stripes around the platform. But you still have the unique freedom to see, through the bars, the levels of the building as the elevator rises.
“It’s not everyday you see something like this,” Wallace says. “We’re the only one in town.”
And it’s not everyday you meet someone like Wallace.
There’s one other birdcage elevator in Colorado Springs, just a few blocks away inside the Pioneers Museum. But that one has been automated. So it doesn’t require a Gary or the man who takes over his afternoon shift.
“We’re kind of the last of a dying breed,” Wallace, who is 60, said. “You don’t run into a lot of elevator jockeys anymore.”
Over the years, various owners couldn’t imagine getting rid of the piece of history within the structure that earned its National Register of Historic Places plaque.
The property originally housed the Young Women’s Christian Association, or YWCA, and later was used as a hospital by the Red Cross during the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 and as the USO center during World War II.
The building’s architect was Nicholas van den Arend, the man known for the Van Briggle pottery building.
Its beautiful details caught the eye of Colorado Springs entrepreneur Perry Sanders, who purchased 130 E. Kiowa St. in 2018.
Sanders says the elevator played a “big part” in the purchase.
“When I saw it, it was kind of like love at first sight,” Sanders said. “The deal was all over then.”
Its the latest building to join Sanders’ portfolio of historic spots, including the 1902 Mining Exchange building.
“As a preservationist, this one screamed, ‘Preserve me!” Sanders said.
That means he couldn’t see himself modernizing the elevator.
“That’s really the building’s charm,” Sanders says. “It drops you into a different world.”
So it’s here to stay.
Makes sense to Wallace.
“People have always been amazed by it,” he said. “It’s kind of the charm of the place.”
But Wallace insists his is a simple job. Waiting for the “special sound” the front door makes so he can promptly say hello to whoever walks in. Keeping his office door open so he can pop up from his chair to offer whoever a ride. Knowing how to operate the antique, or as Wallace says, how to stop this thing on a dime.
Swinging a handle left for “UP” and right for “DN,” almost like an arcade game, the elevator could easily make for a jerky journey. But patrons often compliment Wallace for a smooth and quiet trip.
“It’s best to have the touch,” he says with a smile. “You have to have the right timing.”
By now, he does.
He started here 20 years ago as a custodian. It’s been 12 years now that he’s been running the place. Running the elevator came with the office manager title.
That’s when he learned how to start the elevator up with the turn of a key, like the ignition of a car. Now, he says he drives it like a hot rod.
“Every morning when I start it up, I feel a sense of pride,” he said. “I just enjoy it.”
Wallace also enjoys his afternoon gig: Cutting hair at The Hairsmith. He’s been a barber since he was 19.
Both jobs require talking to people and knowing when people don’t want to talk. It’s always been easy for him to know the difference.
“Some people just want to get their hair cut and get the heck out of the chair,” Wallace said. “Some people want to tell you their whole story.”
The elevator has attracted stories. A woman comes every year after the Western Street Breakfast to take her family for a ride. Wallace has seen her family members, wearing cowboy hats and all, grow from a few kids to grandkids. Wallace’s mother told him about how she used the elevator when she stayed at the old YWCA.
And Wallace? He calls the elevator his baby. He’s now seen it through years of three-month checkups and only three minor breakdowns. The elevator always passes inspections from Otis, its manufacturer, with “flying colors.”
“It’s a workhorse,” he said. “We hope it’s around another 100 years.”
When he’s not as busy during his shift, Wallace reads a Nora Roberts paperback or listens to the radio. Before long, he’s greeting a new visitor or a tenant he’s known for years.
When they walk in, he stands and might say a simple “Hello.”
But that depends on his mood.
“Sometimes, I’ll say, ‘Welcome to my gilded cage,” Wallace said, fanning his arms out. “Just to throw a little color in someone’s day.”
If Wallace had to guess, the elevator reaches 10 mph at most. He arrived at that estimate because, a while back, he wanted to know how long it took to go from the basement to the fifth floor. His stopwatch read 13 seconds.
So, that’s how long you might enjoy this trip. Thirteen seconds. Wallace does it 30 times a day and never gets tired of it.
“To me, it’s the best ride in town,” he said.
Maybe that’s because it feels like things move a little slower inside this elevator. For 13 seconds, you get caught up looking at the details of the “gilded cage.” You might feel like you’re stepping into another time or a movie scene. You might ask the man who’s giving you a ride about it.
For 13 seconds, it doesn’t matter where you’re going.
The last birdcage elevator operator in town keeps a magical trip alive
Video online To view a video of Gary Wallace operating the elevator, go to gazette.com.