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The Spiral Staircase
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Spiral staircases were invented in medieval castles, so the story goes, for protection. When enemy soldiers tried to enter the castles, they would be ambushed on the spiral staircases, where they would find it impossible to stab anyone from above. In turn, they became easy victims for the soldiers who stood guard over the stairs, according to information gathered from television shows, The success of this tactic depended on the fact that most soldiers were right handed and that the staircases turned counter clockwise.

Even in home design, the spiral staircase can take a right or a wrong orientation. Just ask Jan Crandall who has lived in a home with a spiral staircase since 1991, when she and her husband Robert bought the 1957 residence designed by Edward Durell Stone.

Originally, the more than 10,000 square-foot two-story, modern-home was built without a staircase between the first and second floor. Stone drafted a spiral staircase in the plans. But the original homeowner (Mrs. Graf) used the elevator for every trip.

?She lived a very gracious life,? said Jan. ?She never walked into the kitchen except to tell the help what they were supposed to do.? And in the area where the proposed stairs were planned outside the master bedroom on the second floor, she placed a backgammon table.

However, by the time the Crandalls bought the house, a spiral staircase had been installed, where it remained undisturbed until late one night.

?I woke up at 2 o?clock in the morning,? Jan said. ?I know what?s wrong. That stairway?it?s got to be backwards?that?s the only thing that makes sense.? By 4 o?clock that morning, she had spread out the original design plans and saw that, indeed, the stairs were backwards.

The Crandalls re-oriented the staircase so that the ascent receives traffic coming from the front door and the interior of the living room. And the exit at the top of the stairs now directs traffic towards the second story pavilion and the master bedroom suite.

With evenly spaced straight, white railings, the staircase complements the simple, modern lines in the home. And yet, there is substance and support imparted by the solid white border anchoring the white steps. This is truly beautiful, even whimsical, architecture.

One of the more famous spiral staircases is found in what is considered a masterpiece work from the modern movement architecture?the Villa Savoye, 1929-1930, designed by French architect, LeCorbusier. The stairs were constructed with two large white spiraling borders?one in line with the steps and the second in line with the railing, all of which gives the staircase more substance than customarily seen in today?s spiral staircases. Incidentally, the home is open to the public and located in a suburb outside of Paris.

Naturally, with so much history behind it, the circular staircase can be designed to fit many styles of interiors, even medieval. And it works well in unusual locations. For access up to an attic conversion into a study and exercise space, Shirley Flabiano, A.S.I.D. with SAS Interiors, added a circular staircase in the master bedroom.

?We didn?t have a lot of space,? Flabiano said. ?We had a little corner.? Before installing the staircase, they hoisted up all the exercise equipment, the desk, and other furniture. Then, they bolted in the staircase, which measures about three feet in diameter and has a lot of decorative fretwork on it.

?It?s not a main stairway, ? Flabiano said. But it?s perfect for the times one would use the study or exercise once a day. And it takes the place of the attic dropped stairs.

?I don?t know that it would work in a lot of homes where you would have a three foot hall and these attic drop spaces,? Flabiano said. ?Because you wouldn?t be able to get around it. What I opted to do was put it in a corner. And we were able to get through to the door to the bathroom and things like that. It actually turned out to be very attractive idea for this type of room.?

The design of the stair was traditional and in white to complement the bedroom?s floral Country French style. The fretwork has been repainted a bronze, copper color as part of a redo to the golden overtones in the room, according to Flabiano.

Putting a spiral staircase outdoors creates a unique approach to a second story outside balcony, where space is often very limited. Besides providing access from the second story to the back yard and the swimming pool, the spiral staircase can add decoratively to the exterior design.

Just remember, in case of attach from medieval soldiers, a spiral staircase that?s oriented counter-clockwise will be easier to defend in a sword fight.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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