Yesterday’s Lifts – a little-known heritage
By Jérôme Bertrand
A move to preserve historic lifts
Do you know the history of the lift? – an invention that we take so much for granted these days, that we have lost sight of its importance in the development of ‘grafted’ architecture. Even if certain lift cages are small jewels to the eye, their main purpose is to fulfil a technical function. Not the smallest risk can be taken with these increasingly efficient engineering inventions. Today, many period lifts are threatened with extinction or inadequate modernisation due to the implementation of extremely strict laws following a European Union directive (95/216/CE) regarding existing and older lifts. So are we to resign ourselves to watching some of our most stylish lifts disappear?
We put the question to Jérôme Bertrand, architectural heritage advisor at the Centre Urbain (French/Dutch only) in Brussels, who organized the ‘Lift Story’ exhibition and the associated study day (journée d’étude), devoted to old lifts.
When did the first lifts make their appearance?
Jérôme Bertrand: Various lifting systems relying on pulleys combined with sheer muscle power have been in operation since antiquity: rigging and hoists used in amphitheatres for the Roman staged games, cranes and their ‘squirrel cages’ in the Middle Ages, and other theatre machinery such as flying chairs and tables in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the beginning of 19th century, steam engines were being used to power lifts in the mines. But the history of the modern lift, as a vertical conveyance for the general public, didn’t really start until the mid-19th century, with the invention of the ‘parachute’ – a safety device to prevent the lift cabin from free falling in case the cables broke.
What are the main milestones in the evoloution of the lift?
J.B.: In 1853, at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York, Elisha Graves Otis demonstrated the effectiveness of his ‘safety parachute’. In front of a crowd of awed spectators, he stood on the platform of a hoist driven by a steam engine and when he reached the highest point, ordered the suspension cable to be cut. Instead of falling, the platform was stopped in its tracks thanks to a system of spring-loaded arms and pivots and ratcheted vertical bars.
At the 1867 Paris World Fair, Léon Edoux presented the hydraulic lift, which was powered by high water pressure supplied to pistons from a distribution source. Thousands of this type of lift were fitted into Parisian buildings. The electric lift was developed in the 1880s by Werner Siemens and Hulstie, and when the first power grids were introduced at the turn of the 19th century, it soon superseded other systems.
How can one tell if it’s a period lift?
J.B.: Instead of the lift shaft being hidden as is nearly always the case today, the old lifts were very often installed in the stairwell and integrated well with the architectural décor. Apart from this feature, which is not a generality, lifts pre-dating the Second World War were commonly much slower than those constructed from the 1960s on.
In apartment buildings built in the first half of the 20th century, lifts were regarded as an extension of the entrance hall, and were accorded the same attention to details of comfort and luxury. Appointed with call buttons, decorative button panels, plush benches, mirrors, and bevelled glass, through which one could see the stairwell, they offered their occupants a reassuring sense of well-being. Whether a lift was fitted into an existing building or whether it was included in a new construction, the care that was taken to integrate this ‘mechanical object’, within the interior decor was immutable. The cabin, the cage, the protective railings and the landing doors, could be privately commissioned and personalised by the manufacturer or installer, but it was often the architect who would design all the elements and decorative details for the lift shaft’s casing.
Some lifts were intentionally designed as artistic creations. Where can we still see them?
J.B.: There are some buildings in Brussels that are open to the public and that are equipped with lovely old lifts such as, La Prevoyance Sociale, the MiM (Museum of Musical Instruments), the Metropole Hotel (the lift was modified, but is now being restored), or the Archives de la Ville de Bruxelles in the Rue des Tanneurs (these lifts are out of order). Most of these attractive lifts are in private mansion flats and so are less accessible; and of course, they can be found throughout Europe, particularly in the larger towns with their taller buildings.
Old lifts are now fast disappearing, mostly for security reasons. Is it possible to adapt them to modern standards?
J.B.: In 2003, following the recommendation of 18 June, 1995, made by the European Commission, Belgium adopted a royal decree relating to elevator security. Owners and lift service companies are obliged to follow strict directives: regular inspections and preventive maintenance, keeping safety records, and displaying written notices and warnings to users, are order of the day. The decree also stipulates a risk analysis to be made by an external service for technical control and that modernising measures must be taken to comply with the norms laid down.
Since the royal decree of 2003, many historic lifts have been modernised while retaining their original aspect. In fact, the decree provides for a ‘customised’ analysis to be made, and offers individual modernising solutions to each case. This allows for historical and esthetic values to be taken into account when evaluating old lifts, and for their individual specifications to be respected. So the modernisation of period lifts is possible, but it requires considerable creativity and a specific approach that can only be undertaken by small artisanal companies, which sadly, these days, are all too few to be able to meet the demands of many property owners who are cognizant of the value of this patrimony.
More and more new lifts are being installed in historic buildings, sometimes with little respect for what remains of former times. What advice would you give to an owner who wants to make his property more accessible to the less able-bodied?
J.B.: It is not always feasible to install an elevator in an old building. However, in the space of just a few years, the number of edifices, particularly built heritage, that have been adapted to the needs of people with reduced mobility, is impressive. For example, some years ago, the Halles Saint-Géry in Brussels, were fitted with a lift without visibly disturbing the architectural lines of the building. All the same, to make a building accessible to the disabled, is not just a question of installing a lift; there are many other considerations that need to be taken into account. The Gamah Association (French only) offers a wealth of advice on this subject. In some cases other less cumbersome solutions are more suitable; for example, a movable access ramp, or a stairlift.
Take a look at Belgian television’s report on modernising lifts (in French only).
We would love to know what attracts you the most about an old lift. Is it the clanking of its mechanical parts, or its worn buttons, or perhaps its attractive metal cage, or even the sway of the cabin? Write your thoughts in the box below!
You will find more information on administrative and technical questions raised on the preservation of old lifts on the Centre urbain website (French/Dutch only).