The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 11, 2011

Good upkeep brings smooth ride for Penobscot’s elevators

By The Building Tradesman

DETROIT – Due to good, timely maintenance and well-built machinery, getting where you need to go vertically in the Penobscot Building – one of the city’s oldest skyscrapers – has never been a problem.

Helping maintain that record of good service are Elevator Constructors Local 36 members Dave McBride and Luke Klida. They’re in the process of modernizing eight elevators in the Penobscot, and some of the mechanical systems date to when the lifts were opened with the building in 1928.

Working for Schindler Elevator, McBride and Klida are refurbishing motors, governors, replacing wiring and controls and panel work – in short, doing nearly everything associated with modernizing the elevators. Public areas around the call buttons and inside the elevator cabs remain in excellent, mostly original condition, and will largely be untouched by this renovation.

“Some of what we’re working on dates to a remodel in the 1960s, and some of it’s original to the building,” McBride said. “The old equipment still works well, but it’s just time for an update.  What we’re doing here is really just a case of old machinery made new.”

He said with proper maintenance having been performed over the years, there’s no questioning the safety of the elevators. The new mechanical works provide better braking and speed handling of the cabs, but overall the new work simply improves the elevators’ dependability and longevity.

McBride and Klida estimated that there are more than 50 elevators in the Penobscot complex which is actually three separately erected buildings tied together. The first was at 13-story tower, built in 1906; the second, a 24-story annex (1913) and the third is the familiar 47-story skyscraper, completed in 1928. Many of those elevators have cabs that are no longer in service, and some of their motors and other workings have been cannibalized  for parts over the years. Some elevators have been modernized in the recent past, and if the building’s ownership desires, more could be done in the future.

Elevators in the 47-story tower – which was the tallest building in the world outside of New York and Chicago in 1928 – were installed in a complex system that requires passengers to take two elevators to get to the upper levels. Elevators motors are installed in their own space on the upper floors. As long as a complete motor replacement isn’t called for – and to date, that hasn’t been necessary – the motors are relatively easy to access and service.

 But that doesn’t mean removing and repairing motor parts and fixtures is always easy. “You find a way to get it out; you make a tool, you find the right tool, you do what you have to do,” McBride said. 

Both mechanics praised the workmanship and design of the motors and mechanical works of the old elevators. Like the rest of the building, which was erected with opulent public areas, it seems the original owner didn’t skimp on the building’s mechanical systems, either.

“Back then, everything they built was so heavy,” said McBride, pointing to the hoist motors. “Now, they’re a lot lighter, with aluminum and galvanized metals. But they do the same thing.”

Klida, whose grandfather Dick Klida worked for Westinghouse Elevator and also worked on these kinds of motors, said the elevator trade has come “full circle” in his family.  “These motors are like an old car, they don’t make them like they used to,” he said.

“37th FLOOR, PLEASE.” The human elevator operators are long-gone, but still remaining are the motors which have moved Penobscot Building employees and visitors up and down the Detroit skyscraper through the years. On the Penobscot’s 37th floor, Luke Klida of Elevator Constructors Local 36 and Schindler Elevator works between a refurbished hoist motor, at left, and an original Otis 77 gearless motor circa 1928. Klida said the motors would be very familiar to older hands at Local 36.

SERVICING A HALL call button box on the 14th floor of the Penobscot Building is Dave McBride of Elevator Constructors Local 36, working for Schindler Elevator.