6 Ways to Make a Bland Staircase Grand
Use your stairs to transform the character of your home
Without the backdrop of her double-wide, red-carpeted, carved mahogany staircase, Scarlett O'Hara's entrances and exits would not have seemed nearly so dramatic. Likewise, if George Bailey's wonderful life didn't include a daily struggle with a loose newel cap, he wouldn't have been quite the everyman. Even the Brady Bunch couldn't have exuded such early-'70s grooviness lined up along anything but an ultra-mod set of treads.
As the focal point of a house's interior architecture, a staircase is the primary mood-setter, a place where a homeowner can announce his or her individual style, whether it's the whispered elegance of Early American details or the bold strokes of Victorian excess. The quickest and easiest way to make a design statement is by tweaking the decorative elements—the handrail or banister, the vertical support balusters, and the anchoring newel post at the base, all together called the balustrade—that give a stair its identity.
Here are some stair designs, from the simple to the ornate, and some of the classic American house styles where each is at home. Note how they affect the space around them, and use them as a guide for transforming your own interior. Because while any staircase can carry you to the next floor, one born of thoughtful design and craftsmanship can take your entire house to the next level.
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)
Stair Designs, continued
THE LOOK: Ornamental Metalwork
AT HOME IN: Neoclassical, Spanish Colonial Revival houses
Cast- or wrought-iron elements, more products of the decorative late-19th-century Victorian era, are flashier than wood and lend themselves to grand, curved staircases. Metal's versatility allows design details to be simple and linear or wildly elaborate. Unpainted iron, dark by nature, can make a room without ample light seem even dimmer. Lighter metals like bronze, used to create the sunflower and leaf details pictured here, lend a more open feel. Most metal balustrades have wooden handrails, such as this one in mahogany, to soften them to both the eye and hand. (Photo 4)
THE LOOK: Natural Simplicity
AT HOME IN: Craftsman, Prairie houses
In a backlash against late-Victorian-era busyness, artisans of the early 20th century started a movement that celebrated handcrafted details and the beauty of natural materials. On staircases, this Arts and Crafts aesthetic takes the form of boxy newel posts, often topped with pyramidal caps or rustic lanterns, and slat-shaped balusters designed to show off the grain of the wood. While the endless forest of wood can darken an interior, a stair rail like this one adds strength and structure to a room. (Photo 5)
THE LOOK: Minimalist
AT HOME IN: International, Post Modern, Contemporary houses
Most modern stair designs take the Arts and Crafts emphasis on simplicity one step further, exposing all the working elements and eschewing trim, moldings, and other decoration. Here, the "floating" stair has open risers and exposed stringers; even the bolts securing the tension-wire balusters are fully visible on the newel post. (Note: Some local codes prohibit balustrades that create such a "ladder effect.") Because this type of stair is meant to be viewed as if it were a piece of sculpture, it looks best in an open space where the entire structure is visible. (Photo 6)
Replacing a Balustrade
Tired of that generic newel post? Have a balustrade that doesn't fit your home's style? It's easy to transform the look of your stair — and your whole house — while leaving the basic staircase intact. Stock parts are available at lumberyards and home stores, but for the truly luxe, handcrafted look of the examples shown here, you'll need to hire a custom stair builder. Here are a few things to know before you commission a balustrade:
Hiring. To find the best professional, get a referral—from a reputable general contractor, a trusted architect, or a friend.
Designing. Before you meet with the builder, earmark designs you like in magazines and books. Also, remember to check local codes. Some will allow you to replicate an original rail, while others will require you to build to code—handrail 34 to 38 inches high and balusters spaced to block a 4-inch sphere (i.e., a baby's head).
Pricing. Have the builder come by and measure, then give you a written estimate, including the cost of materials and an hourly labor rate—usually comparable to that of an auto mechanic. Consider whether the stair will be stained or painted. Paintable parts, made from poplar or beech, are about $4 cheaper per baluster than the mahogany, oak, or maple used for stained railings.
Timing. A custom job takes two to seven weeks from design to finish. Figure two weeks to mill simple parts, five to six weeks for hand-carved work. Expect installation to take anywhere from two days to a week. The simplest projects use existing holes for new balusters, but if you are changing hole locations, the builder will have to spend some time plugging the old ones or replacing the treads.
Finishing. Balustrades are typically installed without paint or stain, so expect to hire a painter or finish them yourself.
Where to Find It
Centerbrook Architects and Planners LLC
Austin Patterson Disston Architects
Elaborate Details and Ornamental Metalwork:
Wadia Associates LLC
New Canaan, CT
Prutting & Co.
Custom Builders LLC
New Canaan, CT
Erica Broberg Architect
East Hampton, NY
Our thanks to:
Bart Withstandley, master stairbuilder
Mt. Laurel, NJ
William Green & Associates
New York, NY
Keith Morgan, Professor of Architectural History