Staff Profile Two of a ten-part series.
Read the Intro here with links to the entire series. Read Act One here. Read Interlude One here. Read Act Two here. Read Interlude Two here. Read Act Three here. Read Interlude Three here. Read Act Four here. Read Staff Profile One here. Read Act Five here.
Some first-time visitors to the Fine Arts Building can’t figure out how to proceed from the lobby, even given the options of a building directory, stairs and elevators—perhaps because none of these work in a familiar way. In modern high-rises, directories are glowing touch screens, not wall-mounted boards with press-in letters; stairs hide behind fire doors; and elevators are concealed behind gleaming metal panels.
Press the doorbell-style button to call an elevator—a pleasingly mechanical BRRING!—and you’ll hear a soft rattle of chains as the car descends from above. Before it appears, looped cables appear through the glass panes in the door, and when the car slides into view with its occupants startlingly visible, you feel like you’ve found yourself in either an old movie or a Richard Scarry picture book.
Step inside, and the operator closes the heavy outer door with a crisp BANG, then lowers the rod that locks it in place. The elevator men (they are all men) navigate not by pressing buttons but by operating an almost nautical semicircular brass throttle with a wooden handle, pushing forward to climb, pulling back to fall. Most don’t close the latticed safety gate unless the car is crowded or the passengers are tourists. Tenants and regulars are allowed to keep themselves in check as the floors fall away below. The teleportation of modern elevators is sterile and boring in comparison; this offers the thrill of a carnival ride.
Stopping the cars is more art than science. The longest-serving operators have a knack for getting it right on the first try, but even veterans frequently miss floor-level by a few inches and must jockey back and forth before the car is aligned. Fill-ins sometimes miss the mark by several feet.
Each car handles differently, its quirks only apparent after time and practice. Number One, currently out of service, is the fastest and has the most sensitive brake. Number Two is larger and less responsive, gliding to a stop. Number Three, originally intended for use by building engineers, is the slowest. Number Four has been decommissioned for years, its shaft reappropriated for electrical conduit, internet cabling and sprinkler pipes.
There is no system telling the operators from which floor a rider is calling. Once upon a time, an elegantly contrived brass mechanism on the roof triggered lights that indicated whether cars were going up or down, while also alerting operators via a gauge in the car on which floors passengers were waiting. Now, when the bell echoes down the shaft, the elevator men must conduct a visual search, scanning floors as they go with the assistance of thin rectangular mirrors mounted on the side of each car’s doorway. Operators are often halfway past the floor before they spot the caller and hang briefly in the air before backing up.
The operators belong to the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 399. Waclaw Kalata, who recently marked thirty years of service, works the early morning shift, typically seated on a stool with the mien of a man who would welcome a cup of coffee. Waclaw Gutt, “the other Waclaw” in building parlance, works the night shift. The two men grew up next door to each other in the village of Szaflary, near Zakopane in southern Poland. Joseph Marek, who lived across the street, pioneered the job in the mid-1980s, then helped both Gutt, his cousin, and Kalata find their way to the Fine Arts Building. Gutt started a few years before Kalata but only part-time at first; per union rules, Kalata has two years’ seniority.
Kalata was trained by the legendary Tommy Durkin, who heartily approved of his punctuality. Originally on the night shift, for the past eighteen years he has reported for work at 7am. Gutt still works nights. Marek, who became godfather to Kalata’s son, died at the age of fifty-nine in 2015 and is buried back home.
Both Waclaws are smooth drivers who tend not to speak unless spoken to. Brian Feeley, who has worked at the Fine Arts Building for eleven years, is a bit more conversational, especially with fellow aficionados of classic movies. A Paul Newman fan from a family of Paul Newman fans, the West Lakeview native still lives only blocks from his childhood home. After high school, he worked in furniture and shipping for Marshall Field’s for almost two decades, but shortly after the department store chain was subsumed by Macy’s, he found himself out of a job. He worked odd jobs until his hiring in 2012.
“I like to say I got it the old Chicago way,” he chuckles. “I knew somebody who knew somebody.”
His first visit to the building was the day of his interview. Intrigued by the elevators, he recalls carefully watching Waclaw Kalata’s technique as he was delivered to his interview on the ninth floor.
Perhaps because of his Chicago accent, Feeley has been a public face of the building more than once. In 2014, he had a cameo in “Chicago Fire” (Season Three, Episode Five, “The Nuclear Option”), operating the elevator for the film crew and appearing on camera as a trapped passenger. In 2019, ABC-TV interviewed him, somewhat prematurely, as “Chicago’s Last Elevator Operator.” (“It has its ups and downs,” he quipped.) And in early 2022, he was featured in a segment on building renovations on “Chicago Tonight.”
He tolerates the frequent tour groups but truly enjoys the tenants. “My theory is when you’re into the arts or you’re artistic, you’re a nicer person,” he says. “I can’t recall a major argument with anybody in ten-plus years. The tenants are what make it worthwhile.”
Away from work, the self-proclaimed “crossword freak” does the New York Times crossword in the Chicago Sun-Times, a paper he’s loyal to as a union man. “It’s nice just to sit back, window open, a nice breeze, maybe a cold beer and I can just work the crossword for hours,” he says. “I do it in ink, too.”
Robert Kurdej came to the United States from Poland in 1990 with his wife and daughter, working two or three cleaning jobs at a time while he taught himself English from TV, radio and newspapers. Within two years, he managed to get a union job with regular hours. He’s no stranger to classic Chicago buildings, having worked as a maintenance supervisor at both the Rookery and the Merchandise Mart. When tenant departures forced layoffs at the latter, he lost his job; his shop steward put him on to the Fine Arts Building. It was Feeley who took Kurdej up to the ninth floor for his interview.
For the past five years, he has worked from 4pm to midnight. Trim and fit, Kurdej enjoys being active in his free time. The swimmer and former marathoner likes to downhill ski in places as far away as Colorado and British Columbia. He went skydiving downstate to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. His favorite part of the experience? “The landing.”
A Fine Arts Building highlight was meeting Chance the Rapper, who was rehearsing a dance routine on the third floor.
“He was a nice guy,” recalls Kurdej. “His security guy was six-seven, maybe three hundred fifty pounds. Chance the Rapper is five-foot-six.”
He regrets not getting a picture.
Nevada Bradley, Jr.’s official title is building services manager, but he spends much of his time operating the elevators. Although he has been at the Fine Arts Building fewer than four years, he could mount a credible campaign to be its mayor. Of all the elevator men, he is most likely to offer a greeting, joke, observation or opinion. He goes out of his way to direct visitors to points of interest, and will sometimes genially scold them for ringing the bell twice. He is playful—known to clap his hands behind an unwitting tenant on a quiet floor—but purposeful, sometimes dashing out of the car to put some small detail right.
Growing up on Townline Road outside Benton Harbor, Michigan, a minister’s son with sixteen sisters and brothers, Bradley enjoyed a semi-rural childhood marked by fishing, hunting and the enjoyment of nature. He started working at age twelve, sweeping up in an auto-body shop for seventy-five cents a day. As he grew older, he helped his father and his brothers repair engines and transmissions in Fords, Chevys and Dodges.
At twenty-one, he moved to Chicago and lived with his older sister in Austin. He found work in an antique shop, stripping and varnishing antiques salvaged from Southern Victorian houses. Later, he cleaned offices at the General Electric Hotpoint factory in Cicero and bused tables at Ducibella’s in Belmont Cragin. At Ducibella’s he was recruited for security work by a retired police sergeant.
Bradley stayed with security work for the next three decades, finding he had a knack for it. was working at the Flatiron in 2017 when he asked the building’s manager, Blake Biggerstaff, to identify himself. Biggerstaff, who also oversaw the Fine Arts Building, convinced Bradley’s employer to let him hire on with Berger Realty, then transferred him to the Fine Arts Building in 2020.
Although he was initially brought in to do maintenance—“I kept the bathrooms so immaculate you might want to spend the whole day in them,” he says, chuckling—he was soon operating elevators, which he had learned to do at the Flatiron, and indeed his duties seem to include a little bit of everything.
“If I can’t do it, I say I can do it. And if I can’t do it, I say, ‘Well, at least I tried,’” says Bradley. “That’s my philosophy.”
On his days off, he sticks close to the Fine Arts Building, often dining at Miller’s Pub.
“I don’t cheat myself out of anything,” he says. “My father, he taught me, you want it, you get it. Because God gave us this day. He says, ‘Eat and be merry, while the blood runneth warm in your veins.’ So that’s what I do. Because I know one day, God’s gonna say, ‘Oh, Nevada, can you step over here for a minute?’”
Like anyone whose work requires skill and has consequences, all of the elevator men have stories of mishaps, nothing serious, told with wry and self-deprecating humor: overloaded elevators that stopped in mid-flight, climbing out between floors, hard landings. But it’s a testament to the resilience of both the equipment and the operators that nothing serious has happened in living memory. With help from the engineers, the elevators always go back online to resume their reliable service.
The men protect tenants and visitors in more ways than one. Security guards are posted at the lobby desk and make rounds, but the elevator operators keep watch, too. Urbanist Jane Jacobs once referred to the safety benefits of “eyes on the street”—they have their eyes on the hallways.
“Sketchy characters, you know where you left ’em, so when you’re up and down you’re trying to keep an eye on them,” says Feeley. “If a tenant notices something that’s not right, they can flag us down and let us know.”
Eulogies and obituaries have been written for the Fine Arts Building’s elevators before. In 2008, WBEZ aired “The Dying Art of the Passenger Elevator.”
ABC-TV’s 2019 segment, remember, was called “Chicago’s Last Elevator Operator.” During early reporting for this article, building staff were guarded when speaking about the elevators’ future.
Then, on August 24, Berger Realty finally made it official, citing both the cost and challenges of maintaining the antique elevators as they announced “the difficult decision to convert our manual elevators to updated mechanical elevators.” Over the next two years they will be updated to code-compliant modern elevators that maintain the historic appearance of the originals as much as possible. Number One, already out of service, will be updated first, with a targeted completion in spring 2024. If all goes as planned, Chicago’s last remaining manual elevator will make its final run in late 2024 or early 2025.
And what will happen to the elevator operators? The men say they’ve been offered the choice of severance pay or continued employment in other capacities. Kalata, sixty-three years old, says he likes his job and would stick around longer if the old elevators did. But with less than three years until he’s eligible for full retirement, he’ll probably bow out when they do. He plans to spend more time getting involved with the Polish Highlanders Alliance of North America, a mutual aid society and social organization.
Bradley plans to stick around. “Doggone it, I’m sixty-five years old now, and when I get to seventy”—he pauses, then recalibrates—“I think I might put this old building down when I get to about eighty. Maybe. It all depends. Seventy can bring it on.”
Others are still mulling their options, waiting to see how long the project will actually take.
Visit the Fine Arts Building and ride the elevators while you can. Say hello to the elevator men. And thank them for a memorable ride.