Going up? 40 years later, Vilas elevator still slows us down

Vilas elevator

A student grabs the only working elevator in Vilas Hall’s northwest corner. The second elevator on the right wasn’t installed when the building was constructed in order to save money. Photo by Grey Satterfield.

Zack Stafford sometimes waits for the elevator to take him from the entrance of Vilas Hall on the second floor to the SJMC offices and meeting spaces on the fifth floor.

But it never occurred to him that the elevator on the right never arrives.

“I had no idea” there’s only one elevator installed in the two-elevator bank in the northwest corner of the building, says Stafford, a junior SJMC student. “I guess I’ve never noticed, but now that I think about it, that never opens.”

Onion flashback from 1990

Check out this flashback from The Onion in 1990: “Drunken Carousers Overturn Vilas Hall”

The solo elevator in the main part of the building is probably the quirkiest thing about Vilas Hall, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of its official dedication this year (the building was in use before that, however).

The decision to leave the second elevator empty was a last-minute, money-saving move on the part of those in charge of the building process. Although the funding for Vilas had been approved and the contracts were signed, the building got held up in the state Capitol by a lawmaker who was upset about UW-Madison’s role as the center of the anti-war movement in the Midwest, according a 2006 recorded interview with theatre and drama professor Robert Skloot.

“It was a slap at the university because of its anti-war stance and all the trouble happening in Madison,” Skloot says. “Months went by before that bill got killed,” although the building’s future was never really threatened.

However, the delays meant the construction costs had gone up, and planners had to find a way to save $1 million. University officials scrapped plans for a 750-seat theater that was supposed to be built in the area between Vilas and Johnson Street, saving $750,000, before looking for other smaller places to cut.

“They saved $50,000 by not putting an elevator in that shaft,” Skloot says in the interview, which is available through the university archives.

Check out the program from the Vilas Communication Hall Dedicatory Ceremony, held on Sept. 20, 1974. (Eagle eyes will recognize some of the furniture pictured, which is still in use in Vilas today.)

Check out the program from the Vilas Communication Hall Dedicatory Ceremony, held on Sept. 20, 1974. (Eagle eyes will recognize some of the furniture pictured, which is still in use in Vilas today.) Link to PDF of program from Vilas dedication ceremony

A 1976 request for funding to put in the second elevator said it was necessary because of the building’s heavy traffic (at the time, more than 400 faculty and staff worked in the building and 7,000 students were enrolled each semester in courses taught by departments housed in Vilas). “This total flow of traffic causes long delays in obtaining access to this elevator (at times as long as five minutes),” the funding request says.

Putting in the second elevator would have cost $72,000 in 1976 — or nearly $310,000 in today’s dollars.

The empty elevator gave Boris Frank a way to leave his mark on the building. When Frank left a job at Wisconsin Public Television on Vilas’ 7th floor 30 years ago as the station’s longest-serving employee, he joked with fellow employees, “What are you going to name after me?”

Boris Frank

On his last day of work in Vilas Hall at WHA, Boris Frank stuck this commemorative plaque on the side of an elevator that’s never been used.

On his way out of the building, Frank stuck a small gold plaque on the right side of the unused elevator that reads, “The Boris Frank Memorial Shaft.” (It’s still there.)

“It took them about 10 days to find it because it was behind a potted plant,” Frank says.

Anyone hoping the building will one day get the second elevator had better just head for the stairs: the empty shaft now holds telecommunication cables that run between floors.

— Stacy Forster