February 10, 2011

My Old House: The Staircase

To get to the second floor of my house, you have to use the stairs leading from the pantry. In a small cape such as mine, there is no front staircase, only the one tucked away at the back of the house, behind an old door. I am very proud of this door, which is a simple board and batten construction, but look at the width of the board! one solid piece of wood.

I use an antique kitchen tool, which may be a potato masher, as a doorstop.

This old paint on the staircase did not have many modern layers needing to be stripped. The lovely green on the risers seems to be original, with the blue on the paneling painted over the green. Although the paint is worn and scratched, I've left it that way for its sense of time and history.

The view toward the top of the stairs. Notice the top of the beaded paneling:

The tops of the boards were never leveled, and when asked by my contractor if I wanted them cut level with the floor, I said "no". I like their quirky unconcern with convention, or maybe it was laziness on the part of the original builder. Whatever the cause, I saw no reason for change.

With this closer view of a tread, you can see the history of many feet climbing the stairs. The wood is worn till harder knots stand above the surface; the paint on the riser is gone from toes kicking it. There is a sense of lives past embedded in this old staircase.

*I hope you're enjoying this tour through my house. To see the previous rooms shown go to:
The (Tiny) Front Hall
The Living Room
The Guest Bedroom
The Back Room/Office
The Mudroom
The Kitchen
The Pantry


  1. Altoon: I think this is my favorite part of the house. The subtle palette, the wood, the lack of uniformity and the footsteps of the house's history are so appealing.

  2. Julie, I'm glad you see the character in this part of my house. I love the experience of going up and down these stairs.

  3. The color combination of the green down low and blue going upward makes me think of an interior landscape: ground and sky. Isn't it interesting to wonder if the uneven boards were the result of laziness or too many jobs to do to ever get back and finish it off properly. If it was laziness, then perhaps that wonderful door might be the easy way out as well; not having to deal with more than one board etc. While I often see the glass as half empty, I usually think the best of people so I am going with the best possible interpretations of these household quirks.

  4. Absolutely love the potato masher and its photo and the close up of the stairs, the layers of stories...so beautiful. Great tour, Altoon!

  5. Linda, the idea of landscape is lovely in relation to the staircase colors; I'd never thought of it that way. The door just might have been an easy way out with one board and a smaller edging board, but I prefer to think of it as a celebration, a marvel of tree growth. To think that there were first growth trees large enough to provide such a board, and the wide boards of wainscoting in the kitchen!

    Maggie, it's wonderful that you're enjoying the tour.

  6. I love these pictures Altoon. There is something very affecting about seeing wood or stone worn down by human touch. Puts me in mind of the handprint worn into the column in the cathedral at the end of the Camino. The gesture of untold pilgrims wearing away a pillar of stone.

    Now I imagine the slippered feet on the uncarpeted treads of your stairs...

  7. thanks, Carolyn, I feel the same way about how moving it is to have the evidence of time's wear under my feet.

  8. The unleveled boards are a wonderful example of "farmer carpentry". For all the wonderful joinery you find in old furniture and barns, you will find occasional examples of work that makes no sense...a nail in a hasp instead of a screw, a beam without support, framing that does not follow a logical pattern. In many cases I think they just never got back to it and it wasn't very important. They didn't have a screw handy so they made do and it held well enough. It's nice to think there was a little story that goes with each case that in its common place little way sheds some light on what their life was like.

  9. John, I'd never heard the term "farmer carpentry" before. After reading your comment, I thought that the boards were probably never finished because the room they are in wasn't finished either. Only one of the two rooms upstairs, the bedroom, was walled and plastered. Maybe the room I now use as a workroom was simply used for storage.

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  11. John, I think this house was built by an itinerant carpenter, who did a few houses around here at the same time (at least that's what my knowledgeable contractor told me). A photographic record of these quirky things would be great, and then you could start a blog; many would be very interested.

  12. Your contractor is probably right. Some local builders take pride in the lore. Most won't quote a price for the renovation of and old house. Too many surprises waiting to bite them.
    What is the age of the house?
    The Hill Farms were a challenge, particularly so far North. Most people are surprised when you tell them how young our forest is. So much of Vermont was cleared.
    I love your blog...I'm slowly working my way through. Thanks for the tour of your home. I feel like a guest who has been left alone to peek in the cupboards by a generous host.

  13. John, my house was built in 1821.
    and thanks so much, I'm very pleased you like the blog. I'm happy to share my house and life with my readers.

  14. Let's give the carpenter the benefit of the doubt. I can almost hear him say: "You know, when I build an attic stair, there are certain things it has to have. Foremost, you must consider that the climber will often be ascending or descending while carrying a load. More often than not, this load will be just beyond what it should be, since the climber will be trying to save a trip. I always sheath the walls in solid 2x planks. Leftover tongue and groove flooring works fine for this, sanded smooth so a shoulder can slide up easily. I use my bead-plane on the edge to add some line and shadow fitting to break up the wall. The bead also gives the climber a sense of the vertical, a little traction for said shoulder and a sense of progress on her sometimes slow journey. I leave a minimal overhang on the treads so when the feet need eyes, there is just enough to let her know the next destination, but not so much that it hinders the advance. I never use a hand-rail which would limit the passageway and what can fit up it. I always leave some of the wall-boards long. Two treads back on the left, three treads on the right. This gives the climber something to grip when she is at the most precarious point of the climb. That is the point where she is offloading onto the floor above and needs to push it forward without losing balance and needing to apply a little, or a lot of leverage. These grips also add just the right security when, on descent, her feet need to adjust from walking on the flat to negotiating the stair, or in making the turn necessary to gather the load she has prepared to go down. I leave some other wall-boards high as well to act as a low fence, keeping the contents of the attic from sliding into the stairwell when shoving things around to make room for the new load."

  15. that's a beautiful story, John, but I tend to doubt it has any truth; I think the original conjecture of it being unfinished because of an unfinished room is more to the point.

  16. Damn. Reality wins again. Fiction can be so seductive.