The Paternoster Elevator: You’ll Never See This in the US

Posted on August 31, 2015


This recent article about Germany’s paternoster elevators brought back a lot of memories! It seems that the German government was pushing to shut down the few remaining paternosters as a safety hazard (and as you read on, you may agree with them!), but German citizens pushed back just as hard to save the quirky elevators, and for now, the elevators stay.


Count me among those who love the paternoster. With a constant procession of cabins steadily passing by, one never waits long for the elevator, nor does one endure stops on every floor as other passengers come and go. The cabin slides by, you hop on, and off you go (check out the videos in the article). When you come to your floor, you simply hop off. Then again, with no doors or restraints of any kind, and with the constant motion, one must have some agility and common sense to survive the ride… for some of us, this has its own appeal, but for others… well, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. Here’s one in the UK, at the University of Leicester:

I met my first paternoster when I arrived at my new assignment in Frankfurt, Germany in 1992, and was soon introduced to V Corps Headquarters in what was then known as the Abrams Building.


My sponsor showed me around, and we soon stood in front of the paternosters. As we watched the doorless, unprotected, constantly moving cabins ascending in one shaft and descending in the other, with people hopping in and out as they went past, my immediate thought was: does OSHA know about this? Not that OSHA would have anything to do with us over there, but… it just looked like the kind of thing that we over-protective Americans would never allow, not even on a military post on foreign soil.

My sponsor told me that all new arrivals to the building were required to make one full circuit on the paternoster, riding up through the attic and down through the basement and back to the floor we started on (or you could go the other way, I suppose). We hopped on and ascended, watching the floors creep past; as we reached the attic, there was little light, and we stood well back as the cabin passed over the top of its loop, with moving gears not only visible, but unprotected and within easy reach; then down again, until we saw the mechanism at the opposite end of the loop, in the darkened basement (you can see this very well in the videos in the attached article).

After we returned to the first floor, we hopped off, and then he explained the reason for this orientation requirement: less than a year before my arrival in Germany, a US soldier hopped on an Abrams Building paternoster on the first floor, then apparently realized she was moving downward when she had intended to go upward. Too late, she attempted to exit the contraption, and was killed. Was she just in too much of a hurry to spend a few extra seconds riding through the basement? Did she panic because she didn’t know what happened to the paternoster cabins in the basement? No one could ever know the answers to those questions, but the command could at least make sure everyone else was familiar enough with the things to avoid any other fatal mistakes.  If you were ever to have ANY business in the Abrams Building, one of the first things you did was ride one full circuit of the paternoster.

A couple of years later, while I was still assigned there, Germany began a push to shut down paternosters nationwide, but the Abrams Building paternosters continued to churn away.

As this video shows, at least as of 2011, the university which now owns the former Abrams Building is requiring a “license” to ride the paternosters (the users don’t think much of this).

After I left Germany, I never saw one again, more’s the pity; but I applaud the German population for fighting to keep these quirky — if risky — things in operation. As Grace Dobush writes, “Efficiency is the main argument for the paternoster, followed closely by nostalgia as well as a taste for adventure. Riding a paternoster is no time to be staring at your smartphone: One must pay attention to the timing of your step out the door, lest you be squished.” Maybe that’s exactly what paternoster fans like about them.