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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of Elevador de Santa Justa (Santa Justa Lift)

What is Santa Justa Lift?

Santa Justa Lift (Portugese: Elevador de Santa Justa), also known as Carmo Lift, is an early-20th-century neo-Gothic lift in Lisbon that links two levels of the capital; Rua Áurea at the bottom and Carmo Square at the top.

Santa Justa Lift

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Santa Justa Lift History

The city of Lisbon is spread over seven hills and as a result has no shortage of elevators and escalators to make journeys easier. The Santa Justa Lift, or Carmo Lift as it’s also known to residents, is one such example. Much more than a functional device, it’s one of the most fascinating public monuments of downtown Lisbon. Since its inauguration in 1902, the elaborately decorated lift has provided safe, fast transport for passengers and goods between Rua Áurea at the bottom and Carmo Square at the top.

The elevator, built by the firm Cardoso D’Argent & Cia, under the management of the Portuguese engineer son of French immigrants, Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard, consists of a 30-metre-high neo-Gothic style wrought-iron tower, two elegant wood-panelled elevator cabins with brass fittings, a 25-metre-long elevated metal walkway linking the upper entrance to Carmo Square, and a platform at the top offering panoramic views of the city.

Trained in Mathematics and Philosophy at the University of Coimbra, Mesnier du Ponsard apprenticed in mechanical engineering workshops in France, Switzerland and Germany. Whilst in France, the young engineer was a student of the great Gustave Eiffel, who designed and oversaw the construction of the Eiffel Tower. It’s no surprise, then, that this lift bears some striking similarities to the French monument; for example, both iron structures are embellished with filigree (or delicate, intertwined metal). This futuristic appearance led 20th-century French writer Valéry Larbaud to suggest the lift looked like ‘a machine to visit the Moon’.

Before the Santa Justa Lift, Mesnier du Ponsard had constructed and designed several other elevators, funicular railways and cable-cars throughout Portugal, which are now integral parts of the cities of Braga, Porto, Nazaré and Funchal. Fittingly, he was known in Portugal as the ‘Man of the Lift’.

At the beginning of the 20th century, his elevator design was widely praised. However, the elevator, which was then powered by a non-condensing high-pressure steam engine, was criticised for its lack of safety. As a result, and perhaps ahead of its time, the lift was converted to electricity in 1907, enabling the lighting of the tower and improving the braking system.

The lift holds 29 people per cabin. What few people know is that going down has its advantages: if you enter this elevator via Carmo Square, few people will be waiting to get off, and it will be easier to access the viewing platform at the top. First thing in the morning or at sunset (the best times to avoid the crowds), the spiral staircases lift your eyes to magnificent views over downtown Lisbon.

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