Friday, August 29, 2014

Funeral home touts city’s oldest elevator

By DYLAN LYSEN, Herald Staff Writer | 3/5/2014

Tom Ferguson stepped into the caged box and shut the metal-spring gate, which creaked as it closed. The box began to ascend slowly, but smoothly.

The elevator at Lamb-Roberts Funeral Home moves as well as any, but uses old-fashioned technology and looks like it’s straight out of a movie set built for a Depression-era film.

Tom Ferguson stepped into the caged box and shut the metal-spring gate, which creaked as it closed. The box began to ascend slowly, but smoothly.

The elevator at Lamb-Roberts Funeral Home moves as well as any, but uses old-fashioned technology and looks like it’s straight out of a movie set built for a Depression-era film.

“It’s the epitome of an elevator you see in the movies,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson, office manager at Lamb-Roberts Funeral Home, 325 S. Hickory St., Ottawa, said the elevator on the southeast side of the funeral home’s converted Victorian house was installed in 1932, making it the first and longest-lasting elevator in Ottawa.

SURVIVING DECADES

Lamb-Roberts Funeral Home originally opened as Lamb Funeral Home in 1892, some 40 years before the elevator was added. The business, then owned by the Lamb family, built the structure that now houses the funeral home as the living space for the owners, Ferguson said. It was finished in about 1906, according to a photo in the funeral home’s lobby.

“This is just a beautiful home,” Ferguson said. “From my understanding, it was a five-year build, not like they do it today.”

Among the stops on the elevator’s trek to the third floor, where caskets are displayed for viewing before purchase, is the second floor of the building, which members of the Lamb family once used as their residence. The elevator also descends to the basement, which is used for storage.

The family owned the business until 1964 when the funeral home was sold by Harold J. Lamb to long-time employee Bob Roberts. The late Roberts added his name to the business and it became Lamb-Roberts Funeral Home. Roberts sold the business to Carriage Services, based in Houston, about 20 years ago.

In December, Michael and Jami Piper, along with Eric Price, Ottawa, purchased the business.

Through all those changes, the funeral home’s elevator remained.

And it’s in surprisingly good health today, Ferguson, who has been with Lamb-Roberts since December 2012 and a part of the Ottawa community for 15 years, said.

“It’s relatively maintenance-free,” he said. “We keep it clean. We have it checked. The biggest maintenance is keeping it clean.”

The 1930s elevator technology also came with some simple safety mechanisms, Ferguson said. Both gates on either side of the elevator must be closed, and then a switch pulled, before it can lift.

“It’s on par with any other elevator,” he said. “It’s old school in that you have to have these safety factors in place. You can’t just press a button and go.”

PRECEEDING LEGISLATION

Despite its age, the metal box ascends through the elevator shaft smoothly and quickly, which is what a person might expect from an elevator added to help people with disabilities.

While customers could walk up a flight of stairs to each floor, the elevator was installed specifically to help customers unable to make the climb, Ferguson said. The funeral home chose to aid members of the population living with disabilities nearly 60 years before the federal government took steps to ensure such accommodations.

“We know it’s the oldest handicapped facility in Franklin County,” Ferguson said. “That’s what it was put in for.”

President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990, protecting the rights of those living with disabilities, much as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did for minorities. According to the law, it prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications.

Because the ADA wasn’t enacted until 1990, Ferguson said, the elevator was installed long before many people in the country were thinking about the rights and needs of those with disabilities. It serves as proof the Lamb family was progressive, he said.

“It was definitely preemptive,” Ferguson said. “It was way, way before its time. It was an innovation.”

NEW FOR OTTAWA

Elisha Otis, an American industrialist and elevator pioneer, received the first order for a passenger elevator in 1857, according to The Elevator Museum, an online reference for the history of elevators. The Lamb-Roberts elevator was finished 75 years later, but Deb Barker, Franklin County Historical Society director, said it still was new technology for the local community.

“Nothing was good in 1932,” Barker said of Franklin County during the Great Depression. “Elevators were invented back after the Great Fire in Chicago and all that. That would have been something pretty cool [in Franklin County].”

Elevators aren’t necessarily part of the requirement for serving people with disabilities who visit businesses, Barker said, but the Old Depot Museum, 135 W. Tecumseh St., which is operated by the historical society, also added an elevator to help the Franklin County population.

“We put in an elevator in [1998] in the Old Depot Museum,” Barker said. “You weren’t required to do so, we just know we had a large clientele that would need it.”

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