Monday, July 08, 2024

Paternoster Lifts and Safety Regulations

Last week my wife and I took a short trip to New Orleans to see the National World War II Museum.  While that institution is full of old technology, I'd like instead to remark on a venerable device I saw not at the museum, but in the parking garage used by the hotel we stayed at downtown. 


Folks in "NO" have a different attitude toward old technology than you might find in a forward-looking place like Austin.  For example, on a walk we took on the way to supper one evening, we passed a fenced parking lot.  Just sitting on a grassy area inside the fence were two antique mechanical artifacts, probably left there because they were too heavy to move when the building they were in was torn down.  One was a drum winch and electric motor for an elevator, and the other was a rusty two-cylinder York refrigeration compressor, about four feet high.  In Austin these things would have been hauled away for scrap value decades ago, but somebody decided just to leave them there, maybe for other NO residents to puzzle out what they were.


Maybe something of this same attitude has kept the Paternoster elevator going in the parking garage we used.  A Paternoster elevator uses a string of elevator cars suspended from an endless belt which never stops moving.  The elevator compartments just move slowly up or down past each landing, and to use it, you simply step on as one is passing your floor and step off again when you get where you're going.  If you miss your floor, I suppose you can just ride over the top and down again in some types, but then again, maybe not.


Paternoster elevators were popular in the early years of the 20th century, especially in Europe where space and funding for new construction was hard to come by, but safety concerns have led to many of them being replaced by conventional elevators in many countries.  That isn't the case for the one I saw, however.


This one was more technically called a "belt manlift."  A rubber-coated belt about eighteen inches (0.4 meters) wide traveled around a rotating drum or pulley fastened to the ground floor.  Every six or seven feet (~2 m) there was a steel handhold and a triangular footstand jutting out from the belt.  To use the device to go up, you grabbed a handhold as it was rising past you, stepped onto the footstand, and hung on till it lifted you to your floor.  Then you jumped off.  There were footstands facing the other way for going down.


I say "you" colloquially, although the device was behind a locked chain-link cage and intended only for the use of valets who were parking cars.  I don't think it was ever intended for use by ordinary untrained drivers, but the garage was so old, it may have been at one time.  On our last day there, I had the privilege of seeing a young black man in the act of arriving on the ground floor on the manlift.  Once he got off safely and emerged from the cage, I asked him, "You ever have trouble with that elevator?"


He paused for a second and said, "Sometimes.  Quite an antique!" 


While there are conical plastic guard rings around each hole that the belt goes through from floor to floor, you can easily imagine what could go wrong with either the elevator-car Paternoster or the belt manlift.  When I finally found out after an Internet search what the thing was called, I wondered if it got its name because every time you used it you said a prayer ("Pater noster . . . ").  (Actually, it's from the device's vague resemblance to rosary beads.) 


The Wikipedia article on Paternosters says that many countries have banned them altogether because of accidents, some fatal, which typically happen either to children or elderly people.  The valets who use the one I saw are not in these categories. 


The way safety customs and regulations change with time is a reflection of larger trends that happen so slowly they are hard to notice.  But these changes go on at different rates in different countries, and even in different parts of the same country, as I've mentioned.  Without doing any research, I'm pretty sure there are no Paternoster elevators or belt manlifts in any Austin parking garages.  The safety inspectors wouldn't put up with it.


But why do you find one in New Orleans?  There is no way to be sure, but it may be part of the same attitude toward the past that leaves old refrigeration compressors sitting in parking lots.  Or it may be that the kinds of people who use the belt manlift are not in a position to complain that it's dangerous.  There was that little pause the valet made before he answered my question.  He was probably figuring out that this old guy holding a camera was a tourist, and whatever he said wouldn't get back to anybody important, so it was okay to be frank with him. 


At any given time, a culture has a finite amount of resources to expend on new construction and on fixing up old construction.  If that parking garage was about to collapse in an obvious way, I expect the city authorities would have shut it down, or at least insisted on repairs.  But the fact that it has an old and somewhat dangerous belt manlift for the convenience of the valets hasn't seemed to exercise the powers that be to the extent of having it shut down and making the valets take the stairs like I did.  After all, it's behind a cage, there's a big sign explaining that nobody can use it without training, there's a pair of ropes next to the belt you can yank on to stop the motor, and the valets seem to want the convenience enough to put up with the hazards. 


But some time or other, the parking garage will get torn down, and the belt manlift will go with it, unless the future owner decides to keep the big pulley on display as a mute memorial to outdated technology that one era thought was safe enough, and the next thought was too dangerous to use.


Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia articles "Paternoster lift" and "Belt manlift."  The parking garage in question is near the corner of Gravier Street and Camp Street in downtown New Orleans. 

No comments:

Post a Comment