There is no denying that the humble passenger lift – first introduced in the 1850s – is an engineering triumph, but it is often also a thing of great beauty. Those in doubt need only visit the Museum of London, where a once fully operational art deco lift from Selfridges sits in pride of place in the People’s City gallery. Originally commissioned to mark the store’s 20th anniversary in 1929, the lift spent 40 years transporting shoppers to the upper floors. Today it is one of the museum’s star attractions, marking “the arrival of American-style glamour to London’s West End as well as new technology in public spaces”, says curator Beverley Cook.
With the exception of an ornate, early-20th-century Otis birdcage elevator that sold on 1stdibs for $25,000 in February, these lifts are rarely available to buy and require ample space in which to be installed. Much more versatile, and appealing to design aficionados as well as fans of bespoke metalwork, are their elegant gated or panelled doors.
UK salvage company Lassco regularly receives enquiries from clients hoping to upgrade the appearance of their existing lifts – as well as from those wanting them for decoration. At present it has four sets of Edwardian wrought-iron elevator gates (which started life in the Strand Palace Hotel), priced £1,500 each. “The London provenance is a definite draw,” says Ferrous Auger, Lassco’s managing director and buyer, “and you’d be hard pushed to find a contemporary metalworker who could produce something of similar quality for less.” Josh Dugdale, owner of Berkshire’s Wasing Estate, had been searching for gates for his walled garden for a year when he happened across these. “As well as being good quality, their gold patina gives them a certain elegance, and they cost much less than the modern-day equivalent. The hope is that they will be a real feature of the garden and look like they’ve been there for years.”
The only downside for collectors, says Jason Davies, owner of London salvage showroom Architectural Forum, is that, in the UK especially, examples can be hard to come by. “When old buildings are to be knocked down the lift shaft is often deemed a health and safety hazard, and the elevator doors are mangled to prevent anyone opening them and falling in. It’s heartbreaking,” he says. It was sheer luck when, at the end of 2014, he was able to rescue a pair of iron concertina gates (£1,500 each) from a department store on Lower Regent Street before it was demolished. For antiques dealer Howard Byrom, of Lancaster-based Society of the Spectacle, it was a Victorian linoleum factory in Lancashire that was the source of his find: a pair of 1920s industrial lift gates (£850), with concertina and inside scissor-action cage doors.
Although demolition orders are causing a similar supply problem in the US, the number of tall buildings, namely in Chicago and New York, makes for a more buoyant market. Midcentury design specialist Coocoou27 currently has four pairs of elevator gates in stock, including an early-20th-century brass example for $2,650, while Gil Shapiro, owner of Manhattan-based salvage and design firm Urban Archaeology, has 40 sets in his warehouse – among them a pair of $3,500 solid brass scissor gates rescued from Le Bon Marché in Paris. Prices usually start at $300-$400, he says, “but I’ve sold gates by renowned ironworkers such as Louis Sullivan and Edgar Brandt for tens of thousands. Anything that comes from a building designed by someone like Stanford White or Ralph Walker will also command a higher price, not only because they’re from an important space, but because you know they’re going to be of the highest quality.”
As for their versatility, Shapiro has seen art deco and industrial examples (both equally desirable) fashioned into coffee tables, shower doors and a four-door screen to cordon off an office, while a wooden slatted c1910-1930 freight elevator door on 1stdibs for $1,450 functions as a freestanding screen. Claudine Gerbel and her husband Steve, founder and CEO of a private asset management company, have gone one step further. “We were doing up our home six years ago and wanted an interesting element in every room,” says Claudine. “I had the idea of creating a window in our kitchen floor onto the wine cellar below and so we encased a vintage elevator door and backlit it to make it more decorative. We love the finished result – it’s a real talking point when people come to visit.”
Entrepreneur Cleo Farman sourced and installed a pair of art deco lift gates – bought from salvage yard Insitu for around £500 – in one of the three Manchester bars she owns, and she is on the lookout for another set to display in her home. Here she plans to install them as wall art, for, as Shapiro attests, “when carefully mounted and backlit they can hold their own next to a Picasso”.