Arts Tower

In another post, we’ve looked at the University of Sheffield’s Arts Tower, arguably one of the city’s iconic buildings. It was built during the 1960s, designed by Gollins, Melvin, Ward and Partners – a cube of steel, glass and concrete – and at 78metres high is the tallest university building in Britain.

The design only allowed for four lift shafts, including two high-speed lifts primarily to the top floors, and two paternoster lifts, a revolutionary system as few had been built and none the size of Sheffield.

The paternoster was introduced to speed up movement of students and staff between floors. It has no doors and moves continuously without stopping at floor level, and is only one of two left in the country, certainly the tallest operational lift of its kind in Europe.

It was originally installed by the Schindler Lift Company, and comprises 38 two-person cars, travelling the full 22-storeys of the building. A journey between floors takes 13 seconds and allows 76 people to move at any one time.

The paternoster system was designed in the 1860s by Peter Ellis, a Liverpool architect, and gets its name from its resemblance to rosary prayer beads and is Latin for “Our Father,” which opens The Lord’s Prayer.

The paternoster lift was popular in Europe during the early and mid-twentieth century, but production was halted in the 1970s after a series of accidents.

The Arts Tower paternosters were completely rewired in 2009, with new controls and additional lighting. The gearbox and sprockets were recut, wooden guides replaced where necessary, and new safety features were introduced.

And so, to the mischief caused by students on the paternosters.

In the early days, and no doubt still applicable, second- and third-year students liked to scare freshers by emerging from the top of the shaft doing a handstand to prove that the cars turned right over (which they didn’t).

The trip wire on each compartment can easily be triggered by mischief-makers, resulting in the paternosters stopping completely.

There is a story from the 1960s, whereby George Porter, Professor of Physical Chemistry, and his wife, were attending a tea party hosted by the Vice-Chancellor on the thirteenth floor.

“We travelled smoothly in the new wondrous Paternoster lift until, as our heads appeared above the thirteenth floor, we were able to see our host receiving the guests. As he turned to greet us the lift stopped, leaving us about neck level to the floor. The Vice-Chancellor immediately joined us, though necessarily at a higher level, and during the twenty minutes which passed before the lift could be started again, graciously served us tea on the floor.”