Staircases are made for grand entrances -- like the cascade at the heart of Evalyn Walsh McLean's former home, now the Indonesian Embassy chancery. Her father, Thomas Walsh, commissioned architect Henry Anderson to build the 60-room mansion in 1901 for a mere $835,000 -- small wonder the house has the city's most elegant staircase.
Few houses have the space to devote to such a grand staircase, but architects and homeowners recently have become enthralled by them; designers have adorned newel posts and balusters and made turnings increasingly elaborate. They have looked to the past, when staircases in houses were more of a focal point, and to the future for more elaborate nonwood materials. The results offer incresting contrasts between housing time zones: The Victorians added applique to the sides of staircases calling them stair skirts; but modern designers have eliminated the risers, making the staircases seem to float upward.
The spiral staircase, a pleasingly sculptural way to get from one floor to another, is often associated with contemporary architecture, but the spiral has been around a long time -- Jefferson used a version in Monticello, topped by a skylight. Most spiral staircases hang the steps off a pole that pierces the center of the upward-reaching space cylinder, but one, made by Architectural Woodcraft in Maine, is an elegant exercise in oak that curls around without the standard center pole.
When architect Eric Colbert was asked by a couple to redo the interior of their Adams-Morgan home, one of his tasks was to replace the balustrade on the staircase. Colbert, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright at the time, created a dramatic staircase, a collection of thin vertical railing supports stabilized by a wide horizontal board running just above the treads.
Humor and a little nostalgia motivated architect Darrel Downing Rippeteau to create an inexpensive yet whimsical staircase for his own home. All the balusters were removed from the old staircase and a new facade added. Rippeteau took 4-by-8 foot sheets of birch-faced plywood and cut out the silhouette of an old-fashioned baluster, like those on his father's porch in upstate New York. He then nailed wavelike penals of tempered hardboard to the inside of the railing, creating a child-proof treatment.
Only imagination and the few limitations of plastic-age materials such as acrylics -- anyone for a see-through staircase? -- will hinder how uniquely one can travel between floors in the near future.