Last time on Old Town Home...

We had bad front stairs, but I wanted good front stairs, but I couldn't find anywhere to get the good stairs. I almost gave up, but then we were watching This Old House's (TOH) D.C. season where Fred Mashack was doing their stairs. Through the power of the Internet, I found Fred's contact info, he came to our house, gave us an estimate that almost made Wendy pass out, but then somehow we and our neighbors agreed to go for it.

And that brings us to the actual execution of the grand front staircase plan.

After we met with Fred Mashack one more time and confirmed our intent to move forward with the project, he went back to his shop in D.C. to start working on the construction of the stairs. As much as I hated that this wasn't a DIY job, I knew there was a big role for me playing the "General Contractor," so I jumped to work on the prep and approval process that we would need to accomplish before Fred could come back for the install.

Typically, when we mention to someone that we live in an historic district and are doing work on our "antique" house, one of the first things they typically ask is "Oooohhh, do you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get approval for all of the work?" To this I respond with something along the lines of, "To be honest, no, not really. You need to get the same permits for work that requires it, just like with any other non-historic construction. Beyond that, there are a few things that need to go in front of the Board of Architectural Review (BAR), but they are just there to ensure appropriate modifications to historic structures, and are probably less restrictive than your typical HOA. Primarily it's for full or partial demolition, anything that affects the facade of your building, or changes to something visible from the street." This is an almost word for word recount of what I say. I've been asked the question so many times that I basically have this memorized.

Even though I always give my "Eh, it's no big deal" response, this is was one of those semi-major items that was going to affect the facade of our house, so we had to go in front of the BAR for review and approval of the stairs -- something that worried me a bit. On one hand, I had no doubts the project would be approved. The stairs were historically accurate, made from salvaged materials, custom built just for our house, and we would look like the rest of the neighborhood. But on the other hand, we had no proof that the house ever had stairs like them, and we had heard so many stories about otherwise inoccuous requests being denied for "no reason," and felt like all that was needed to seriously derail our project was a single neighbor that wanted to be annoying and oppose the stairs. Perhaps I was being a bit paranoid, but we'd heard things...

I decided I wasn't going to leave anything to chance, so the best opportunity we had to ensure approval of the request was to write the most complete and genuinely compelling proposal possible for presentation to the BAR. Being a software developer, I'm no stranger to creating tedious and technical proposals, so I got to work.

Step 1 - Research

Just as I had started my quest for the appropriate stairs, I once again began wandering around surrounding neighborhoods and digitally taking stock of the various newel post, tread, riser, and stringer patterns. I knew that Fred was basing the design of our stair on the following photo, so my focus was primarily on the elements associated with their stairs. 

The great thing about these stairs was that the riser, tread, and stringer (side support piece) patterns were what you most commonly see in Old Town. This meant that I would easily be able to justify why this pattern was used.

The riser pattern is fairly intricate with a number of interesting cuts. This pattern is actually what I first noticed on This Old House when Fred was working on their show. The pattern jumped out at me because I had seen it all over town. That's when I knew that he was our guy for the job.

Fred custom cuts the risers from steel with a plasma cutter and patterns that he made just for this purpose. He has several for the different patterns you find around D.C., but this is the one he always uses for Alexandria. You can also see the tread pattern with raised walk area in the photo above. 

The next significant element are the stringers along the side of the stairs. These have a pattern cut in them to give some visual interest to an otherwise unexciting portion of the stair. That's what Victorian architecture was all about, making the mundane become ornamental. 

And finally, probably the most important aspect of the stairs: the newel posts and hand rail. The newel posts Fred was using were nearly identical to the ones on the house we were using as an example. Ours would be made from a combination of salvaged materials and custom cast iron for individual element replacement (like the finials on the top).

The newel posts we were getting are some of the more decorative and ornamental ones in Old Town, but they are also consistent with several others we've seen. In addition, the handrails would be custom fabricated and the collars in the middle of the rails would also be salvaged items.

Our example home had everything we needed to make a compelling case for our install. With the research complete I moved onto...

Step 2 - Artist's Renderings

Since we weren't hiring an architect or general contractor, it was just Fred building the stairs and me doing the leg work with the city, we were at a bit of a disadvantage. The city prefers to have drawings and plans submitted to show the work that will be done. This gives everyone an accurate view of what is planned and how the execution of the project should look when completed. The problem is, professional drawings and architects are time consuming and expensive, and our budget was more than maxed out with the stairs alone. I figured I'm a DIYer and the GC on this project, so I would give the drawings a shot and hope we would be able to submit more than a napkin with a sketch on it.

Having worked in the tech world since before college graduation and building websites as a hobby since 1995, I knew my way around Photoshop a bit. So I started picking apart the photos I took of the example stairs and began a line drawing of what our stairs would look like, complete with their associated dimensions. The following is my best effort at an architectural drawing of the proposed stairs.

After that, I figured a "rendering" of what the installed stairs would look like on our house would be a good touch. Again, Photoshop was my friend. I took the stairs from the example house, edited out the stairs on our houses, and then applied the example stairs on the front of our house. Here are the original and then rendered photos.

Not to shabby, eh? "Professional" drawing: check. Cost: free (excluding the many hours of late night photoshop time I spent). Way cheaper than hiring someone, that's for sure!

Step 3 - Create the Proposal

With all of the materials we needed in hand, I was ready to start writing our proposal. I spent a couple of nights working on it. I would get home from work, watch a little TV, then work on the document. I felt like it was homework. I was horrible in school and I hated homework, but this was sort of fun. It was like homework...but I liked it. I definitely worked on this project way harder than I had ever worked on homework during any level of schooling. Sad but true.

The end result was a pretty decent proposal with photos. Not particularly long, but adequate for what we needed. If you're interested, you can read the proposal we submitted to the BAR here.

Step 4 - Lots of Paperwork

Once all of the major proposal elements were done, we had to do mountains of paperwork for the process. We needed to:

  • Submit the application for the BAR hearing
  • Mail letters to all of the neighbors who were either in direct contact with our property or had a line of sight from their property to the alterations
  • Obtain and post a sign on the house that noted the date of the hearing
  • Address any questions that came up before the hearing
  • Create 12 copies of each document I submitted to take to the hearing
  • File requests for various building permits since it would impact the right of way
  • And other things I'm sure I forgetting

It was a lot of work, not particularly difficult, but still a lot. I can see why people like to hire this out.

Step 5 - Attend the Hearing

Our BAR hearing was quite interesting. We were nervous since we had never been to a hearing or submitted a proposal for one. This was when the wheels on our project had the potential to come off. Fred was back at the shop working on the stairs, and there was only one BAR meeting that month, so we really needed this to be approved. Our neighbors, Wendy and I had to be in attendance, and we were first up on the docket. So we all went down to City Hall and found our way to the meeting room.

Looking back on it, it really felt like a scene from Parks & Rec. There was a head table where all of the BAR members sit. This table looks out over the room full of folding chairs where everyone was sitting who had put in a request, was there to protest a request, or was just there to watch the drama.

Before getting to new items, they dealt with a few items that had been tabled since the previous meeting. One of the requests was for "demolition and encapsulation." These particular owners wanted to tear down the back portion of a home that was built around 1820 and replace the demolished portion with an addition. These people had been working on getting their plans approved for the good part of 8 months, each time having their request denied. This meeting was no different. Several neighbors and seemingly random citizens had shown up to speak in opposition of the plans. The architect and general contractor attempted to appease the crowd by offering up concessions on the fly, moving around pieces of their scale model. Each concession was only met with more opposition. It was a sight to be seen, and something that made us quite nervous. Obviously their request was far more invasive than ours, but so many people basically hated these people for the work they were trying to do. 

After the first item was denied, it was our turn, and we were sweating. They brought up our names, mentioned the proposed change, said "Any objections?" pause...pause...long pause... "No? Ok, approved." 

Wait, what? What just happened? Was it just that easy? All that worry for nothing? I like to think it was because of all of my totally awesome work on the drawings, etc. We will never know for sure, but I'll assume so. :-)

Step 6 - Install Time

With the BAR hearing behind us, we were able to move full speed ahead into the install.

I paid a visit to Fred's shop in D.C. to see the progress he had made on the stairs. Having worked in a few construction shops in college, I have to say that his place was pretty awesome. The picture of our stairs in progress should give you an idea of what his place looked like. Essentially it was a small scale industrial looking throwback of a shop, and I loved it.

It's in a bad part of D.C., right near where Nationals Park now stands. It's a lot nicer now than it was back then, but here is the current street view of the shop. 

We had to start demo on our stairs before the new ones could be installed, and what a pain in the ass the demo process was. We had several long days with a sledge hammer and Wendy lookin' sexy!

Once the old stairs and railings were removed, the old concrete under the stairs had to be cut and jackhammered away to make room for the new frame.

Fred had delivered the frame and we placed it for install. It was HEAVY! The guy who was cutting the cement above and I placed it in its intended location to make sure we had cut away enough cement. I would say that it was probably about 350-400 lbs. My back was sore for days afterwards.

It was starting to take shape, and we were ecstatic!

Fred (on the left in the photo below) came the next day and started working with his two man crew to install the stairs.

And before we knew it, they were in!

We needed to fix a little bit of brick that had broken in the process by using Aboweld 55-1, and we had to touch up some areas of the house that had never seen paint. But it was looking great!

Even though our sidewalk is cement, I have this distant longing for a brick sidewalk. Some of our neighbors have it, so there is a chance. Rather than pour concrete under the new stairs and kill any hope of ever getting a brick sidewalk, we decided to go ahead and lay brick in the void under the stairs. We had a bunch of extra bricks in the back yard that came with the house, so I put them to use.

It was my new secret spot. I laid under there for hours working on getting the bricks in the right place. All the while I could secretly listen to people talking about our house as they walked by. It was really a lot of fun.

Once the bricks were in, and the paint was on, we were finally able to take a step back and look at the end result of all of our hard work.

And, quite honestly, I am still absolutely thrilled with the project! It is one of the projects where we really went all out on it and threw caution and reasonable cost to the wind, but the end result, well, I just can't say enough about how happy I am with it. I get a little bit of joy each time I leave the house and walk down these stairs. I know that we were probably our house's only hope at getting something like this. The stars aligned and our wonderful neighbors opted to work with us on it. There is no way we could have afforded it if we hadn't been able to split the bill.

Fred was as great of a contractor as any I've ever worked with. He was reliable and did a spectacular job. He is truly a craftsman and is part of a very rare breed of people. He left a small plaque on the front of each side of the stairs.

I'm quite proud to have it on there. I just hope that in 100+ years someone can look at these stairs and know the hard work that went into their existence.

Do you have any projects that you threw caution to the wind on? Maybe said, "Ok! This is a ton of money, but...why the heck not?" We would love to hear about your project so we know we're not the only people out there devoted to crazy about their home.

Comments 6

Comments

Josh Shaffer
5/18/2011 at 2:26 AM
Very nice.
bfish
7/16/2011 at 6:42 AM
Beautiful job and an interesting story too! You were very fortunate to find Mr. Marshak. Finding artisans who will work on old houses with the respect they deserve is getting harder and harder!
8/24/2011 at 1:03 PM
This was quite an adventure, great read!
I bow to both your stairs, AND your epic post-length… and your art and photoshop skills.

Assume you slept out on the sidewalk the first few nights… just so it didn’t get lonely.
Al Cox
8/16/2013 at 4:11 PM
Thank you so much for spending the time to find a source to repair/replace these wonderful cast iron stairs. We have been looking for a source without success for years and can now refer others in Old Town to a terrific craftsman.

Please keep up the great work and let us know if there is anything we can do to help.

Al Cox, FAIA
Historic Preservation Manager
City of Alexandria
Wendy
8/16/2013
Thank you so much for your kind comment, Al. We love living in Alexandria and have a true passion and dedication for preserving our home's history (albeit a small very small contribution). We appreciate the work you and your team does in making our history stay alive!
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