Salem Staircases

Staircases are one of the most interesting features of older homes as what could be a very utilitarian detail is often not.  Given its history, Salem has tons of really interesting stairways, in both private homes and public buildings, dating from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.  This post contains a rather random selection of some of my favorites, but certainly not all.  I put in one shot of our staircase, although it’s really not all that impressive, as the original simple Federal-style railing was ripped out in the 1850s and replaced with a rather bulky (though solid mahogany) “improvement”.  I didn’t want to bother all-my-Salem-friends-with-nice-staircases (because they all do) but I did bother one, as I wanted to feature one of my very favorites:  look at this beautiful suspended spiral staircase unfold.

This is the amazing staircase of the Jabez Smith House, built around 1806 on upper Essex Street and now the home of my friends Dan (an architect), Betsy (an interior designer), and their two young daughters.  Besides this elegant entryway, this house has a living room that extends the width of the street, with fireplaces at each end, and you can see the rest of the first floor (along with 12 other decorated historic buildings) in early December when it is featured on Historic Salem’s 32nd Annual Christmas in Salem tour.

Below is another spiral staircase, in the Saltonstall-Saunders House on Chestnut Street.  The next succession of photographs were all taken by Mary Harrod Northend (1850-1926), the Salem-born photographer, author, and Colonial Revival aficionado, a colleague and contemporary of Wallace Nutting and Frank Cousins.  The first photograph is from her 1911 book Colonial Homes and their Furnishings and the rest are from Historic Homes of New England (1914)After the Saltonstall staircase, there is a rather grainy photograph of the staircase in Samuel McIntire’s Cook-Oliver House, also built in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and the staircases of the seventeenth-century Pickering House and two eighteenth-century houses (left is an unidentified Norman Street house, right is the John Derby Mansion of Washington Street–neither survive).

You can see that the owners of the Cook-Oliver House have simply draped a hall runner on their stairs, which strikes me as a great example of “Yankee thrift”.  Another example, which I have seen on many second-floor Salem stairs, is provided by these upper stairs in another McIntire building, the Peirce-Nichols House (1782 and after 1801).  Painting a runner on the upper staircase to mimic an expensive carpet runner on the first is a neat trick, and as you can see below,  I did the same thing on my second-to-third-floor stairway and saved quite a bit of money in the process.

Peirce-Nichols Second-floor Stairway. Photograph courtesy of Jim Steinhart, 2011

Two last photographs of more of my favorite Salem staircases:  a HABS shot of the elegant central stairway in the Joshua Ward House (1784-88) from the Library of Congress, and the front hall of the Brookhouse Home for Aged Women, with an interesting lattice detail on its stairs.

6 responses to “Salem Staircases

  • Steve

    The first one is a real treat to see!

    It’s also interesting to see all the wallpaper patterns in the old photos.

  • Thoughts on Design

    You just described one of the reasons Sally and I love living in Salem. It’s spectacular interior architectural detailing – a perfect real time resource for interior designers.

    Enjoy the Indian Summer weekend!


  • geekybrit

    My husband and I saw an exhibit at the PEM that comprised a series of photographs taken in and around Salem…a few that caught my eye were the ones of staircases, funnily enough! My husband’s been a local for much of his life, but he couldn’t quite figure out where it would have been taken (most likely a private property) :/

  • Nelson Dionne

    The Essex Institute published a series of 80 potcards showing named houses, mostly Federalist, back in the 40’s. The set ( which I have ) includes many interior features like stairways, mantels & doorways. Daniel Low also published a set showing old home interiors. There are several publishers that did series showing Salem doorways. All interesting to old house buffs.

  • downeastdilettante

    I’ve always been a pushover for a pretty staircase

  • Bernadette

    Another interesting post. What wonderful houses you seem to have in Salem, the staircases are a pleasure to see.

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