Javi and the Great Gilded Elevator

Story by Malanie McLellan. Photo by Lila Lee

As a teenager, I was familiar with the Blaisdell Hotel on Fort Street Mall;

I’d passed through the old, disheveled former hotel (built in 1922) in the dark on my way to punk shows and underground music haunts. But it’s only as an adult and in the daylight that I noticed its elevator. In 2015, then a real estate agent scoping out budget office spaces, I stepped into that elevator and a century back in time: With its elegant Art Deco metalwork, mirrors, lights and even a mini-chandelier, the Blaisdell Hotel’s elevator is, I later learned, the oldest in Hawai‘i. It’s also the state’s only manually operated elevator—meaning that there’s a real human being at the controls during business hours (off hours, the elevator is closed).

It felt strange to utter “fourth floor” to an operator rather than push a button. He put down his book, pulled the lever and the old elevator groaned to life. He introduced himself as Javi, short for Javier Fombellida. The 80-year-old Cuban expatriate and retired machinist who came to Hawai‘i from Connecticut in the ’80s was more than happy to give me a tour of his miniature museum—something he’d obviously done for hundreds of others before me. “No welding in here. Just like the Empire State Building, it’s held together with rivets. It doesn’t break, either. This thing gets oiled once a month, and that’s it.” As I admired the carriage’s intricate gilding, Javi smiled and said, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore. Beautiful.” As we ascended, I noticed the colorful murals painted on the beams between floors. He’d made them when he wasn’t giving rides, Javi said, and while I gushed over the one of a toucan in the jungle, he just smiled and turned his gaze up.

Thus began my fascination with the old Blaisdell Hotel’s elevator and its steward. The next day, I pulled my eight-year-old son out of school for a “field trip” to meet Javi and see his one-of-a-kind elevator. Riding it has become an annual ritual for us since, and my kids love it; Javi lets them pull the lever. We’re hardly the only ones charmed by it all; with a fan base that spans the world, Javi receives baby announcements, wedding invitations, e-mails, texts and handwritten letters all the time. “I miss you, Javi!” “I love you, Javi!” they enthuse. Comparing himself to a hairdresser or a psychologist, Javi says he’s become a trusted confidant for those who work in the building —albeit for only a few minutes at a time—dispensing humor and life lessons. “If you believe you are great, you are great,” he told me once. “If you believe you are down, you are down,” which seems a fitting motto for a guy who runs an elevator.

Javi admits it’s an odd job. He’d tried retirement at 60 but “just got fat and lazy,” he says. So he ventured out to find work and stumbled upon the newspaper ad seeking an elevator operator. Fifteen years later, “I’m still here,” he says. “They’ll need to fire me if they want me to go. The key to being happy is to always be useful to others.” Over those fifteen years, Javi has become as much a fixture in the building as the elevator itself. “If I don’t show up for work, people get upset. ‘Javi, where did you go?’ they ask. But I’m not going anywhere.” Javi doesn’t talk much about his past in Cuba—too painful, he says—so he comes to work each day focused on the present. “I don’t like to look back. My family is here, my friends are here, my friends are also my family. The closer you keep to your family, the happier your memories will be.”

“You know what makes me happy?” I ask. “Those murals you painted.” “Oh, no no no!” he laughs. “I just tell the kids that! Did you believe me? You think I stand here painting all day?” I blush at my gullibility and then laugh along with him.

“That,” he says. “Laughter. That’s what keeps me running.” HH