Some guys buy a Lamborghini to get noticed. Pete DeAnna finds he does just fine cruising downtown Asheville’s Flatiron Building in a 1920s art deco elevator. The dark-eyed 21-year-old says working a car that harkens back to the Jazz Age has a certain romantic appeal, making him “10 times more attractive.” DeAnna and his colleagues recently shared the ups and downs of daily life running two of the city’s oldest remaining manually operated elevators.
The job itself isn’t sexy. Standing in a 4-foot-by-4-foot space for up to eight hours at a time. Having to jump at the call of the bell and drive the car up or down with a steel lever to fetch your next occupant. Swinging the heavy doors open and closed 10, 20, 30 or more times per hour. But for these three men, there’s a heavy dose of old-fashioned charm that makes the more tedious aspects bearable.
Brian Moretti, a Pennsylvania boy who moved to Asheville seven years ago, has been working the night shift up to 35 hours per week since last summer. Moretti, 29, says it balances out his seasonal farm work. By day, he’s digging in the dirt or delivering vegetables to restaurants in an old pickup truck. But at 3 p.m., Moretti says, “It’s like a new day.” He goes home, showers and dons his work duds: a dapper vest, dress shirt, pants and tie that lend him the elegant appeal of a 1940s film noir detective.
“I’m a compulsive Goodwill shopper,” he says. “I would see all this cool stuff that I didn’t have the context to wear. Here, the building’s old, and it feels appropriate.”
Another perk is getting to watch people’s reactions to the elegant elevators. DeAnna says he’s noticed a difference depending on the passenger’s age: In general, middle-aged riders seem more impressed.
“The most interested people are usually older couples who haven’t been on one of these elevators for years. One lady who grew up in New York City, where they more commonly have these elevators, was thrilled,” he recalls.
The under-25 set, on the other hand, tends to be “more afraid; they don’t trust it will work.”
Neil Mobberly works the 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift. A 50-something former printer with light brown hair that falls into his eyes and a kind, soft-spoken voice. Mobberly says he enjoys the diverse array of people he meets on his travels between floors. Perhaps the most memorable ride: A group of “star children” en route to an office devoted to investigating ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. “There was a guy older than me, and he had a staff with some kind of head on it that you couldn’t take seriously,” remembers Mobberly.
Another big perk for the night crew: Getting to play city guide to tourists. Moretti and DeAnna both say they like being the first and last face people see on their way up to the Sky Bar. “You get groups of people you really connect with,” Moretti explains. “It’s really rewarding when they ask me what they should do, and I get to try to read the group and think, ‘What do they seem like they’d like?’”
Then there’s the question of sex appeal. Many women seem to appreciate being guided to the Sky Bar by a man who appears to have stepped out of another time. “The whole idea of the antiquity of the position and the classiness of it brings sexiness to the elevator and, by association, the elevator operator,” says DeAnna, who often wears suspenders to work.
Moretti reports that at the end of the night, he frequently finds women’s phone numbers mixed in with his tips. DeAnna, meanwhile, says he was once romanced by a trio of tipsy women. A faint blush spreads up from his beard as he recalls one of them, an attractive 30-something femme, asking him to stop the elevator so she could retrieve something she’d forgotten. “She then asked if she could kiss me,” he says. “I thought she was kidding.” He couldn’t avoid that kiss, but he drew the line when the second woman asked to have her turn. “That was a pretty long 15-second ride,” recalls a smiling DeAnna.
To be sure, the atmosphere inside the little car can change dramatically in the course of the day. The night crowd is a mix of tourists and locals on their way up to the Sky Bar, usually in festive spirits. During working hours, on the other hand, the car fills with massage therapists, architects, businessmen and other professionals. Tayria Ward, a psychologist who works on the fifth floor, says she enjoys riding the elevator because of the sense of community it conveys. “After the first two rides, they remember where you’re going,” she explains. “And it’s nice to see a familiar face. Also, I love the feeling of going back in time.”
The flip side
To be sure, being an elevator man in the 21st century also has its challenges. When the machinery breaks down, notes DeAnna, parts can be hard to replace. Inside the main car are eight red lights — one for each floor — which are supposed to tell the attendant the caller’s location. But those buttons no longer work, so, every time the buzzer rings, the attendant must cruise all eight floors, peering through the window till he spots his next passenger. This is particularly annoying when combined with what Moretti calls the “phantom ring”: imagining you’ve heard the buzzer even when it hasn’t sounded. All three attendants say they’ve experienced this during grueling shifts.
“If I think I hear it, I have to ride up and down to check,” says Moretti. “There’s no other way to know.”
Another pet peeve is the elevator bandits: those bold souls who decide (perhaps after a couple of beers) to sneak into the car when the attendant’s back is turned and steer the elevator all by themselves. This has happened often over the years, perhaps most memorably when an amorous couple stole the car and parked it on the sixth floor, lights off, so they could steal a few erotic moments.
“I had to scold them while averting my gaze,” Moretti recalls. “When they came out they ran down the stairs. They were both thrilled and embarrassed.”
A dream realized
Built in 1925-26 by Albert C. Wirth, the Flatiron Building has a colorful past that includes playing host to doctors, country musicians and maybe even a ghost. In the 1930s, current owner Russell Thomas reveals, the historic structure was the home of radio station WWNC, which broadcast shows including Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” and hosted country greats like Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. During the ’40s and ’50s the building housed many of Asheville’s medical offices. Morgan Albritton, manager of L’eau de Vie Salon/Spa on the second floor, says she’s heard tales of a dentist’s son, a man in his 20s, who’s said to have commited suicide by jumping out a window. And though she’s never seen any spirits “throwing brushes around the salon or anything,” Albritton says many women working in the salon are afraid to ride the elevators down to the ground floor at night to take out the recycling.
Both cars still have their original steel frames, though Thomas says the motors and most of their mechanical parts have been replaced over the years. He admits to “coveting” Asheville’s other two remaining manual elevators, in the City Building, and says he’d be the first in line to buy them for parts if they’re ever replaced.
Will Thomas ever modernize his own elevators? One day he’ll probably have to, he concedes, but for now he’s content to keep them as is, because they’re “cool as hell, and people like things that are a little bit different.”
As a 10-year-old, Thomas recalls, he once dreamed that he owned a high-rise building. He realized that dream years later when, at age 29, he bought the Flatiron.
“This building is magical,” he says with a satisfied smile. “It’s almost like owning it was meant to be. Lots of kids wish they had an elevator. Well, I truly have one. And it’s an old one with the handle.”