Paternoster Ride on your Bucket List?


You have been on elevators, right? But have you ever taken a paternoster from one floor to another? If not, put it on your bucket list. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience. Paternosters are rare these days, but not extinct. I used to ride a paternoster regularly to get to the cafeteria level in one of the Tempelhof Airport buildings in Berlin in the 1960’s. Since the repurposing of the airport, however, I doubt that the paternoster still exists.

What is a paternoster and how does it work?

A paternoster lacks most of the features we associate with elevators. It doesn’t stop to take on or drop off passengers. There are no doors. There are no buttons to push to select a floor. The ride is slow (generally one foot per second) to allow passengers to enter and exit.

So how does a paternoster transport people? A paternoster is a continuously moving type of elevator, which consists of a chain of open compartments that slowly move in a loop inside a building. The compartments wrap around like a chain. There are two side-by-side openings on each level. Potential passengers wait for the next compartment to arrive and step into or out of either the “up” or “down” side on any given floor. These endlessly looping lifts are slower than conventional elevators, but the movement never stops so that they are quite efficient. It takes some getting used to, but it is lots of fun to ride a paternoster.

Schematic representation of the functional principle of a paternoster (from wikipedia).

Schematic representation of the functional principle of a paternoster (from wikipedia).

History of the paternoster

The paternoster was invented in England. British architect, Peter Ellis, installed the first elevators that could be described as paternoster lifts in Liverpool in 1868, making him the father of the paternoster. The first true paternoster was installed in 1876 at the General Post Office in London. It was used to transport packages, not people. Then in 1882, British engineer, Peter Hart, developed a paternoster for people.

Paternosters were quite popular in the 20th century and were mostly located in government buildings and universities because passengers in these places are usually able-bodied adults. Getting on and off requires some concentration to avoid tripping or falling and associated injuries. Therefore, paternoster use is not recommended for the elderly, the disabled, wheelchair users or for children. There are also prohibitions against transporting loads with the paternoster. Today, most countries have banned the construction of new paternosters. However, public support for existing ones has helped keep the last few hundred of them operational.

Where does the paternoster get is name?

Initially they were called cyclic elevators. The name “paternoster” became popular because the arrangement of the compartments resembles a rosary. Paternoster compartments make a loop on a chain similar to rosary beads that are rotated by Catholics reciting prayers. Pater Noster literally means Our Father, which are the first words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin.

Where can paternosters be found?

During the 20th century, paternosters became popular in Europe while never really catching on in the rest of the world. In recent decades, many paternosters have been dismantled. But a few hundred still exist, most of them in Germany. According to some estimates, Germany still has about 231 operational paternosters. Others can be found in Great Britain, Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. There may be only two paternosters left outside of Europe.

The oldest, operational paternoster is located in the House of Industry – a concert hall – in Vienna, Austria. The lift was built in 1910. No new paternosters have been allowed in Austria since the 1960s. The last publicly accessible paternoster can be found in the fashion shop Bayard in Bern, Switzerland. The Parliament building of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein in Kiel has had an operational paternoster since 1950. And the Bundesfinanzministerium (German Finance Ministry, former House of Ministries, now Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus) in Berlin still has a 1982 paternoster. Although no new paternosters have been put into operation in West Germany since 1974, no such restrictions applied to East Germany. Since the Bundesfinanzministerium is located in a building that belonged to the former East Germany, its paternoster could be saved. However, it serves employees only. For safety reasons, they are were required to obtain a “paternoster drivers license” prior to using it.

Paternoster in the German Finance Ministry (Detlev Rohwedder Building) in Berlin, Wilhelmstr. 97. Photo by Andreas Praefcke, 2007.

Paternoster in the German Finance Ministry (Detlev Rohwedder Building) in Berlin, Wilhelmstr. 97. Photo by Andreas Praefcke, 2007.


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