When you look at someone's home, you can often pick out the things that the owners truly pride themselves on. Sometimes it is immediately apparent, such as a perfectly manicured lawn that is as green and lush as the fairways of St. Andrews. For others, a perfectly organized garage, well kept porch, or ridiculously clean home (I'm looking at you Wendy) allows you a brief glimpse into their inner workings to understand where time and dedication have almost no bounds. However, if you visit our home, something that I truly pride myself on (and actually hope you either don't notice or assume it has always been part of the house) are period appropriate architectural details. 

I have an attention to original detail that annoyingly permeates almost everything we do in our home. I will painstakingly obsess over the smallest details, especially when it comes to architectural elements and period ornamentation, usually to the point where Wendy contemplates divorce. Many of our home's true original elements have been lost over the years, but I've spent our time in the house attempting to reclaim the known character elements through salvage and restoration. I think it is well worth the trouble. Besides, with a more modest and simple home such as ours, it isn't nearly as overwhelming as it would be with a large Eastlake Victorian.

Last week we covered some of the major items we've accomplished that impact the curb appeal of our home. Within that post, a brief mention was made regarding our home's front stairs. This project, although much of it was hired out to a pro, was the single largest project to humor my obsessive attention to appropriate detail, and remains our most significant contribution to restoring a bit of period Victorian character to our home.

When we moved into our home, a large brick staircase lead to the front door of our house and our neighbor's house. It didn't strike anyone as particularly horrible or wrong, but after living in Old Town for a bit and seeing all of the other houses of similar age, I knew that something was amiss. Through as much research as we could perform, specific details of when the stairs were constructed and what stood before could not be uncovered, but it was obvious that what we had was just plain wrong. 

I decided to start looking around online and in magazines to determine a suitable replacement. Walking around our neighborhood and the rest of Old Town, it became apparent that the proper stairs were most likely a heavy cast iron configuration. 

The photo above shows the stairs that our neighbors have, and the following photo is of a large house across the street, again with a cast iron setup.

Beyond the area right around our house, all differnt styles of cast iron stairs can be found, each similar but with unique characteristics, from small and simple to large and grand. 

As you can see, many have similar cast iron stairs with slight variations in the newel posts, risers or paint color.

Through our research we came across a few different options that ranged from custom-made wrought iron railings on stone or wood stairs, stamped metal stairs, spiral stairs, and beyond. But in the cast iron stair department, I kept coming across a Canadian company named Steptoe and Wife. They have a model called the "Kensington" that is a heavy cast iron stair based on a multi-part assembly of individual pieces. The pattern they use for their stairs was created as a replica of stairs from a Canadian foundry. I was going in the right direction, but the look wasn't historically accurate for our area. 

I paid close attention to all of the various patterns of risers, treads, and newel posts on our many evening walks, hoping to see the Kensington style stairs on an older home. I was able to find several installs all around town, but unfortunately they were all on row homes built from the 1970s and beyond. It seemed that Steptoe was the only option for a very long time.

Feeling a little discouraged that I couldn't find an example, I finally stumbled on a house of a similar age to ours that had the Steptoe stairs. 

There had been a car accident in front of this house back in the 1980s that took out the original stairs on this and the next three houses. Each homeowner at the time had the opportunity to choose the replacement. The first house used Steptoe and Wife products, while the remaining used salvaged materials. I don't really think the picture clearly shows what was obvious to me, but the first example just doesn't fit with all of the rest of Old Town. Only the salvaged stairs really look like they belong. I know this is completely and totally obsessive, but I wanted to find something that looked original, not almost original. 

So, having decided that the one supplier I had found was not a good match, we casually looked for stair parts at area salvage yards, but we were quite discouraged and figured we would need to do a stone or hybrid stone and salvaged materials approach like some of the following examples. 

Fast forward to early 2006. Wendy and I were thrilled when This Old House's (TOH) Season 27 focused on a dilapidated D.C. row house built in 1879.

This Old House, Season 27 DC Project

Each week we eagerly anticipated each episode just to see what we could recognize from the area. We also enjoyed the renovation since the age and location of the home were so similar to our house (though we didn't care for the thorough gut job the house had to undergo). Then, we caught the lucky break our stairs needed. 

Many D.C. residences in the historic neighborhoods have iron stairs similar to what you see around Alexandria. It makes sense, since there were probably only a handful of local iron foundries selling stair kits back in the late 1800s. As a result, if you take a stroll around the various historic neighborhoods of D.C., you will probably see patterns of newel posts, risers, and treads that are similar to the neighbor's. Well, the house being profiled on the D.C. season of TOH happened to be one with a large cast iron stair that was in really bad shape.

The TOH crew brought in a local craftsman, Fred Mashack, owner of Fred Mashack Iron Works, to give the deteriorated and unsafe stairs the TLC they needed. To say we were intrigued is quite an understatement. They were looking at the stairs when noticed what I was seeing and yelled "HOLY CRAP! That's the same style of risers around here!"

I immediately jumped onto the This Old House website to look up the contractor list for the season. To my joy, Fred's phone number and address were available and I gave him a call the very next day. About a week later Fred came out to our house to look at what we had going on and to provide us with an estimate. If you have ever had the chance to work with him, you know that Fred is a great guy who seems to love his work. First we looked at the stairs we had and our immediate neighbors' stairs, then we took a walk around the blocks surrounding our house to look at other examples to see what was appropriate.

Remember the photo from above where the car accident had taken out the stairs in the 1980s? Well, we came around the corner where those houses are, and Fred said "Wait a second, I've worked in this area before. See those three stairs there? I built those a long time ago." It seems that three of the four houses with the new/salvaged stairs had hired Fred to do the work. How fortuitous, right? Here is a photo of his handy work from a few decades ago.

One of the primary issues with our stairs had to do with the proximity of our front door to our neighbor's door. As you can see from the first photo on this post that the space is really only a couple of inches. There is no way we could only replace our stairs, it had to be a package deal where we would replace both at the same time. Luckily, there was a stair on two houses with very similar age and architecture to our's that we could use as an example. 

We talked with our neighbors about the possibility of replacing the front stairs and splitting the cost of the work. Luckily for us, they were on board with at least getting an estimate.

During our meeting with Fred he threw out a ballpark cost for the work. If I'm remembering correctly, Wendy's response was "Well...ok, so much for that, thank you for your time."  Apparently custom fabricated cast iron stairs from salvaged materials do not come cheap! As Wendy went inside and I got over the shock of the estimate, I told Fred we'd talk it over and would be in touch.

Not expecting either ourselves or our neighbors to go for the idea of spending a large amount of money on replacing stairs that were, by definition of stairs, perfectly functional, we still discussed our findings with them. Somehow, by some strange chain of events, we found ourselves in a renovation perfect storm. As a naive young couple, we were apparently foolish enough to sink a chunk of our savings into a completely aesthetic upgrade, and our neighbors, who also had the money available and passion for better curb appeal, also opted to go ahead with the upgrade. This is just one of many reasons why we really loved these neighbors.

A few days later I gave Fred a call and started the process for the project. However, before the work could begin we would need an approval from Alexandria's Board of Architectural Review (BAR), which we had always understood to be an intimidating and difficult process. But I'll save that for part two of this post. We still had a long road ahead of us, but the first steps of a) identifying a contractor that would be able to do the work, and b) agreeing to the project with our neighbors, were behind us.

For good measure, I'll leave you with a few more photos of stair configurations below. What steps (no pun intended) have you taken to improve the curb appeal of your home? Oh, and just for the record, it was at Wendy's insistence that I included an NKOTB reference in the title of this post. I guess I'm not the only dork on our crew. 

Continue to part two...

Comments 5

Comments

6/5/2012 at 11:52 AM
My name is Rick Harrington and I’m the General Manager of Steptoe & Wife Antiques Ltd. Thank you for such an informative posting. It’s nice to see someone so interested in bringing their home back to it’s original beauty. The staircase that you show in your photos is our original Kensington staircase that was inspired from a staircase we found in the Georgetown area of Washington DC in the late 70’s. Since then we have made several changes to the Kensington model to be an even closer representation of the original staircases in the Washington/Virginia area. They include a new size 48”x 7” x11” a new Historic tread with the same raised ribs found on the original staircases in the area, as well a new wider radius 1st bottom tread. We are also developing a new cast iron Newel Post that will be a reproduction of the original posts found in the Washington/Virginia area. You can check out our web site www.steptoewife.com to see the new Kensington as well as new products when they arrive.
8/5/2014 at 8:37 AM

Really great iron stairs! Really liked it...Thanks for sharing this with us...
http://gonzalesironworks.com/

11/11/2014 at 7:10 AM

What a beautiful staircase, even I am willing to built one for my house.

Jose
11/26/2014 at 12:16 AM

Hello I'm very interested on this kensington staircase and I would like to get the number to call to place the order I will appreciate your reply,,,thank you

6/20/2016 at 9:33 PM

Greetings-

We have a project located at 9th & S St NW DC 20001 in the Shaw neighborhood.

We are seeking a vendor to assist with the modification or replacement of the exterior stairs.

If this is a project you’re interested in and have the capabilities, we look forward to hearing from you.

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