Shaffer: Worst elevator crowned in downtown Raleigh

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comDecember 9, 2012 

— Inside the Wake County courthouse, the elevators run so slowly that riders sometimes sprout gray hairs on the trip from the lobby to the 11th floor.

Down the street at The News & Observer, the ancient and creaking lift has trapped people between floors, requiring emergency extraction.

But downtown Raleigh’s most cantankerous and unreliable elevator, a contraption so prone to breaking that its owners once had a man ride on top and raise the car by hand, rumbles up the shaft of the Capital Club building.

It’s actually a pair of brass-doored devils. But if you believe the condemnations from Capital Club tenants, the door on the right hasn’t opened since June. The left-hand option breaks at least once a week, they say, sometimes twice or three times.

When it does, it’s a long, slow climb up a dark, narrow staircase where the walls are peeling paint and the pipes are orange with rust. It’s bad enough if you’re a healthy client on the way to the law firms on the 11th floor, but quite another if you’re Tony Parker, the fourth-floor paralegal navigating the staircase with a cane and rheumatoid arthritis.

“I fell one time,” he confessed. “Luckily, I fell back up the stairs.”

Down the hall from Parker, Ellen Jones says persistent complaints go nowhere, bouncing off explanations of costly repairs and shipping delays.

“My husband is 80 years old and walks with a cane,” she said, describing his perilous journey down the stairs. “He’s legally blind. He made it down the steps once, but he better be glad I wasn’t here, because I wouldn’t have let him.”

On the corner of Salisbury and Martin streets, the building dates to 1885, when the Capital Club began as a literary and social hub. Its modern mini-skyscraper first went up in 1930, and the top floors housed billiard tables, card games and a reading room.

Renovating the historic building and keeping it in shape is a constant labor, said developer Tom Hendrickson, who has owned it since 1998. He and his wife, Jill, rent The Grand Ballroom on the penthouse floor for private parties costing between $1,000 and $3,500 – and they call the elevator situation “aggravating.”

It dates to a lightning strike last summer, he said, and has cost more than $100,000 to repair, including a visit from a forensic electric engineer. The idle elevator is being completely redone, and the shaky one will follow. Hendrickson hopes to get the stalled one working within a few weeks.

“Nobody was more frustrated than we were,” he explained. “It’s not like buying a loaf of bread. You don’t just go to the grocery store.”

I went to ride the Capital Club lift last week at the urging of the frustrated tenants. On four straight days, it worked just fine. I noted it had last been inspected in January, then I imagined myself as a gentleman of the 1920s, heading to the 10th floor for a game of whist.

I’m sympathetic to anyone who takes care of a relic, and I understand that aging buildings are as creaky and breakable as aging people. Along with any innovation – the automobile, the microchip – comes the hassle of maintenance.

But summer to December seems like an awfully long time to recover from a lightning strike, even if you’re an elevator. If you’ve got people with canes falling on the stairs, maybe it’s time to hire a monkey to lift the car full time. You could give him a little cap, and a gentleman’s tie.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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