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Preserving an Original Elevator in Your Historic Building | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Preserving an Original Elevator in Your Historic Building

Preserving an Original Elevator in Your Historic Building | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeHistoric elevator

Wisconsin Historical Society Headquarters, 1900

Madison, Wisconsin. Original bird-cage elevators were character-defining features; unfortunately many of these type of elevators have been replaced. Source: WHS Archives. View the original source document: WHI 40090

Your historic commercial building may contain an original passenger or freight elevator that was installed when the building was constructed or added later. If your building has an original elevator, you are encouraged to preserve it as a character-defining feature of your building.

If you need to install a new elevator for your building’s adaptive reuse, you should design your new elevator to do these two things:

  • Minimize the loss of historic features in your building.
  • Minimize the impact on your building’s original floor plan.

Learn About the History of Elevators

Modern elevators were developed during the 1800s. These early elevators slowly evolved from steam power to hydraulic power. The first hydraulic elevators were designed to use water pressure as the power source. In 1852, Elisha Graves Otis introduced the first safety brakes for elevators and established an elevator manufacturing company.

The first commercially successful electric elevator was installed in 1889. Soon after, an electric elevator with automatic doors to close off the elevator shaft was patented. Some elevators installed in 19th- and early 20th-century buildings were designed to be the focal point of the lobby, with ornate grilles or decorative metal doors. Others were designed solely to be functional, with little or no decorative detailing.

Elevators allowed for the construction of taller buildings. By the late 19th century, elevator construction led to the development of the skyscraper. As the cost of elevators declined and safety improved, many Wisconsin business owners installed elevators in their commercial buildings to transport goods and passengers.

Restore Your Original Elevator

Your work on the restoration of your original elevator might fall anywhere between these two extremes:

  • Simple cleaning and refinishing of the interior wood, metal and stone surfaces on the elevator cab
  • Complete renovation of the lifting machinery and controls

It is possible to upgrade your elevator’s electrical and hydraulic components without having an adverse effect on the overall elevator appearance. The most important features to preserve in your original elevator are the decorative elevator doors, the decorative elevator shaft and the control panels. You may need to clean or repair historic metals in your elevator.

For a historic restoration elevator project, you might replicate your elevator’s original cab or replace it with an antique salvage cab to replace an earlier inappropriate modern renovation. However, be careful not to falsify history by installing an elevator that is more decorative than the original. Use historic photos or drawings as the basis for the new design.

Install a New Elevator

EnlargeFreight elevator

John Pritzlaff Hardware Company Building, 1875

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While freight elevators are not always considered character-defining features, they are part of the building's circulation. Therefore a new elevator may be permitted to be installed within the same shaft. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office. View the property record: AHI 16132

If you undertake a substantial rehabilitation of your building, you may be required to install a new elevator depending on your building’s new use or function. When adding a new elevator to your historic building, you should consider these two main points:

  • Where you will place the new elevator?
  • How the new elevator will impact the character of your building?

Your new elevator shaft or enclosure should be located in a secondary space on the interior of your building, or placed in a new addition to your building. Your addition should be placed on a rear elevation or other area not readily visible from public view. If you have an existing freight elevator that lacks decoration and is obsolete, you can reuse the elevator shaft to add your new elevator.

You should note that ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) size requirements for an elevator cab are larger than historic elevators. If you have an existing elevator with a sufficient cab space, you still may need to install other ADA-required elements, such as handrails and audio or visual features.

Follow Best Practices

EnlargeRestored elevator

Sheboygan County Courthouse, 1934

Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Original elevators can be restored such as this elevator at the Sheboygan County Courthouse. Source: Jim Draeger. View the property record: AHI 82266

When you are making plans to restore your original elevator or add a new one to your historic commercial building, follow these best practices:

  • Preserve and maintain your original decorative features. During your building rehabilitation project, do not damage or obscure your historic elevator or its components. Take steps to protect all your original elevator components.
  • Repair and update your existing elevator components. If your building’s original elevator requires new electrical or lift components, preserve as much of the original decorative detailing on your elevator as possible.
  • Minimize the removal of original materials. If you construct a new elevator in your historic building, your project should result in the least demolition to your original wall, ceiling and floor materials as possible. Place your elevator in an existing elevator shaft, in a secondary interior space or in a new building addition. Place a new elevator shaft at a rear elevation or other area not readily visible from the public right-of-way.