SALEM — It seemed a little overboard yesterday when Mayor Kim Driscoll presided over a ribbon-cutting for an elevator. What's next — a proclamation for a low-flush toilet?
But this is the first elevator in the history of Salem City Hall, which was built in 1837 and is reputed to be the second-oldest operating city hall in America. (New York City Hall is older.)
The lack of an elevator would have been only a minor inconvenience if the mayor's office and City Council chambers, the only public meeting room in the building, weren't both on the second floor.
As a result, for years, disabled visitors and city employees in wheelchairs have been forced to ride up the stairs on an electric chair lift, affectionately known as the "whirlybird." The metal contraption, which appeared to move more slowly than the minute hand on a clock, was as unreliable as it was antiquated.
When the Goldentones, a chorus from the Senior Center, went to City Hall a few years ago, almost every member had to ride the chair lift to their own performance. A woman who uses a wheelchair came to testify at a public hearing one year and got stuck when the lift suddenly stopped. She had to be rescued by the Fire Department.
And then there are the countless citizens who skipped public events or important council votes because they decided to surrender their democratic rights rather than ride the lift.
"It's a bit of a disgrace," Congressman John Tierney said at yesterday's event.
Thanks to $300,000 in federal funds, the city was able to build a small addition to the rear of historic City Hall to house the elevator.
The first to take a ride yesterday were Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry of Peabody, who has been using a wheelchair for a few years, and Salem City Solicitor Beth Rennard, who has taken the "whirlybird" more times than she cares to count.
"Every time you used it, it reminded you that you were in a wheelchair," she said. The new elevator, Rennard said, is "great ... (and) will save me a half-hour a day."
The reason for the long delay getting an elevator can be summed up in one word: money.
"We have always wanted to do it," Driscoll told the small crowd who attended the ribbon-cutting, "but the funding was completely out of reach."
She credited "stimulus dollars" with making the elevator possible.
When asked to say a few words at the ribbon-cutting, Berry did just that.
"It's about time," he said.