Watch your Step

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.

Courtesy The Design Files and Lover Mother.

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.

Courtesy Old House Web; photograph by Jake Curtis for Living Etc.

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.

Courtesy Curious Britain.

9 responses to “Watch your Step

  • markd60

    I think your little apartment sounds wonderful. I like the book shelves too!

  • Susan Major

    This post was perfectly timed. I’ve been trying to sort out some way to make our hallway stairs more interesting!

  • ceciliag

    Are you going to put a priests hole under your stairs? Lovely piece of research!! Tho the numbers made me feel tired!! c

  • cavaliereattitude

    Although we don’t have a “priest hole”, in one room we had a cupboard made in a niche created when a window was bricked in during the era of window taxes. This was reputed to have been used for secret masses during the wars of religion (in France). Our house was Catholic, and has a pyramidal-roofed pigeonnier, as a pose to the oblique single, broken-slope Protestant pigeonniers more prevalent further south, towards Toulouse and the Midi. I was always fascinated by the priest holes in the old houses, many black-and-white Tudor confections in the Lancashire/Cheshire (UK) area where I grew up.
    Aside from that, love the numbered and bookstack staircases; am doing up a small barn to let and also on the lookout for such quirky, attractive design ideas! Thank you for the super pics 🙂

  • Nelson Dionne

    Thanks for a really great “Salem Old House ” post. I began to redo my stairs on my circa 1845 Greek Revival home some time back. I have a roll of new classic runner, BUT, I fear that the cat will turn it (once again ) into one big scratching post. I’m not sure which of your photos I like best, but one of them will provide the look for my front hall by mid-week.

  • The Dusty Victorian

    Hello Donna,
    Going back; I agree, Domenico was hot. To have Henry Louis Stephens at one’s dinner table would be, I imagine, really entertaining. As for weeds: In front of our home, there’s a piece of land that is for sale, weeds and all. To the left, the now closed school is also for sale, weeds and all. On the other side, a very sweet neighbour who’s not much of a gardener.
    Weeding is a loosing battle here, but I have not yet surrendered.
    I have loads of hostas. I was quite indifferent to them untiI I realized they offer good refuge to the wild rabbits living around our home. Love those stairs!
    Always a pleasure to read your blog.

  • daseger

    Always a pleasure to read your “summary comments”, Anyes!

  • Bernadette

    Love the stairs with the diamond pattern,and books one. Your apartment sounds wonderful! Lovely interesting post again!

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