An Unexpected Upgrade Helped Me Turn a Plain Staircase into a Work of Art

published Mar 6, 2023
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A plain staircase with white risers, wood-toned treads, and iron spindles.
Credit: Hendrickson Photography/Shutterstock

There are certain places in a home that you expect to pack a design punch, since they’re the places you most often spend time (think: kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms). But every little section of your home offers a place to infuse some of your personality — and I’d argue the staircase is one spot that you shouldn’t overlook.

The staircase-as-centerpiece philosophy was a key part of my most recent renovation project, in which my best friend Mike and I took on the passion project of bringing a crumbling century-old Victorian home back to life. The house, built in the late 1800s as a single-family stunner, had been chopped into apartments somewhere in her history. Although pocket doors, fireplaces, and massive, ornate windows had been retained, the house suffered an irrecoverable loss: what surely had to be a magnificent entry staircase was discarded. In its place at the front door was basically a box — a stunted, walled-in foyer (if we’re being generous). 

As much as we wanted to honor the home’s history, we knew it would be nearly impossible, and certainly not feasible financially, to recreate the original (even had we known what it looked like!). Mike and I both live in Victorians ourselves, and know well the craftsmanship and detail of the staircases in our homes. But even if we couldn’t bring back that old staircase, we wanted the new one we added to bring just as much grandness as the original likely did.

“Intentional” was a key principle in our design for this house, so we used this missing piece as an opportunity. “There are design selections, and then there are creations,” Mike likes to say. So rather than attempting a paltry imitation of an original, we chose to put our signature on the home with a staircase that was unmistakably our creation. 

The plan? A custom build simple in structure, with white oak treads to flow with the original hardwood floors. A sturdy banister, and elegant but simple wrought iron spindles. The star attraction would be a bit unusual, and something that raised eyebrows along the way: we would tile the risers with a mix of antique pavers.

Credit: Dana McMahan

We found those pavers piled in back of an architectural salvage store. They were steeped in their own history, made in France in the 19th century; their origins felt just right for our century-old Victorian sleeping beauty. There weren’t enough of any one design to cover the entire staircase, so we decided to mix and match them all the way up the risers, giving the antiques a fresh and contemporary spin.

One tiny issue: Neither Mike nor I had ever designed a staircase, and it seemed our off-and-on contractor hadn’t either. We couldn’t swing the price to have a local specialty outfit design and build it for us, so we rolled the dice with letting the carpenters the contractor brought in do the build-out. My dad, who’s a custom homebuilder in another part of the state, has built incredible staircases in lavish homes, and generously made himself available for many video call consultations with me.

Credit: Dana McMahan
The staircase during the remodel process.

Of the entire 22-month gut-job renovation, the stairs were the most challenging aspect, from a technical, labor, materials, and design standpoint. Most frustrating was that it took multiple trades to bring the staircase to life and nobody was talking with anyone else. Since we were in charge after all, everybody looked to us for answers that we didn’t have. It brought me to tears more than once, but Mike and I were united in our vision and insisted through every setback that we make this happen. 

Credit: Dana McMahan
We laid out the tiles on the stairs to make sure we liked the look before they were installed.

The lowest point — other than when I discovered the materials order was missing dozens of spindles that we needed right that moment — was when we came in to see the tiles once they’d been set. Mike and I had spent hours at the salvage yard choosing the tiles, and many more still at the house creating the design. Nineteen stairs times five tiles each was a lot of moving pieces, and it needed to be balanced from top to bottom and left to right in both color and pattern, otherwise it would look like a patchwork quilt gone haywire. We arrived at our final design, and left excruciatingly detailed instructions and photos for the tile-setters to complete the install. Our exuberance at learning the work was done erupted into frustration when we saw they had been set as haphazardly as if no instructions had been given at all. The work had to be re-done.

Credit: Jeremy Blum Photos
The finished product is just as beautiful as I'd imagined.

If we were to do this again, we’d have 100 percent made sure we were working with people experienced in staircase design, and we’d have done whatever was necessary to be there supervising at every step (ha). 

But at last, it came together, and it was truly magical. A staircase isn’t just a functional mode of getting between parts of the house. It’s the physical and symbolic connection between a home’s more public first floor, and the sanctuary of the second floor where the owner sleeps and dreams. It’s where family photos are taken and memories crystallized. It’s where someone may pause for a moment, put a hand on the rail, and look around, knowing they are home.

Credit: Jeremy Blum Photos

When you’re considering upgrades you want to make to your own home, don’t forget your stairs. You can opt for vintage pavers like we did, or choose contemporary tile; you can wallpaper the risers, or add a statement-making runner for some eye candy. But make sure you give some design love to this often-forgotten feature. Paint colors, appliances, and light fixtures are ephemeral. The staircase is the true backbone of the home. As much as I might admire the things we made pretty in this house, the accomplishment I’m most proud of is restoring the soul of Sleeping Beauty with this work of art.