We have a little two-story apartment attached to our house, with its own entrance, foundation, and address; it was built on to the main house about a century ago by the doctor that was living here at the time, a time when it was customary for physicians to have home offices rather than the consolidated office-park variety. For quite awhile we’ve had the perfect tenant, who recently informed us that she is leaving: causing fear and trepidation and then excitement about possible redecoration schemes. Actually, we quickly found a new tenant, so there won’t be much time to do anything over there, but a few things do need attention in the interim: first and foremost, the stairs.
This apartment is absolutely adorable if I do say so myself, but it is small. Everything is smaller-scaled than normal; it’s not quite a dollhouse, but more of a ship’s cabin. It works (I think; I’ve never lived there, though there have been times that I wanted to rent out the main house and stay in the apartment) because there are so many built-in shelves and cupboards: in the basement, on the main floor with its tiny little kitchen and floor-to-ceiling bookcases, along and over the stairway going up to the second floor, and in the two tiny bedrooms and bathroom. Everywhere there are little cupboards and shelves: for storing medicine, I wonder? It does remind me of a ship’s cabin, and when I first outfitted it for a tenant I put a rope bannister along the curving stairs, just for that effect. Now these same stairs need some kind of runner, as the present one is very well-worn. Given my nautical ideas, I quickly found some stairs in a beach house decorated by Jonathan Adler that might serve as inspiration, but then I was off on a mission.
Numbers: Lots of people have numbered their stair risers, which is a cute and easy idea, but it might have the effect of making my little stairway seem even more diminutive: after all, there are only so many stairs.
Lots of bookcase/staircases out there: these were my two favorites, in a private home and a public library.
Courtesy Book Patrol.
I came across lots of decoration, on both treads and risers, including these two Victorian staircases embellished with a simple diamond pattern and one of Orla Kiely’s distinctive prints.
Ultimately I am the most inspired by an old photograph of the staircase in an old (very old) Salem house, the Narbonne house, built in the mid 1670s on Essex Street, where it still stands. This staircase is pretty similar to my apartment’s (give or take a couple of centuries) and the “yankee runner” would look just right.
The Narbonne House exterior and staircase, HABS, Library of Congress.
APPENDIX: I was also thinking about stairs this past week while I was preparing some lectures on Elizabethan religion for my summer graduate class. After the practice of Catholicism was made illegal, “priests’ holes” (or -hides) were carved out in Catholic homes, to hide the priest when the royal searchers came calling. Harvington Hall manor house has four such holes created by the Jesuit/master builder Nicholas Owen, and one of them is below the stairs in the main hall: here it is, complete with hiding priest.