One Canal Plaza. (photos/The Fuge)
One Canal Plaza. (photos/The Fuge)

Riding the elevators of Portland

By Bob Colby 

Before I got downsized this spring, I worked at a print shop in Portland for several years. Like UPS and FedEx guys and bike couriers, I spent a lot of time in a lot of different elevators. It was not (except in the literal sense) an uplifting experience, but it was enlightening. 

For example, I’d always get amused when the up button would be already lit and somebody’d arrive and punch it anyway, as if that’s gonna make the car come faster. I came to believe that the “open door” and “close door” buttons aren’t actually connected to anything, that they’re there just to provide psychological relief (a theory disproved during my conversation with Ken Sandhage of Stanley Elevator Company; see accompanying interview below). I also discovered that cell phones don’t work in elevators. (OK, that’s not really true, either, but shut the hell up while you’re riding in the elevator, jackass! Face front, be quiet, and watch the numbers light up, like civilized people do.)

My career path hasn’t given me a lot of marketable skills, but I am qualified to write about the elevators around here, and The Bollard was willing (foolish enough) to pay me to spend a dizzying day doing research. Below I have rated, in the order in which I rode them, a dozen of downtown Portland’s most notable, more-or-less public elevators. I decided to start with the coolest one…


1. One City Center (Glass)

Get on at the bottom, at the Food Court, and ride four glorious floors until the elevator cruelly stops nine floors shy of the top of this 13-story building. The car is sort of octagon-shaped, with three sides of full-length glass. The up and down rides are equally thrilling, especially the descent from corporate offices, past the Bay Club and Citadel Broadcasting, to Lorenzo’s Newsstand and Bank of America, and finally to the bustling (at lunchtime, anyway) Food Court — also known as Portland High’s adjunct cafeteria.

Time to 4th Floor/Top: 33.25 seconds (very slow)
Comfort: Plenty of room.
Ambience: Glass & Brass.
Overall: Slow, but well worth the trip.


2. One City Center (Enclosed)

There are four enclosed elevators, so the wait at the bottom is shorter, but the view is limited to the door or your fellow passengers. These cars are less roomy, but well maintained and speedy. Note: the floor after 12 is marked “P” — for penthouse, apparently, and superstition’s sake.

Time to 4th Floor: 18.9 seconds (fast)
Time to Top (13 floors): 34.0 seconds
Comfort: Cozy, yet with fewer passengers per car than the glass elevator. 
Ambience: Wood; no handrails.
Overall: Quick, but dull.



3. 477 Congress Street (The Time & Temperature Building)

There are three cars, one of which goes to the basement and one of which is always out of order, so expect a long wait on the ground floor. Urban legend has it these cars are haunted. When I was a kid, these elevators had uniformed attendants who would operate them manually with some sort of rudder. The further up you go, the better the view is when you step off — especially if you enjoy looking at construction sites and soup kitchens.

Time to 4th Floor: 18.32 seconds (fast)
Time to Top (14 floors): 44.31 seconds
Comfort: Slight.  
Ambience: Think the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.
Overall: Old, creaky and scary, like a wooden rollercoaster; also haunted.


4. 465 Congress Street (Maine Bank & Trust Building)

Two cars, both fairly intimate and understated in design: steel handrails, oak walls, lots of lawyers and bankers getting on and off. The cars are pretty quick once they arrive, and while waiting, you can marvel at the bank’s exquisitely detailed ceiling, which extends to the mezzanine level (accessible via a marble staircase, if you care to climb).

Time to 4th Floor: 13.97 seconds (very fast)
Time to Top (10 floors): 32.0 seconds
Comfort: Extremely cozy.
Ambience: None to speak of.
Overall: Serviceable, quick and painless.


5. Portland Public Library

The library is staying put, so get used to this very slow, but friendly, elevator. A female voice tells you which floor you’re on and whether you’re headed up or down. This can be a bit confusing, because when you enter the building from Congress Street, you’re technically on the second floor. The basement is considered the first floor, and the fourth (top) floor is administrative office space.

Time to 4th Floor/Top: 34.47 seconds (glacial)
Comfort: Lots of room! You could play hockey in here. 
Ambience: Airy and modernin a Jetsons sort of way.
Overall: There are signs on every floor encouraging you to walk. Good point: the stairs are probably faster.


6. One Monument Square (Key Bank Building)

One and Two Monument Square are separated by a common atrium with a security guy at a desk who’ll help if you can’t figure out the giant signs telling you which businesses are where. The Key Bank side (One) is a bit classier, with big, well-appointed elevators and well-dressed, good-smelling people getting on and off.

Time to 4th Floor: 17.43 seconds (fast)
Time to Top (10 floors): 38.24 seconds
Comfort: Roomy and posh. Oak walls, mirror-like doors.
Ambience: You’ll feel like you’re 

wearing jeans to the prom in here.
Overall: There’s a reason this one’s One.


7. Two Monument Square (Congress Street side)

One Monument Square’s scruffy kid brother; smaller and skinnier, he probably got beat up a lot by One as a kid. This elevator is accessible via the parking garage, which must be a godsend in winter. The little brother can outrun the big brother, probably due to all the beatings.

Time to 4th Floor: 14.40 seconds (very fast)
Time to Top (9 floors): 39.81 seconds
Comfort: Small, but speedy; you won’t be in here long enough to care.
Ambience: More laid back than its big brother — you won’t be mocked for wearing jeans in Two.
Overall: Like Avis, number two tries harder.


8. One Monument Way (Longfellow Books’ building)

The only reason to go to the top (fourth) floor of this building is to see a lawyer, so you don’t need the car to be fast. It isn’t. Stairs are not an option.

Time to 4th Floor/Top: 33.37 seconds (a small eternity)
Comfort: Like a phone booth going up and down, slowly.
Ambience: Unremarkable; also slow.  
Overall: If Longfellow sold law school textbooks, it’d probably be faster to buy some there and take the bar yourself. 


9. 24 City Center (R. M. Davis Building)

Unless you need to readjust your stock portfolio, you really have no reason to enter this building. Seeing as how my portfolio is tied up in returnable bottles, I chose this one because of its snail-like pace. There are nice paintings in the lobby to admire while waiting… and waiting…

Time to 4th Floor/Top: 48.0 seconds (Twelve seconds per floor? Are you f’n kiddin’ me?)
Comfort: Pretty standard, but you’ll feel guilty for not paying rent considering the portion of a day you spend in here.
Ambience: A nice winter cityscape of the view outside, by Paul Black, awaits you on the fourth floor. That is, if you ever get there.
Overall: Fortunes are made and lost several times over by the time you hit 2.

10. One Canal Plaza (Boulos Building)

Flanked by siblings Two and Three Canal Plaza to its left and right, respectively, One Canal hangs back from the street, across from the guy playing “Pop Goes The Weasel” on the fiddle. (If this character could play more than two bars of a song, he might make some money. Excuse me, but I get annoyed that he plays Fiddler On The Roof every time I walk by. Do I look like a Russian Jew?) Anyhow, all three Canal Plaza buildings are clones of each other, and their elevators all look like what you might expect to be buried in, only roomier: dark oak walls, brass handrails — a very classy coffin. If I had to be stuck in an elevator, I’d pick one of these. 

Actually, on second thought, I’d pick the glass elevator so I could break the glass.

Time to 4th Floor: 25.07 seconds (moderate)
Time to Top (10 floors): 32.0 seconds
Ambience: Spend enough time in this elevator and you’ll decide against cremation.
Overall: Pretty fast, but be prepared for multiple stops. (My time to the top might be skewed because, despite several attempts, I couldn’t go all 10 floors without interruption.)


11. 53 Exchange Street (Kelly, Remmel & Zimmerman Building)

I chose this one because of its uniqueness. I mean, come on: it has an ashtray in it! The wood paneling is very ’70s — possibly designed by Mike Brady. Tiny and slow, it’s a real relic.

Time to 4th Floor/Top: 35.25 seconds (pokey)
Ambience: The ashtray says it all.
Overall: A step back to a simpler, smokier time. Go ahead, light up.


12. One Portland Square (TD Banknorth Building)

Back in the ’80s, when the Grateful Dead played the Civic Center, this site was a giant dirt parking lot that became a tent city of hippies for a couple days every year. The monolith since erected on this spot is topped by four floors of offices occupied by the law firm Verrill Dana (and probably a few former hippies on staff). There’s a nice little cafe in the basement that few who don’t work here know about — until now, I guess (sorry).

Time to 4th Floor: 21.0 seconds (medium-fast)
Time to Top (9 floors; 10 is only accessible to lawyers): 42.07 seconds
Ambience: Roomy, well appointed, cushy carpeting.
Overall: Like a visit to stately Wayne Manor.


Peculiar Reactions: A talk with Ken Sandhage

Ken Sandhage works for Stanley Elevator, an independently owned company —founded in 1951 by Irving M. Stanley—based in New Hampshire. Sandhage supervises the maintenance and operations of the elevators at One City Center, my favorite place to get lifted. 

What are your favorite elevators?

Well, obviously I like them all — it’s my job. The ones at One City Center are a favorite, because in addition to doing the maintenance, we designed and installed them. Another favorite would be the elevator at Penobscot River Crossing in Fort Knox, the world’s tallest public observatory, at 420 feet, and the fastest elevator in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

What distinguishes a good elevator from a bad elevator? Why are some faster than others?

Installation. Time and quality of installation is what makes or breaks an elevator. We use the term “ride quality” in our industry, and that is an indication of the overall public impression of an elevator.

How safe are the elevators around here? 

Elevators in general are extremely safe — safer than riding in a car. They sometimes get a bad rap. All elevators have to be registered with the state, and an annual inspection is required. All elevators must be equipped with a communication device, and all maintenance technicians are trained to evacuate an elevator in case of an emergency — which, in reality, is extremely rare. The elevators at One City Center are inspected monthly.

If you hold the “close door” button, will an elevator become an “express” elevator and not stop at other floors? For that matter, does the “close door” button do anything? 

The “close door” button actually does work, but it won’t make an elevator an “express” if someone has pushed the call button at another floor. The time the door is open depends on the particular elevator, and there is a specified gap of time that a door is required to stay open at a floor, but for the life of me I don’t know what it is.

What happened to all the elevator attendants? 

Cost. Like everything else, it’s cost that has eliminated the job of elevator operators. 

Actually, the job was a lot more complicated in the old days. The operator had to stop at each floor manually by applying a hand brake as the car reached each floor. Elevators weren’t equipped with the technology to stop on their own, so it was actually a very skilled job to brake at the exact right moment. 

There are still a few elevator operators in New England, but mostly for show. The Mount Washington Hotel and the Mountain View Grand Resort are a couple I can think of that still have operators.

I understand there are two general types of elevators — hydraulic and pulley system models — and the building’s height determines which kind you install.  

That’s basically right. Hydraulic elevators are usually only installed when they reach a height of seven floors or fewer. Any elevator that goes over seven floors is almost always on a cable system.

What’s new in the field of elevator technology? Does Portland have any “cutting-edge” elevators?

The big push right now is designing and installing elevators to be “green,” to use less energy and to save building space. There’s a new technology for “machine room-less” elevators that don’t require a penthouse on the roof of a building. At this time, all traction or pulley elevators have one, but that is being slowly phased out.

Do you have any interesting personal anecdotes about elevators?

[Laughs.] Nothing I’d really want to say on the record. We do observe people having peculiar reactions. That’s really all I can say.

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