Crazy Stairs

old_house_j_i_mJanuary 20, 2013

I need some help with what to do with my crazy stairs.
Photo is of the first part of the stairs. Please ignore the patchwork of paint samples everywhere and focus on the patchwork of wood trim everywhere, ha.

I want to know what you all think I should do with it - I'm not so concerned here with being all original. Creative solutions are welcome.

On the right side of the photo is the all original, horizontal stair railing with recessed paneling below - that's staying as is (you can see one panel that I sort of stripped to see whats under all that white paint - douglas fir).

Then there's that weird window thing. I cant tell if its original or not. Other houses in the neighborhood have solid walls in that position, which it might have been, but some wood trim doesn't jive with that (there are miters cut in places that would have been impossible to retrofit into.) It's negotiable in the whole scheme of things.

Then there's that acutely angled hand rail - that's a mess and I need to change that and add balusters. I think, but I cant confirm, that that newel post was moved out from the "wall"about 6 inches. All of the newels in the house hang over from one stair to the next, below (not sure what the right term is for that) but that one doesn't.

I thought of ripping out an angled part of the wall and putting in a regular angled balustrade/handrail from the landing toward the second floor. I also thought of closing in the whole wall (that's not a really "pretty" option). At one time I was going to straighten out the acutely angled handrail and install a stained glass window in that rectangular opening.

There is an all original, and very attractive balustrade from the second floor to the third that I could mimic (to do that I'd need to find a 15 x 2 hunk of douglas fir. fat chance I could find or afford that.) The "post" has to stay - its load bearing.

FYI, where that mirror is was originally more landing and a back stairs into the back hallway. It was closed in and the stairs removed in 1952 to make a powder room.

So what would you guys do with this ?

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Can't quite figure out all you're saying, but it looks like about 1920s Craftsman detailing to me.

Where the angled handrail is now--if there are no steps right there, I'd take the rail part out, recut it to fir horizontally, and put in a baluster like those on the lower section.

Behind the half wall, if the steps are going up behind that--I'd fill the opening with balusters to match the lower part also...and do a short handrail on the back wall, stopping it at the landing where it isn't needed.

One house I looked at had such an arrangement, but still original varnish--very handsome!

Hope that helps!

    Bookmark   January 20, 2013 at 3:56PM
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That 'weird' window at the landing is pretty typical around here on homes of that vintage (and I agree with above poster with Arts/Crafts) and actually a Godsend for light, although they were usually smaller and located higher, often stained or heavy leaded glass for privacy. My folk's house has them at the landing (built circa 1925-30).

That is an unusual presentation and I suspect at one time it was more enclosed. Do not assume that is all original woodwork, and even more suspect because it has been painted. The stairs may even have been re-oriented. Is the wood floor original or newer?

    Bookmark   January 20, 2013 at 9:26PM
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In my opinion, the small rail was added later. If there is no irreparable damage to the original work which would complicate removal, I'd consider it. It seems unnecessary and out of place.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2013 at 10:41AM
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thanks, i need to get another photo from a different angle for this to make better sense.
The house is Prairie/Shingle, 1903. there are 5 homes in a row in this block that all date form then and all are different prairie/craftsman/mission/queen anne/colonial features.

So I love the idea of ditching that acute angled rail and the newel. I also am thinking it may be easiest to drop a stained glass panel in that rectangular opening. but I did upload a little photo shop image I crafted of another option that includes colors similar to what were looking for. note: some of the illustration is a little wonky - its big picture kind of stuff, ignore weird looking illustration details, ha

Thoughts ???

    Bookmark   January 21, 2013 at 6:40PM
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You know, j i m, call me crazy but I like the rectangular opening more that the angled stringer idea. I DO like the horizontal railing to the right of the main post however. To me, the rectangular opening--filled with spindles--evokes the prairie style of the house more than a common diagonal balustrade does...especially if that post is a supporting column which can't be eliminated in favor of a shorter newel like the others.

I like the idea of a stained glass panel in that rectangular opening also--it should be more geometric rather than floral to go with the style. If you can find someone to make it that would be nice--but probably not cheap. Maybe the local university art department would take it on as a project?

    Bookmark   January 21, 2013 at 6:55PM
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HA - thanks, youre the first person to say they LIKE the opening. the best part of liking it is its done ... no big rebuild.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2013 at 7:19PM
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I wonder if your photo-shopped image was the original design that a P.O. later altered.

In any case, changing out that second rail for a horizontal one over new balustrades will remove a jarring amateurish "improvement."

The stairs may even have been re-oriented.

I owned a wonderful 1880-1900 home where a p.o. had taken the stairset after a landing that had turned and attached it so it was a straight run. One day, the tenant greeted me with her arm in a cast and told me the change had caused her to lose her rhythm coming down the stairs so she tripped and fell.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2013 at 9:14PM
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I really like your second picture. It looks balanced and like it could be a lot more accurate to the original plan than what you have now. The little open rectangle you have now looks like somebody should drive up and order fries. It's what people often did when they remodeled older homes to open up a serving hatch from the kitchen to the dining room. I can see the prairie influence now and it's very pleasing.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2013 at 4:48AM
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I agree that it should be changed to match the option you show in the second image!

If I was to guess as to why it has the current odd squared-off wall on the left, versus a normal stair railing as you've shown in the second image, I'd say it was put there to hide or provide more privacy from the back stairs and hallway that used to run off the other side of the landing (where the mirror is now). :O)

This post was edited by party_music50 on Tue, Jan 22, 13 at 8:21

    Bookmark   January 22, 2013 at 8:11AM
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j i m, I hate to differ with some of the others here, but I really do think that the rectangular opening is original--while the small angled rail is not. When I was looking at houses (and I looked at a lot)--and later when I was looking with a friend, I saw many houses of that style--and quite a few had either no opening, or a rectangular one--almost none had a diagonal stair on the upper part.

The fact that the house had another opening on the landing for the back stairs, does NOT mean there was also a separate hall or upper section--several houses I saw had front and back stairs which shared the upper portion, and only diverged front and back from the landing to the first floor. In fact, the victorian I had a back up offer on, had a stair like that! Many of the plan books I have show stairs with one upper flight splitting at a landing to go to separate areas on the main floor. Further, in the craftsman/prairie style, a horizontal opening is far more appropriate than the open diagonal stringer. Just saying.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2013 at 6:52PM
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Thanks all, I'm still not sure what to do. I think that straightening out the acute angled handrail is a given, but I'm about 80% dislike on keeping the window and about 80% dislike on the amount of work to rebuild it. Thankfully I have many photos from the 50's and have talked with a woman who grew up here. I am certain that except for removing the back stairs from the landing down, no changes to the staircase were made.

I am adding 2 new photos (i just found my camera wedged under the shop vac ...) both from the landing in the second floor hall. One looking down toward the first floor and the drive thru window, the other looking up to the 3rd floor.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2013 at 7:17PM
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The 3rd floor photo is all original stair and railing except the door that was added in the 60's to decrease heat loss to the unconditioned 3rd floor. the angled stringer in my drawing was copied form the second floor - so I have a precedent, not just making things up, HA HA.

Oh, in that earlier photo looking down to the first floor landing, the back stairs took off to the left. Thats 100% certain since the woman who I have talked to who lived here told me her grandmother couldn't walk u the stairs so they ripped out (ouch) the back stairs and installed a powder room. They even enclosed the front porch for her bedroom and then un-enclosed it when they left. Crazy stuff.

Finally, isnt that pink horrific ? we have been living with it for 5 years now - this is the next job (scraping and sanding from the 3rd floor down.)

    Bookmark   January 22, 2013 at 7:22PM
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Re: this "stairs with one upper flight splitting at a landing to go to separate areas on the main floor." If it matters that's how mine are, oak to the living room, maple to the kitchen and I can't imagine what that idea is doing in this extremely modest 1913 what I call "craftsman vernacular." The split stairway is a total waste of space that could fit a powder room & maybe even a real kitchen but OMG I love that big ole detail.

I think I'm on the side of the rectangular drive-thru window, too, and non-angled handrail with balusters on the small part, if it matters.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2013 at 11:04PM
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Well if the third floor design is original, I'd strongly suspect that the photoshopped interpretation you put forth is more likely to be what it looked like to begin with, and why it looks more balanced and pleasant. When I said the stairs might have been re-oriented I wasn't saying that a landing was not typical. I just wondered if the lower stairs didn't possibly lay against the right wall, instead of doubling back on themselves.

    Bookmark   January 22, 2013 at 11:09PM
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So it sound like the rectangle is original if you were told no other changes were made than removing the back lower stair. That is what I thought due to the full height column--if it were like the 3rd floor it would be a short newel also...and seeing the wah the rectangle butts into the stringer is appropriate detail also.

Consider the incredible amount of work to alter it to your second imate though--and the expense. It will probably be pretty hard to find a handrail of the same dimensions as the original lower section. The only easy part I see to this idea is that the stair is a closed stringer, and not open where you see each step through it.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2013 at 12:26AM
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I find the square window rather charming! It looks like the lower trim on the "window" matches other windows in the house. That and the effort required to both change it from the way the 3rd floor is to square and yet keep detailing, and the woman's testimony would make me think original. The effort to change it seems to me not really worth it. Also, while the open stair might at first seem more pleasing, it actually might make the room feel less enclosed? The two spaces less separate?

I know what it is like to have somewhat small details just feel off and bother you, that totally happens to me! But I find the window charming, it looks original or at least fitting to me (not the angled hand rail). Try painting things, dealing with the wood that is there and see if making it all more harmonious to you in those ways (paint is easy, stripping it less so I know!) helps it come together? Maybe it will feel more right after you like the rest of it :)

    Bookmark   January 23, 2013 at 11:17AM
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Thanks, again. Its funny to see the competing thoughts in my head expressed by others on this thread: take out the window ... leave the window ... take out the window ... you get the picture.

There are a few things about the construction of that window that make me suspect of its originality: poor joinery and patches on the 2 vertical elements, a wonky patch and missing baseboard/stringer on the top stair before the landing (its painted to look like its there, but its not), the back of the stringer is exposed on the lower left corner of the window (look carefully), and the ledge of the window is 3 pieces of wood really badly fitted (the center piece is lower than the others) as if someone was mimicking a ledge, rather than one being properly installed of one piece of wood.

On the side of it being original is only one small detail: there is a miter cut into the beam at the top of the "post" on the right side of the window that would be impossible to retro fit. That assumes that the beams are original, which a roof repair guy who dated a woman who lived here in the 50's told me they were not. if the beams are not original, then the beams and window could have been installed at the same time and that miter would have been simple to make.

Whew ... yeah, on Sunday mornings i get my coffee and sit on the stairs with a flashlight and "do some cypherin'"

    Bookmark   January 23, 2013 at 11:26AM
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I still can't get a clear picture but I'm assuming you're talking about the outside window and not the rectangular opening on the stairwell. The answer to keep or take out the window lies OUTSIDE your house. Is the window symmetrical? Does it look like it belongs there? And how will you deal with the siding? Just something to think about.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2013 at 2:18PM
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Pretty sure that when jim says "window" they are talking about the rectangular opening, not the actual window to the outside.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2013 at 3:48PM
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Thanks greg, yeah - NOT the outdoor window, but that unusual rectangular opening in the wall between flights of the stairs.

    Bookmark   January 23, 2013 at 4:01PM
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Taking all of your considerate comments in, I did more research into Shingle style house interiors and put the attached new photo together - it cuts out my demolishing and constructing work altogether and lets me do a little faux graining, too ... anyone have an opinion ?

    Bookmark   February 1, 2013 at 11:35AM
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By George--I think he's got it! :)
That is by far the best option--I can't wait for the finished pictures!

    Bookmark   February 1, 2013 at 2:34PM
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warm, and inviting, but lends some privacy to the upper level. I love it.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2013 at 2:39PM
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It's a go! I would just put a horizontal rail piece over those vertical posts instead of having them (the vertical posts) attached directly into the cream-colored ceiling -does that make sense? It just looks like there's something missing. Otherwise - sweet!

BTW that cream and the green-blue are very nice with the wood

    Bookmark   February 1, 2013 at 3:58PM
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For clarification - the horizontal rail piece I suggested would attach onto the ceiling, with the vertical posts attached to the horizontal rail.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2013 at 3:59PM
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