Digging Into the History of the Stairway

Since there’s nothing new to talk about with what I’m doing right now and I got quite a few comments about my banister, I thought it’d be a good time go in depth with its history.

People might say it’s original and unique. It is neither of these things. Remember, someone remodeled my living room in the 1930’s. Before this time, I think the house had a parlor, a dining room, a vestibule, and a hall. I could be wrong about some of this but I had proof that the outside corner of the wall separating the living room from the vestibule once had a wall attached to it that divided the room width wise and made a hallway. See how wide the casing was next to the vestibule door? That was because they never plastered over where the wall was!

Living room, front

Living room, front

There are also dowels in the brick wall, indicating that there may once have been a decorative plaster arch dividing the living room length wise. That setup is common on South Philly. But these two ghosts of previous interior treatments contradict each other. That makes me wonder if the unbroken living room ceiling I have now could be the third version of the room (and the one I put back in). But anyways, if I’m right about all this, all the houses on my street may once have had walls around their staircases. Either that or the stairs turned sideways near the bottom and let out into the dining room.

I also found a ghost of the original railing upstairs. Under the oak flooring in the hall, the original pine floors have holes for the original balusters drilled into them. I can only see these two. This is interesting because my upstairs and downstairs banisters don’t match perfectly and I wondered at first if the upstairs one might have been original to the house.


So you believe it’s not original, but why do I say it’s not unique? It looks a lot like the one in my parents’ 1951 Colonial, but that’s not what I meant.


Plus mine is nicer than theirs. The biggest difference (besides that cool carved flower) is that mine has a compound curve. Whereas my parents’ railing has a segment for the vertical curve and a volute segment that is totally flat, mine has a piece that puts the vertical and horizontal curves together in the same spot. It’s still 3 pieces of wood with little seams, but it’s much more graceful that way. Like a roller coaster.


But what of the flower? You’ve never seen anything like it before, have you? That’s what I said when I bought the house, but since then I have been in 3 other Philadelphia rowhouses with the exact same one! One right on my block, one 3 blocks west, and once clear across town in Kensington. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that these railings were all made of off the shelf components. Maybe unique to Philadelphia, but not within it. Renovation contractors in the depths of the Depression must have been putting them into middle class homes all over the city.



One thought on “Digging Into the History of the Stairway

  1. infinitequery

    Chad you’re room looks so lovely, I can’t wait to see it all cozy and furnished with snow falling outside your own pretty window and a big comfy chair in which to settle back and take a well earned rest. I wish we were still young enough to tackle a Reno again but life and time moves on and thank goodness we have a place to enjoy retirement.



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