Main Stair Railing

Main Stair Railing
Simple elegant railing at the main stair

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


An interesting aspect of restoring any old house is discovering things that you didn't know about.

There have been a few of those discoveries so far on this house, and some have been interesting, and some have been downright exciting. The first one was found when we removed a wall in the southeast corner on the second floor where an apartment kitchen had been located. The new wall had been built from the side of the chimney over to the back wall. When you tapped on the wall you could tell it was hollow back there, but we didn't know what it was until we did the demolition, and discovered that there had been a closet of some kind built in that space, probably as part of the original 1830 house. 

Assuming the room was originally a bedroom, this hidden space was probably a clothes press of some type. One thing that is evident is that there were full width shelves from the floor to the top of the closet. The exposed brick above indicates that that space was always unseen from the beginning. We removed the wall to get more space for the new main bathroom. We will furr the wall out with studs and insulate in one of the only places we can!

Also on the second floor, in the small center room just above the entrance and center hall, I noticed that the window casing on the right side of the window was not complete. The window seemed off-center in the room, which I've come to know is just not the way they built things in the past, especially in a house like this with so many classic details and elements. It just didn't make sense. Knocking on the wall also revealed that the wall was a stud wall with plaster, and was placed over an existing solid brick bearing wall behind it for some reason.
In this photo you can see that the casing is narrower on the right side of the window than on the left. Note the bulls eye plinth block at the upper left corner of the casing, but missing on the right. Also, you can just see the top of the toilet tank at window sill height in the lower right corner of the photo. I guess this definitely would have been considered a "Room with A View". Beautiful window, none the less.

When we first bought the house this room was the main bathroom, and I thought it was hilarious that they had located the toilet in the corner right in front of the largest, most elegant window in the house, just above the front entrance, no less. The toilet paper holder was attached to the original wood paneled wall under the window. WOW!! The plaster wall looked original and the baseboard matched the base on the other walls, but something was wrong here. 
It's a little hard to see, but here you can see the bulls eye plinth block missing from the photo before this one. Now the casings match on each side of the window. WIndows have been removed to be restored.

We demolished the plaster wall to find the answer. Behind the plaster wall were gas lines that had been installed when gas came on the scene (This house was originally heated with wood in the fireplaces. Gas didn't happen until the late 1800's.)  Also, the vent stack and water supply lines for the added bathroom were exposed behind the wall up against the original plaster- on- brick wall surface which had been covered up for all these years. Now, the front window casing made sense. It was just that the right side of the window casing was buried behind the new wall. By removing it, the front window and casing were once again centered in the room.

The best revelation was to see the original paint on the old hidden wall. I can only describe the color as "dark spinach green", a very dark, muddy color that I am assuming may have been created by mixing a paint with tints from organic and mineral materials, plants, etc. Very exciting to see that old paint, and am looking for a match in the Ralph Lauren (kidding) paint swatches now. I kinda doubt that we'll find one, and may have to go for a custom color to match it.

Here's another exciting discovery.  I'm surmising that when the Slovenians bought the house in the forties, they added a stairway from the social hall in the basement to the first floor which came out at the very back of the center hall behind the main stair. From what I've heard, the large rooms on the first floor were used for events and receptions, weddings, graduations, etc. They also had a pool table in one of the rooms and that's also where they added a dumbwaiter that connected to the bar in the basement.  

At any rate, the stair they added was surrounded with a new drywall partition that cut a corner out of the original room. In surrounding the new stair, they also covered over one of the existing original windows. You couldn't see this window from anywhere except on the back porch, where the shutters had been closed and secured. In the restoration, we are discontinuing the stair to the basement, and filling in the floor in the back corner of the room, making it whole again, so the first step was to remove the walls surrounding the stair. When we did, we found the original faux-grained window and frame intact. It's the only example of what the windows were like in the 1800's.

All the other windows in the house had been painted white. Since uncovering this window, we've determined that all of the woodwork, doors and windows in the main rooms on the first floor, and in the second floor center hall were also faux-grained. I believe this graining would have been added in the late 1800's, possibly by Mrs. Mowry, when all the Victorian houses were being built and faux-graining was popular. In doing some research on Greek Revival interior finishes, I learned that wood trim would have been painted white originally. We're heading in that direction for the new color scheme.

Here are some shots of the uncovered window.

This original window had been hidden for years. The faux-graining and high gloss varnish is a typical woodwork finish from the Victorian years, late 1800's to early 1900's.The paneled shutter is from the 1830 house, and I think it is probably the original paint color, which I really like. These old paint colors have a richness that is hard to match today.

You can see some of the detailed graining here. This technique was done with a comb, a feather, etc. and was quite an art form in itself. We are really lucky to have many examples of faux-grained woodwork in Lawrenceville and Pittsburgh. I have a friend on Fisk Street whose entire house is faux-grained.

The darker wall color indicates where the stair surround walls were built. They chopped the edge of theother window casing off to attach the new wall to the existing. Unfortunate, but fixable.
Here's a close-up of the top of the window casing showing the substantial depth of the wood used in the trim around doors and windows. Also notice that the graining carried through from one piece of trim to the next, for a continuous grain effect.

An added little spark of excitement came when, at the intersection of the removed stair surround walls and the original walls, stencils were uncovered. It's funny, because the stencils are rather primitive in design, and remind me of a china pattern we had when I was a kid- almost bordering on Art Deco. And the stencils are dark brown on a beige wall. Very odd, and I'm thinking they must have been done in the forties, perhaps by the Slovenians. But there were also other stencils revealed from a completely different time period! Coming up below.

Here's that very odd stencil that I mentioned. Honestly, I remember eating shredded wheat out of a bowl with similar designs on it when I was five years old.  I'm sure many folks will know what I mean.

So does anyone else remember the Western "Cowboy" china pattern that had brown designs like this on it?
Victorian meets the Wild West. Speaking of Victorian, notice the beautiful textured molding at the bottom of the crown. This is actually a piece of metal that is continuous around the room, possibly added by the Victorians
to add more height and detail to the skimpy 12" high plaster crown mold. Actually, I love the wheat sheaf or whatever the plant pattern is at the top of the metal molding. This shot also shows where they cut off the side of the window casing where the new stair surround wall connected to the plaster wall. We'll be replacing that bit of missing molding.

Casey, the window expert. Here she is painting the frames after they  have been smoothed down, sanded and prepared for the restored windows to be eventually reinstalled.
When I was at the house a couple days ago, Casey, who is the young woman from Allegheny Restoration working on the windows ( and doing a great job, I might add), asked me if I saw the stencils on the ceilings of the rooms we were in, I assumed she meant the brown ones I just discussed, but she didn't. She pointed out to me some very small areas of new white paint that had been scraped away from the ceiling surface above us which revealed some fairly elaborate and colorful Victorian stencils which I had never noticed. Good job, Casey!
It looks like they may have been placed at the perimeter of the room at the top edge of the crown molding. I was floored because I never really pictured this house fit out in full Victorian detail, but it makes sense that as styles and trends changed, the style of the house would have been updated. Also, the colors revealed at the stenciled area are in no way subtle or subdued, but bright and almost garish when you think of the entire ceiling being painted the green-blue field color on which the stencil was applied. Whew- it must have been something!
I have 3 shots from different distances and angles.

This is a close-up of the stencil at the perimeter of the room. Imagine if the entire ceiling were painted the bright green /blue that you see here around the stencil. It must have been intense, to say the least. The ceilings are 12 ' high, so maybe that made it less overwhelming. We are taking votes on whether we should repaint the rooms in these original colors. It also looks here like the ceilings may have been wallpapered.
I'll probably know more when I start prepping for paint. 

Just as an aside, when I first moved to Lawrenceville, I lived next to a house where the living room was painted this same shade of green. Wonderful older couple (I'm now their age)
who watched TV together every night in the glow of that room. I swear that when you were approaching the house, that color came out the window and onto the street.
When you looked in at them watching TV, they were the same color. She would look up and smile and wave, and the lenses in her glasses were green, and so were her teeth. It was really wild. 

To me, the most exciting hidden treasure so far remained a mystery for a long time. After we bought the house, I was walking around the outside, examining the brick walls for signs of previous attachments, shadows of old building elements, etc. For example on the southwest side of the house there is a pattern of wood blocks spaced at regular intervals in the mortar joints of the brick. There are actually 2 rows of  these blocks, the first row about 6'above grade, and then spaced about 3 ' apart vertically and 6' horizontally. My guess is that this blocking may have supported a trellis on the side of the house for grapes. Interestingly, when I was working on a project in New Harmony, Indiana, one of the common features of the original Harmonist houses was a grape trellis attached to the brick wall of the house.  One house there which now is the home of a fantastic diorama of New Harmony also has a beautiful simple trellis covering the walkway to the house. I 'll attach a photo. When the Harmonists (actually Rappites) moved back to Old Economy, just north of Pittsburgh, they built similar brick buildings there with similar grape trellises. 

In New Harmony, standing under the trellis, looking out from the house. Even though it's primitive, there's something very elegant about this.

Looking toward the back door of the house.

Anyway, along with the trellis blocking, I also found a square hollow iron tube, about 1 1/2" square, flush with the brick on the house. My first guess was that it might have been an opening for a gas line, or an electric line, but then of course I realized that the house was pre- gas and electric. Then maybe it was also a support for something like a trellis that was removable.  I had to think again. As I thought, I walked back a little to discover that there was another one about 20' apart from the first one and located at the same elevation as the first, approximately a foot or so above the top of the stone foundation.

These iron tubes were symmetrical on the side elevation of the house. I examined the entire wall to see if there were any more of these, and there were not. Then I decided to check the other elevations and sure enough, I found two more equally spaced iron tubes on the opposite side of the house, identical in location to the first ones. The front and back elevations lacked the tube treatment. I actually had an inkling about what these tubes were, and I was proven right when we did the first round of demolition at the house.

Here are a couple shots of what we found inside, and guess where they were.  (????)

In the center of each fireplace on the first floor. They are air vents  to bring oxygen to the fires in the fireplaces. Unfortunately all the fireplaces in the house had been covered, but when we opened them up again, we found the vents still in place, each one plugged with a block of wood until the next heating season. (only 100 years later!) It reminded me of how natural this house was when it was built. With sustainable design all the rage now (and for a good reason), we can really learn from past building techniques and inventions.


  1. Hey Keith, do you know of any local faux grainers? I believe you've said you've been in my house, and you might recall that the master bedroom and all of the doors and door trim in the hallways have faux graining -- perhaps original? -- that I'd at least consider restoring, rather than painting over.

  2. Hi Joshua- Yes I know of at least one guy who does graining- Greg Heisler.
    I'll send his info to you.