CLAIRE DWOSKIN DOESN'T THINK of it as the stairway to heaven or even Jacob's ladder. More like a Stairmaster exercise machine. The 243-step staircase goes down 200 feet to the Potomac from her garden on the Virginia palisades, just below Little Falls Dam. "I climb up and down it five times a day -- in good weather," she says. "But then I have an exercise coach who makes me do it." Al Dwoskin climbs too, but not as often -- he has to go to work at A.J. Dwoskin Associates, his real estate development office.

A good thing too. "The first estimate to build the steps, from someone who specializes in rocky cliff clearing, was $96,000. Philip Harrover, construction superintendent at my husband's company, had a down time between building malls, so he and his men built it for $16,000," Claire Dwoskin says.

The Dwoskins had wanted to make the steps out of stone, but there was no safe way to anchor them, so instead they're built of pressure-treated pine, with a great deal of steel bracing. Eventually, the Dwoskins hope to train climbing roses in a fantastic display all the way down.

And why did they go to all that trouble when you can't swim or boat in the river there? "It just seemed a shame to be right on the Potomac and not be able to get to it," Claire Dwoskin says.