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  • David Leavitt

David: Water Powered Hydraulic Elevator (Updated)

Elevator shaft on the main level looking toward the sitting area just outside the library

So many aspects of Knockderry really energize me. The thought of bringing the gardens back to life, of restoring the art in the grand hall, the thought of bag pipes playing from the minstrels gallery: All of these thoughts and many more are things that I'm so excited to experience. One aspect of Knockderry that also has me super excited is the thought of bringing the original water hydraulic elevator back to life. I'd never heard of an hydraulic elevator until we began considering purchasing Knockderry.

Water powered hydraulic lifts work on a basic principle: to go up, a pump pushes water into the cylinder, pushing the piston (which pushes the lift car) up. To go down, the valve opens and water is allowed to flow back into the reservoir, and is pushed back using the gravitational force of the lift car.

The woodwork surrounding the elevator shaft is a beautiful thing to behold in and of itself. One of the most fun discoveries, however, was realizing that the cab to the elevator is lodged in the bowels of the castle, as if it were a sunken ship on the bottom of the ocean floor.

View of Knockderry grounds and Loch Long from the outdoor roof walkway accessed from John Stewart Templeton's bedroom suite

Located in the top of the castle is an ornately decorated bedroom suite that is stunning. Not only is the interior stunning, but also it is the only room in the castle that has full-size door access to the roof of the castle. It seemed odd that we could only access it by climbing the narrow turret stairs of the tower. It wasn't until our fourth or fifth visit to Knockderry that we realized that the lift actually ascended to the top of the castle, providing easy access to the bedroom, which we now know to be J.S. Templeton's bedroom.

One of our architects, Neil McAllister, has done a superb job of researching information about Knockderry for our listed building restoration consent process. In an article in Architecture 1900, Neil found the following:

J.S. Templeton's bedroom suite at the top of the castle

"Perhaps his (William Leiper) most dramatic works of this later period were the additions to . . . Knockderry Castle. This was commissioned by his friend and patron J.S. Templeton. The brief was to provide a music room and library with a private suite of rooms for the owner. The existing building was dramatically placed and Leiper added a tower house to the rear, creating the private suite for the disabled owner at the top of a tower reached by an hydraulically powered lift. The library occupied the middle floor of the tower, but the tour de force was the creation of his finest baronial hall as the music room linking the tower to the original house. The hall is lavishly decorated with murals, carving, ironwork, all reflecting the musical theme. It is Leiper's finest surviving domestic interior. . . ."

We learn at least two things from Neil's discovery. First, we learn the location of John Stewart Templeton's bedroom suite. This will make it fun for everyone who will stay in the suite in the future to know they are sleeping in his suite.

Fireplace in J.S. Templeton's bedroom suite at the top of the castle

Second, we're reminded that inaccuracies in media reporting isn't a modern phenomena, but one that has likely always existed. The article describes John Stewart Templeton as disabled and disability being the reason for the lift. That appears to be false. I reached out to two of JST's descendants, Sir Stephen Young and Jane Young who provided their perspective and an excerpt from JST's memoirs. Neither of them believed that he suffered from a disability. Sir Stephen provided this excerpt from the memoir:

"As the readers to whom I have just referred are, in my imagination, distant descendants, it seems to me proper to try to convey to them some impression of my personality. I stand, or rather stood, in my shoes 5 feet 11¼ inches in height. I now weigh 11 stones 4 lbs (158 lbs) and have never weighed more. This shows my body to be thin and wiry. During nearly all my life I have been subject less or more to dyspepsia, but, on the other hand, I believe that I can say that, except during a gastric fever in boyhood, I have never been confined one whole day to bed by ill-health. In 1884, through the anxieties and overwork consequent on taking the responsibilities of the business at the time of my father’s retirement, my nervous system suffered a collapse from which I only recovered after six months rest and holiday. Returning from Egypt in 1895, I caught a severe influenza at Mentone, but, although shut in my room for about a week, I always rose from bed in the afternoons. Such comparative immunity from acute disease is surely rare. My complexion is rather sallow but my features are good save the nose which is not straight. I have still, at 72, a little dark hair over the brow, the moustache is heavy and grey, not white, and the beard is cut short".

Elevator cab from the water hydraulic elevator. Currently situated in the basement of the castle.

We've scheduled a survey of the elevator to be done by an heritage water hydraulic elevator specialist, who will tell us whether we can revive the old mechanism, or figure out a way to get it working with more modern means. Whether the historical nature of the elevator mechanism can be saved or not remains to be seen. But what I really hope is that at a minimum the cab can be restored in its original form to its former glory. I think it would be magnificent to ride the same elevator cab that J.S. Templeton used to access his bedroom.

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