In practice, it should be pretty difficult to lose track of an elevator.
But in the state Capitol, even the elevators take the occasional path less traveled.
By May, the oldest elevator doors in the building, believed to be from 1909, will return from 40 years’ pause and be installed on a wall in one of the most inaccessible, charming and highest hallways of the Capitol. That circular path outside the rotunda dome on the sixth floor is sometimes unofficially called the Capitol museum.
Thanks to the efforts of a couple of persistent former Capitol tour employees who still work for the Department of Administration, Gerilyn Schneider and Claire Franz, and current Capitol lead tour guide Ken Rosenberg, the “wallway” museum is getting a re-fitting in time for the spring tourist season.
A set of heavy ornate iron doors that once protected an elevator in the Capitol — the only remaining state-owned pair — will be the newest old items in the museum’s eclectic collection.
“What we need now is information on the people who operated these Capitol elevators,” said Schneider, who has assembled quite a bit of technical information about the elevators, but very little “people” information. The elevators required operators until at latest the early 1960s, she said.
“We especially want to hear from anyone who knows what sort of uniforms (the operators) wore, or even if they might have saved a uniform,” said Schneider, who gave tours of the Capitol between 1988 and 2009.
Unless you are in charge of holding the iron cage doors in place — they weigh several hundred pounds — these elevator doors are easy to admire for the combination of grace and authority in the ornate bars, even the stylistic “W” at the center.
This pair will be remounted in the Capitol in the same condition as when they were removed. But thanks to the bargain-hunting acumen of a Madison hotelier, the public can see rescued doors in all their splendor right next door.
Simply, the old doors were garage-saled by the state and the late Jerry Mullins snapped them up for his hotel, the Inn on the Park, across the street from the Capitol.
“Jerry was always buying things and putting them away in his own warehouse, saying it might come in handy some day,” said his widow, Carol Mullins.
Jerry Mullins bought at least eight sets of Capitol elevator doors and several additional ornate iron elevator sections. Carol Mullins said her husband eventually had the ironwork sent to Chicago to be cleaned and painted gold. The sections have been mounted around the Inn on the Park, including one section in a window facing the Capitol, several in the Signature Lounge on the first floor, on a wall in the Founders conference room level, at the entry to the Top of the Park.
Carol Mullins noted she unsuccessfully lobbied her husband to install the doors upside down, so the “W”s would become “M”s.
There are no signs identifying the ironwork as the state Capitol’s original elevator doors dating to 1909. The only other known owner of a set of the doors is another hotel, that at the American Club in Kohler.
This month Capitol workers were building a frame in the sixth-floor museum strong enough to hold the old elevator doors. The only way to get to the exhibit will be to climb steps to the sixth floor, as elevators in the Capitol only go to the fourth floor.
There are no known photographs of the old elevators, save for one somewhat fuzzy photo in the state Historical Society archives.
Schneider found records noting the original elevators in the Capitol were built and installed one wing at a time, and the contracts for those wings went to the Vulcan Iron and Steel Works in Milwaukee, the Duffin Iron Works in Chicago, and Hecla Iron Works of New York. Hecla (named after a volcano in Iceland), especially, was known for its ornate iron and brass work in elevators.
“Artifacts” of Hecla ironwork fetch high prices at building salvage sales.