The fastest, highest, most historic and Instagramable elevators in the world’s luxury hotels
- From the new J Hotel in Shanghai to the El Cortez in San Diego, hotel lifts are often showcases for innovation and history
- Le Bristol Paris’ lift has a secret backstory, Il San Pietro di Positano’s goes through rock, and East Miami’s have hundreds of LED lights reflected to infinity
Lifts, elevators – call them what you will, but almost all guests use them, so the chances of rubbing shoulders with someone famous in those of a luxury hotel are not negligible. In the lifts at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, for example, I’ve been joined by tennis legend John McEnroe and philosopher/author Alain de Botton.
A (now former) employee of Hong Kong’s Grand Hyatt once told me that whenever David Beckham stayed, he preferred to use the service elevator, presumably to avoid overzealous fans. And the PR director for one of Hong Kong’s top hotels confided that the “close” buttons in the property’s lifts were not connected, so as to foil Hongkongers’ fondness for closing the doors on approaching fellow patrons.
Many of the world’s first powered passenger lifts were to be found in hotels. The now closed Hongkong Hotel unveiled the then colony’s first “ascending room” in 1888. The Pera Palace hotel in Turkey is home to Istanbul’s first lift, which is still in action and would have once hauled author Agatha Christie up and down to her room – the property was opened in 1895 for passengers travelling on the Orient Express. And the world’s first outdoor glass elevator opened at the El Cortez hotel in San Diego, in the United States, in 1956.
Hotel lifts continue to break new ground. The recently opened J Hotel in Shanghai is the loftiest hotel in the world, situated as it is across the top floors of the 632m (2,073 foot) Shanghai Tower. Four lifts ascend from the first-floor, street-level entrance to the 101st floor lobby (at 470m above sea level), with speeds reaching 18 metres a second – that’s a record-breaking 64.9km/h (40.3 miles per hour).
As well as being showcases for innovation and history, hotel elevators have been used as canvases for artist expression and whimsy.
Here are some of the other most intriguing examples around the world – Muzak optional.
Floor and wall design
The elevator walls at Le Dokhan’s, in Paris, France, are lined with a repurposed vintage Louis Vuitton trunk, making it arguably the chicest lift in the world, while at the Kowloon and Island Shangri La hotels in Hong Kong, the lift carpets are embroidered with the day of the week in English and changed at midnight each day. “It is a small touch to remind guests of the day as some of them perpetually move across continents and time zones,” says Mavis Ko, director of marketing communications at Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.
In the US, the East Miami hotel’s six elevators feature six different ancient Eastern symbols representing such forces as power, flow and balance (all attributes one would want from a lift) that are made of brass and embedded in the floor. The walls are studded with hundreds of LED lights that are infinity reflected in mirrors, “transforming the elevator ride into a surreal space trip”, says general manager Giovanni Beretta.
“Our elevators have become the most Instagramable in Miami.”
Gates with a secret backstory
The elaborate wrought iron grille of the lift at Le Bristol Paris was designed by Jewish architect Leo Lerman during World War II. Lerman was being sheltered in a hidden room at the hotel by founder Hippolyte Jammet while the city was under Nazi occupation, and from there the architect was able to work secretly on his creation.
At Il San Pietro di Positano, a hotel on Italy’s Amalfi Coast commissioned in the 1960s by then owner Carlo “Carlino” Cinque, the rooms and public spaces are carved into the cliff face and one of the lifts, used to reach the waterside, travels through the rock itself. At road level, the elevator entrance is on the terrace and cut into the cliff. Having descended, the lift opens into a cave leading out to the hotel’s beach club and Carlino restaurant (both exclusive to Il San Pietro residents).
At the nearby Hotel Santa Caterina, two elevators accessing its beach club are embedded into the rock face with a glass frontage allowing guests a stunning view of the Tyrrhenian Sea and coastline.
Guests descending to the Rock Bar at Bali’s Ayana Resort are also transported down a rock face, but in this case by an elevator that has more than a hint of Hong Kong’s Peak Tram about it.
The JW Marriott Singapore South Beach is home to several art installations, including inside the guest elevators. Lift interiors feature Animalia, an RGB (red, blue and green) LED “wallpaper” by Carnovsky, a Milan-based art and design duo. The ever-changing light display is designed to “take guests on a wondrous journey”, as a Marriott spokeswoman describes it, and the marine-life theme is a nod to the South Beach having been built on reclaimed land.
Also in Singapore, The Vagabond Club is an advocate of the arts and the lift is just one testament to this. The lobby entrance to the lift is flanked by life-size golden elephant sculptures while, inside, there’s a screen showing a video collage by artist Marco Brambilla called Evolution. This features a montage of snippets from famous films accompanied by the classical music piece Dance of the Knights, composed by Sergei Prokofiev for the ballet Romeo and Juliet.
Evolution is the second of Brambilla’s Megaplex video collage trilogy, the first of which, Civilization, is installed in the elevator at The Standard, High Line, in New York. That one has been described as taking guests on a journey from hell to heaven as the lift ascends, and heaven to hell as it descends – which sounds like quite the comedown after an evening of cocktails at the Top Of The Standard supper lounge.
Vagabond Club owners Satinder Garcha and Harpreet Bedi encountered Civilization while staying at The Standard, High Line and Garcha was sold on the idea of putting entertainment in an elevator when the couple opened their Singapore hotel in 2015, Bedi says.
Great glass elevators
Synonymous with The Jetsons and Roald Dahl’s chocolate factory, glass elevators are captivating, at least for those who don’t suffer from vertigo. Marriott Marquis hotels possess several space age-esque glass lifts designed by the late “neofuturistic” architect John C Portman. In the Atlanta and New York Marquises, for example, glass-cylinder elevators zoom up and down towering atriums, looking fabulously futuristic despite having been installed in the 1980s.
The world’s largest cylindrical aquarium is part of the atrium shared by the Radisson Blu Berlin, in the German capital. The glass-fronted guest lifts in the lobby are directly opposite the AquaDom, giving residents a fantastic view of the watery world as they go to and from their rooms.
Seats and attendants
Upholstered seating and uniformed operators are a quaint throwback to more civilised times rarely found these days, but the Umaid Bhawan Palace, in Jodhpur, India, is clinging on to tradition. The hotel’s elevator (accessible to residents only) includes padded bench seating with cushions and is manned by a smartly attired attendant.
Before the pandemic, The Pierre in New York employed 11 attendants who, between them, operated the lifts 24 hours a day. The hotel has suspended the service due to Covid-19 restrictions, as has The Carlyle, located across Central Park, although a spokeswoman there says they will return as soon as possible.
The last attendant-operated lift in London is at Claridge’s. That also includes upholstered seating and has had the same “lift guardian” since 2009.
“John Alves is still keeper of the lift for our main elevator,” confirms communications manager Orla Hickey. “We have another elevator known as the Ladies Lift, as [historically] when women were chaperoned they could use the main one but if alone they had to use the Ladies Lift.
“We don’t enforce those rules now!”