Stair Designs

THE LOOK: Simple Profiles
AT HOME IN: Saltbox, Federal, Colonial Revival houses
Amateur carpenters built the earliest American houses, and the modest decorative details — straight, sticklike balusters and unadorned newel posts — reflected the simple skills of the maker. On this contemporary interpretation of a Federal stair, rectangular balusters, painted to blend in or disappear against the walls, echo the entry hall's minimalist architecture. (Photo 1)

THE LOOK: Subtle Decoration
AT HOME IN: Greek Revival, Italianate, Colonial Revival houses
Architectural pattern books, which came into vogue in the early 19th century, gave carpenters the resources they needed to add decoration to their houses. Stairs were an easy place to display these flourishes, in balusters with more complex profiles and newel posts with simple caps or classical cornices. This stair has the thin, painted balusters and blocky mahogany newels typical of early- to mid-19th-century house styles. The mix of light and dark, the play of the delicate spindles against the sturdy anchors, and the scrolling on an otherwise boxy stringer temper the stair's formality. (Photo 2)

THE LOOK: Elaborate Details
AT HOME IN: Second Empire, Queen Anne, Tudor houses
The mid to late 19th century brought high decoration to the masses, as industrialization and the transcontinental railroad allowed manufacturers to churn out and deliver factory-made house parts. For the first time, middle-class homeowners could afford the most ornate and intricate details. Elaborate stair designs of the period featured complicated carving, newels embellished with urns and other fanciful caps, and thick turned balusters meant to evoke the solidity of carved stone. The effect is rich, imposing, and masculine, despite the ornamentation. (Photo 3)

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