Going up! Historic lifts in Melbourne

By Rohan Storey

If you’re old enough, you probably remember the lift attendants at Myers or Buckleys.

They’d turn a lever and send the lift gently up, past the concrete wall of the lift shaft.  Or you may recall a lift in some old building where you had to pull the door open yourself and then struggle with one of those scissor metal gate things. 

Lifts are of course an essential part of any high-rise development and have been part of the experience of the CBD since the 1880s. But, given the way buildings, especially offices, get upgraded regularly, experiencing an actual historic lift is now pretty rare. 

We are lucky that two of the best are heritage protected and have been upgraded without destroying their character, namely the wonderful Art Deco lifts at the Manchester Unity building and at David Jones. 

Apart from these however, there are almost none left. 

There is a great little wood panelled lift that will take you up to the Athenaeum Library and also a wonderful “birdcage” lift at 107 Flinders Lane (that doesn’t go anywhere since the upper levels have been empty for some time). 

There’s a few more hidden away. At the State Library there’s a beautiful wood panelled “elephant lift” (it’s bigger than normal but not that big!) for staff only, an elegant bronze cage lift at the 1920s Athenaeum Club and I’ve been told there is an early Edwardian lift at the Melbourne Club. 

But of the half a dozen others that I knew of in the 1990s, there’s only one left, which has thankfully been carefully preserved while being upgraded. 

This is the Art Deco lift at Pawson House at 143 Flinders Lane. I remember it being unreliable, and annoying when someone didn’t make sure both doors were closed and it was stuck! 

Now the operation is automatic, with modern buttons while keeping the original panel, and the timber veneer interior is still there (though much of it painted black) too. 

The best part is that scissor door has been replaced by a glass one, so you can actually see the lift arriving through the leadlight panel in the outer door and watch the floors slide past from inside, just as generations before did. 

It’s heartening to see that at least one building owner making the effort to preserve something which was once so common and is now extremely rare.

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