Text and Photos by Caleb Givens
The International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 4 Union Hall is tucked behind a few industrial facilities in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Housed in this building, in a large, open conference room, is the Elevator Museum. It is the shining physical presence of the Elevator Historical Society’s efforts to preserve the history of the elevator and escalator industry.
Your author visited Steve Comley, who is truly taking the museum from good to great. Comley is a longtime elevator man, getting his taste of the industry at an early age, thanks to his father, James, who purchased Embree and White Elevator in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1972. “I loved the dirty old elevator machine shop,” recalls Comley. “It was fascinating to me as a kid — the noise from the flat-belt pulleys running across the ceiling, the smell of the cutting oils on the machines and the smoke from the welding. They used to cast and completely build elevator machines there.”
Comley also recalls how he and his father used to take old elevator and escalator parts to the scrap yard in exchange for money — giving him his first taste of the business side of the industry. As your author walked around the museum with him, we came to a display case containing two elevator-operator licenses — one from 1942 and another from 1923. We joked how many of the younger generation (of which your author is a member) does not know that elevators used to have human operators. These pieces reminded Comley of a story that seems to have been a turning point in his career and life. He recalled:
“There’s a car switch we have on display that I took out of a building when I was just getting started in the business in the ’80s. We walked into this building, and there was this old guy by the elevator. We started scoping out his elevator. It had the old car switch, the gate that opened and closed. I started talking to the guy and said, ‘We’re going to put in a new elevator, get rid of this old car switch, put in modern push buttons. The guy starts crying. I was dumbfounded at first. Then, I realized that this was his job.”
This event seems to have given Comley a newfound appreciation for the history of the industry and a passion for preserving it. As he worked in the field over the next three decades, he began collecting and holding on to some of the old elevator and escalator parts he and his father used to scrap. “I longed for a day when I could show them to the public. I’ve had a dream to build an elevator museum since 2008.”
Comley was a board member of the Elevator Historical Society when, in summer 2016, then-curator Patrick Carr made the decision to officially close the museum in Long Island City, New York. Lack of funding and a proper space for the pieces proved to be the main reasons. Carr was, however, in talks with the Local 4 in Boston about relocating it. This took place over the next several months, and the museum officially reopened in Boston early this year (ELEVATOR WORLD, April 2018).
The pieces on display came from that small office in New York, but many came from Comley’s own contributions. While the union’s conference hall is an improvement, it is still not the ideal place to house these industry treasures. Nor is it the plan. “Even here, the stuff is overtaken by the hall,” said Comley. The goal: to register the museum as a nonprofit and move it into a public building with easy access for everyone to enjoy.
“The Elevator Museum, Inc. is officially a company in Massachusetts,” Comley says. By establishing itself as a nonprofit, the museum will be able to turn to the public — be it industry workers, historians or anyone with interest in the history of people movers — for financial support. In return, the museum will finally have a proper space open to the public.
One does not need much time when talking to Comley to sense his love and passion — not only for the elevator industry, but also for preserving its rich and fascinating history. He explained:
“We need to preserve the artifacts from this fantastic trade that myself and many others have spent their lives working for. Many antique elevator artifacts have never been seen by the average person, and we need to save some to show how it all began.”
Some people might wonder if a museum of elevator and escalator parts, historical documents and photos would be of any interest. That question was answered when Ernesto and Andie Rodriguez, both elevator technicians in Cleveland, brought their family to the museum. “We only recently learned of the Elevator Museum’s presence there via Comley’s Elevator Historical Society on Facebook,” said Andie. “With Ernesto and I both being in the elevator industry, we wouldn’t have missed this opportunity to see the great job Steve has done collecting all the incredible memorabilia and creating the displays he has put together.”
The Rodriguez’s children were fascinated with the artifacts: taking pictures on their phones, looking at parts and documents intently and asking Comley questions. After snapping a few candid photos, your author stood with Comley’s wife, Stephanie, and marveled at how natural it was for Comley to provide this family with a tour. He knows every piece and has given each one a proper display. He truly was in his element.
This museum for the elevator and escalator industry is a much-needed venue to showcase the industry’s unique place in history. Comley says, “It hasn’t been easy, but with the help of Patrick Carr and many others, it is finally starting to come to life.”
And Comley is the right person for the job. As he puts it, the museum is “preserving our past and elevating our future.”