Denver Lawyers’ Arts and Literature Contest: Nonfiction Writing Winner Catherine Ricca, "An Elevator Operator’s Fine Art"
An Elevator Operator’s Fine Art
slit open the envelope and remove the Chicago Tribune clipping sent by my father. It is an obituary, stating: "Elevator operator at Fine Arts Building." I know immediately why my dad sent it, and my eyes well up in a fog of sorrow, homesickness, and a certain reverence that I have had since first meeting the elevator operator so many years ago.
The clipping states that his name was Tommy Durkin, and that he passed away shortly before St. Patrick’s Day, at age eighty, from complications related to Lou Gehrig’s disease. For sixty years, he ran Elevator Car No. 1 at Chicago’s magnificent Fine Arts Building.1
Tourists usually find the obvious artistic landmarks lining Michigan Avenue—Millennium Park, the Art Institute, Orchestra Hall. Fewer people make it those extra blocks down to the more modest, quirky Fine Arts Building. Fewer still brave its solemn exterior and go inside, where so much art is born and nurtured. Of those who do, though, my guess is that many remember the elevator operator.
I have never forgotten. I find my way back as I read the obituary. I am seventeen again, burrowing, pointlessly, against the snow and into a wool coat and scarf while making my weekly mad dash down Michigan Avenue into the teeth of the arctic gale, steadying my flute and sheet music in the frosty backpack. I can still see the gloomy old building, standing sooty and exhausted in the depths of the Chicago winter. I can see the filmy glass in the arched windows that somehow always look like eyes at half-mast, just before the yawn. I can feel the great doors swing open and then remember entering—finally!—the warmth of the 19th century amber lobby, its motto at once inspiring and terrifying: "All passes—Art alone endures."
Built for the Studebaker Carriage Company in 1886, the Fine Arts Building was remodeled and dedicated to artists in 1898. Since then, it has sheltered the spirits of artists of the past, as well as the dreams of those of the present and future. It is a cherished collection of studios, galleries, and shops. Walk its halls, and you will wander a kaleidoscope of dance, music, architecture, design, and visual art. In a city known worldwide for its musicians, some of the greatest have studios there, and others visit for instrument repairs and purchases. Drop by any day, and you may overhear a soprano perfecting her trills, a cellist soaring through his audition, or a full orchestra bringing life to the Mahler 1 in all its springtime glory.
The building has ten stories and zero elevator buttons. Its elevators are and always have been run by people. An operator will ask you which floor you would like, and, effortlessly, will slide the cage shut and deliver you, softly matching the elevator’s and building’s floors without needing to look. One operator stands alone in my memory, and despite the years and the logic, I cannot believe he is gone.
The Tribune’s obituary states that Mr. Durkin grew up in Askelane, County Mayo, Ireland, and lost his parents to illness as a young child.2 It notes that he and his thirteen older siblings worked together to save their family’s farm. Mr. Durkin moved to Chicago at age sixteen, joining several of his sisters who had emigrated, and began working at the Fine Arts Building in 1950. The obituary mentions Mr. Durkin’s passion for the Fighting Irish, noting that he even created a "Notre Dame Room" in the building’s basement, where he hosted Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day parties for hundreds of tenants and guests.3
I did not know that, but I am not surprised to learn of his generosity. I have my own memories of him. As a child, going up to the seventh floor where my parents were treating me to what was then the flute of my dreams, I was speechless when I saw the elevator. It was the first hand-operated elevator I’d ever seen. I marveled at the operator’s memory, his ability to stop on each floor requested by a passenger without stopping on one not requested. How did he not get the passengers confused? (Did this group ask for floors 2, 4, 5, 7, and 10? Or 2, 3, 7, and 8? Or was that the last carful?) Did he get seasick, watching all those floors fly above and below him all day? How long had he been running this elevator? Did he always smile at everyone? How?
Later, as a teenager, I spent countless days at that building for orchestra rehearsals and auditions. I didn’t know his name, but I remembered the kindly elevator operator. I continued to marvel at his serenity, deftness, and good will. During breaks in Chicago Youth Symphony rehearsals, he hauled carfuls of high school musicians down to the lobby and back, somehow never losing his patience or telling us to take the stairs. In such a short ride, with so little conversation, how did he convey such warmth? What famous artists had he met, and who were his favorites? How many people said "thank you" as they stepped out? Would he keep his job, or would the building someday install automated elevators like all the other buildings? Did he like what he did every day? Did he miss Ireland?
Years passed, and I moved away. I still love music, still call Chicago home in my own way, and still visit that magical building and its seventh floor woodwind wizard for instrument repairs. On my last trip a few years ago, I stepped into the elevator and started to say, "Seventh floor, please," when I saw the operator from my childhood memories. He had no reason to remember me, but I remembered him. I swallowed the lump in my throat before asking my seventh floor friend if it was possible that the gentleman running the elevator was the same person who had run it in my youth orchestra days. He said yes. He said that Tommy Durkin had retired a few years earlier, but people missed him so much that they asked him to come back. He told me I was lucky, because Mr. Durkin only came in occasionally. He also told me to stop in the lobby before leaving to see the plaque. In 2000, on Mr. Durkin’s 50th anniversary in his post, the lobby of the Fine Arts Building was named Durkin Hall. A bronze plaque with his familiar smile adds its glow to the amber lobby. Mr. Durkin retired (again) in 2010 after sixty years on the job. Sixty years—nearly half the life of the great building itself.
Sadly, I did not actually know Tommy Durkin. But my mind has wandered back to him over the years. I have revisited my youthful questions about how he did the work that he did, and what he thought of it. I have imagined the stories he could tell. I have remembered his loyalty, skill, kindness, and good cheer. I have thought of him every time I have noticed a company choosing a machine to do what a person once did. I have cursed this society that accepts, so unquestioningly, that replacing humans with machines is progress, and that faster and newer are better. I have mourned what we all lose in that process.
I have pondered what it means to work, to have a career, to achieve a life well lived—and how those concepts play upon each other. How many people could have taken a position as an elevator operator in 1950 and made of it what Mr. Durkin did? How was he able to bring so much of himself to his work? How did he make his job an art? In a city of millions, how did he defy anonymity? How many people are so dearly missed after retiring that they are asked to return? And how many actually say yes? How many people have stepped in and out of Mr. Durkin’s car since the Truman administration, and how many lives has he touched?
All passes—Art alone endures. Maybe so. On this St. Patrick’s Day, here’s to you, Mr. Durkin. Thank you for your enduring artistry.
1 Joan Giangrasse Kates, “Elevator operator at Fine Arts Building,” Chicago Tribune, sec. 2, page 8, March 13, 2013.