When it comes to renovating old houses, some people work tirelessly to restore a house to its original state. They relish getting all of the historical details just right – stripping layer after layer of paint from original moldings, finding period-appropriate paint colors, seeking out reclaimed lumber to seamlessly patch antique floors. Others take the opposite approach, altering the architecture to create a modern home with modern conveniences – removing walls to open up the layout, installing wall-sized windows to flood the interior with light, or adding a sleek, contemporary kitchen. And then there are those who split the difference, finding ways to add modern conveniences while preserving as much of the original architecture as possible.
Depending on the circumstances, I think each of these approaches can be appropriate, but as I’ve renovated my condo over the past three years, I’ve stuck to the third approach, doing my best to respect the building’s original architecture while adding some modern functionality. And when my neighbors and I decided to renovate the building’s entrance hall and stairwell, we decided to take this same approach.
Our first priority was improving the safety of the stairs. We decided to rebuild the staircase, replacing all of the worn treads and risers and making sure each step was even and level in the process. We chose red oak replacement treads for their durability even though the originals were pine. We also raised the handrail a few inches to bring it to a more usable height (I’m not sure why 19th century handrails are always so low – I guess people were just shorter back then?). But even as we made these major changes, we did our best to retain the spirit of the stairwell’s original architecture. We maintained the sweeping, curved shape of the staircase, and reinstalled the original newel post and handrail. We found plain balusters that approximated the originals, and we uncovered and refinished the original pine floors. As the project progressed, and the major (re)building work drew to a close, I began to focus more on the finishing details. I had spent far more time in the stairwell after working on it for a few months than I had in the previous two years combined, and I had gained a new appreciation for the quirky “coffin corner” nook, the monolithic newel post, and the rest of the space’s original architecture. A few weeks ago, when I finished stripping the paint from the baseboard, exposing the raw pine molding for the first time in 170 years, I started thinking more and more about what the stairwell looked like all those years ago. And now that work on the entry level of the stairwell is almost complete, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of restoring as much of that original appearance as possible. Of course I’m only willing to take this idea so far. Several doorways in the stairwell were walled up when the building was divided into apartments, and reopening these doorways wouldn’t make much sense, since the building is no longer a single family residence. Other architectural elements, like a ceiling medallion, have been lost, if they ever existed at all, and recreating them will be somewhat speculative. And I’m not opposed to using modern materials that didn’t exist in the 1840s to capture the spirit and atmosphere of the entrance hall as it was originally designed.
Luckily, the major ornamental features of the entryway and stairwell – the original molding, the “coffin corner”, the newel posts and handrail, the plaster cornice – are mostly intact. All that remains is for me to figure out how best to present these features.
As you might have noticed in the pictures above, I’ve spent the past few weeks priming and painting the risers, the balusters, and the rest of the trim. The color is BM “Simply White.” I had planned to paint the trim white all along, but after stripping dozens of layers of paint from the baseboard, I confirmed that the final and original coat of paint was white. White trim was common in Greek Revival buildings like mine – it was meant to evoke the marble columns and facades of ancient Greek temples. But unlike the “Simply White” I chose, the original coat of paint was a creamy, yellowish white (from what I understand, true, bright white paint didn’t really exist in the mid-19th century). Even so, since the stairwell is so dark, I decided to take some interpretive license – the brighter white paint will look cleaner, and well, brighter. Here’s the freshly painted, original parlor entrance (now the front door to the parlor level apartment).
But I quickly found that bright, white paint can have its downsides. The stairs are a high traffic area, and within a few days of priming and painting the risers, dark scuffs began to appear.
This was a problem that required a modern solution in the form of crystal clear, hard-wearing, water-based polyurethane. After scrubbing off the scuffs, I added two coats of Minwax Ultimate Water-Based Floor Finish, the same poly that I used to seal the stair treads, on top of the riser’s white paint. The poly didn’t noticeably change the color of the risers, and unlike oil-based poly, it won’t yellow over time. Just as I had hoped, the new finish seems to repel scuff marks, and when it does get smudged, a quick wipe with a dry rag leaves it looking like new.
The plaster cornice, another original feature of the stairwell, is in decent shape, but needs to be patched and cleaned up. It’s a simple profile that follows the curve of the staircase. Most of it is intact, but a few small sections are cracked, or were poorly patched years ago, leaving them looking slightly lumpy, without the crisp detail of the rest of the cornice. These sections don’t look so bad from a distance, but up close, they look a little off.
I’m planning to clean the cornice and patch it with plaster of paris where needed before caulking and painting it to match the rest of the trim.
Maybe the biggest decision left to make, in terms of how it will affect the look and feel of the entrance hall, is what color to paint the walls. I’ve been agonizing over this decision for months. I’ve been thinking about painting the walls green, or gray, or greenish gray. Last week, after priming the skim-coated walls to seal the raw joint compound, I painted patches of four sample colors on the walls in different parts of the stairwell to see how the colors looked in different lighting.
The colors, from left to right, are Nantucket Gray, Horizon Gray, Revere Pewter, and Edgecomb Gray, all Benjamin Moore. Since the stairwell walls have been plastered over many times, it’s impossible to know what color they were originally painted. But earth tone paints were gaining in popularity around when my building was constructed, so it seems like a brown, gray, or green color would complement the architecture. And since the space is so dark, and the ceilings are so high, I’m hoping that a mid-tone wall color will make the space feel more welcoming. Of the four colors I’ve tried so far, I think Nantucket Gray is too dark, and Edgecomb Gray is too yellow, but I’m torn between Revere Pewter, which is a warm gray, and Horizon Gray, which has green undertones. My neighbors are more or less indifferent about the paint color, so it falls to me to make the final decision, but I’m open to advice!