Track 3: For Power or For Passage: Re-envisioning Historic Industrial and Transportation Infrastructure

General Abstract

4 - A Working Artifact: Case Study of the Restoration of an 1908 Otis-Fensom Manually Operated Elevator

Tuesday, September 25
10:30 AM - 12:00 PM
Location: BNCC-106AD

This is a case study of restoring an 1908 Otis-Fensom manually-operated elevator, installed as original equipment in the Birkbeck Building, a national historic site in Toronto. The intent of the project was to undertake a “concours” restoration of the original mechanical-electrical components, and to reproduce a cab of early twentieth century appearance. The machinery was restored to original operating condition without modernization or automation. The cab design was based on a local surviving example from the period.

Actions that today are accomplished invisibly by transistors and microchips, were in 1908 achieved by the interaction of a myriad of machine devices made up of cogs, shafts, springs, magnets, relays, cables and weights, in a state of friction, magnetic attraction or momentum. Careful observation of these moving parts reveals just why the elevator has smooth acceleration and deceleration rather than abrupt, how exactly a turn of the car switch causes change in speed or direction and how multiple brakes and safety mechanisms are incorporated into the works. It is in this mechanical ingenuity that heritage value resides. To settle for the machine as a static display would be to fall short; its value improves if it is still doing the task for which it was designed. Its meaning derives from being a working artifact.

The project required assembly of a team of experts capable of deciphering the workings of antiquated technology, understanding it from first principles in order to disassemble and rebuild the manual cab switch, massive electrical controller with switch gear, the motor, sheaves and cable drum. The process was akin to restoring a vintage automobile but also reminiscent of the experimental nature of conserving archaic, industrially produced building materials from past eras.

The original structure comprising overhead beam and slung platform was retained. The cab design incorporates painted, rolled steel walls with a frieze of fretwork open to the shaft and a cove ceiling in copper. A precedent was provided in a surviving 1917 Otis-Fensom cab in a former Masonic Temple in Toronto.

The experience of riding the elevator is as much palpable as aesthetic. The sense of movement is real as is the rush of air in the cab. Restored to life, the elevator’s work is again accompanied by the clapping of electrical contacts, the whine of the motor, whirl of the drum, and twang of steel cables, as before, under the control of an attendant’s hand.

In 2017, an article in The New York Times identified 53 manually operated elevators still in service in NYC alone. Across the continent, there are doubtless more, but the manually operated elevators are an endangered species. This case study serves as an inspirational and practical guide to the possibility of their preservation.

Learning Objectives:

Romas K. Bubelis, B.Arch, OAA

Ontario Heritage Trust

Romas Bubelis is an Architect and Capital Team Lead with the Ontario Heritage Trust. He specializes in the conservation, adaptive re-use and operation of public sector heritage buildings. In his 27 years with the Trust, Romas has led much of the organization’s architectural conservation work at numerous national historic sites across Ontario. He is a member of the Ontario Association of Architects and holds a certificate in architectural conservation from The Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies at the University of York in England.


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LaLuce Mitchell

Historical Architect
Flynn Battaglia Architects

LaLuce Mitchell is a Preservation Architect at Flynn Battaglia Architects in Buffalo. During college he interned in Buffalo and fell in love with its historic architecture. Recent restoration projects have included the Williamsville Water Mill in Williamsville, NY and the Richardson Olmsted Complex in Buffalo. He is a licensed architect in New York State. He was an APT Student Scholar in 2010 and is vice-chair for the 2018 APT conference. When he’s not out preserving old buildings, he enjoys eating the craziest, most interesting food he can find and taking roadtrips to explore little-known corners of the US and Canada.


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4 - A Working Artifact: Case Study of the Restoration of an 1908 Otis-Fensom Manually Operated Elevator

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