An elevator with no door that doesn’t stop or slow down sounds like a sci-fi nightmare, but lifts like these were once common in many parts of Europe. The paternoster lifts are today a dying breed after safety norms banned their construction.
These once-ingenious creations were invented in the 1860s by Peter Ellis, an architect from Liverpool, England. They were the world’s only “continuously moving” elevators. Popularly used in government buildings and stores in Germany and parts of Eastern Europe, they captured the imagination of many, including writers and filmmakers who featured the contraption in their work.
Despite urban myths that spread about its functioning, the mechanism is quite simple. Users hop into the many open compartments of a paternoster, which travel in a loop, and hop off when it glides by their destination. Once a compartment has reached the bottom floor, it continues further, eventually rotating along an axis and starting to move in an upward direction. The opposite happens when the elevator has reached the top floor. Its movement resembles the way rosary beads are counted in a pious person’s hands, and this is where it is thought to get its name: Paternoster is Latin for “our father,” the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer.
The production of paternoster lifts came to a halt in the 1970s due to safety concerns. There are currently 68 of these models in Czechia, about half of which are located in Prague. In spite of their potential harzards, people tend to view them with a sense of nostalgia, and as such, they have become the object of protection and restoration projects.
The most accessible and arguably the best maintained paternoster lift in Prague is located at the back of Prague City Hall, which is in and of itself a splendid example of Art Nouveau architecture. This model consists of 12 compartments and was designed by John Prokopec in the early 20th century.
Update September 2018: The lift is open again to the public. Similar ones can be found at Jungmannova 35/29 (Magistrát hlavního města Prahy).