Track 3: For Power or For Passage: Re-envisioning Historic Industrial and Transportation Infrastructure
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
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.
- Upon completion, participant will be able to appreciate the importance of the notion of a working artifact when approaching the conservation of engineering works involving machinery.
- Upon completion, participant will be able to identify the major mechanical-electrical components of early 20th century manually operated elevators and their uniquely mechanical engineering principles.
- Upon completion, participant will be able to identify the character, design and typical components of early 20th century elevator cabs.
- Upon completion, participant will be able to understand the options for manually operated elevator conservation, preservation and craft skill sets required, available sources and precedent examples.