Stairway to Nowhere

by Carla Riedel

My most recent personal remodel was a down-to-the studs gut job. New walls, windows, floors, electrical and plumbing systems, furnace and AC, new bathrooms, new cabinetry, appliances and countertops. The only thing that remains of our original 100-yr-old cottage on Lake Erie is the roof, which was replaced just a few years ago. Covenant requirements restricted us to the existing foundation footprint, which was fine with me. Keeping the Lake Room where it was made sense, as it was on the lake and moving it would have required renaming it.

Reconfiguring the most awkward staircase in the history of time solved zillions of traffic pattern problems. It allowed for a more logical placement of the downstairs bath which had previously opened on to the Lake Room. We had to break into song every time a visitor excused themselves behind the thin, poorly constructed bathroom wall. But even though the staircase was steep and dangerous and moving it made logical sense, when push came to shove, we were all sorry to see the old girl go.

The stairs had a very distinctive creak and we miss it so. It signaled the kids were finally up (yay!) and another fun vacation day could begin. It also signaled that the last teenager had come in from the lake for the night and parents could rest easy. Athletic men and boys had pressed their palms against those narrow stairwell walls and vaulted themselves to the lower landing, touching only one foot to a single stair in the descent; generations of girls and their mothers and grandmothers had tarried with one foot poised to head up to bed, loathe to end their intimate late-night chats; the quirky, wrought iron railing toward the base had been removed and reinstalled countless times so cribs and bunkbeds could be wrestled upward; and to absolutely everyone’s amazement, not a single eye had been put out by the ridiculously pointy brass finial at the end of the bannister.

To make the original set-up worse, for some inexplicable reason the cottage’s combination chair/telephone desk/phone book shelf had always been placed for maximum inconvenience right at the foot of the staircase. It had been set at the bottom of the stairs when the phone lines were first run in the early 1940s and the notion to move it to a more logical spot never crossed anyone’s mind.

Ascension of the stairs was only possible by first twisting your torso up and over the finial, then throwing your hips and knees past the phone table. This was quite a feat when one’s arms were loaded with clean bath and bed linens. The momentum of this 180-degree pirouette tended to provide an unexpected but not unpleasant burst of momentum up the stairs and this little dance was part of everyday life at the cottage. And every day my mother-in-law would sit at the telephone desk catching up with her Ohio school chums on the land line long after the rest of us had joined the cellular world. I’m not sure she ever understood that ‘long-distance’ calls and their requisite costs were a thing of the past. She rarely called her Ohio cronies from Colorado, but she would diligently devote her first few days at the cottage to checking in with her life-long friends.

I insisted we keep the railing, pointy finial and all, in spite of the fact that it had no future practical use. It was short and oddly angled – no staircase built to a semblance of modern safely code would ever match it. It had been welded and hammered together by someone with adequate practical skills but calling the fabricator a “craftsman” would have been very generous. Its overall scale lacked much in the way of design, so it certainly wasn’t an attractive thing in and of itself. But, even though it was heavy and unwieldy and everyone shook their heads, I made the muscle men hired for Demo Day toss it into the truck bound for a storage unit.

Just as the wrecking ball began to swing, my husband decided to salvage the tiny framed window curiously built into the lower landing of the stairwell. The window had only provided a view of a neighbor’s exterior wall, since the cottages are all placed so closely together. It brought in so little light that it’s sill had long ago become just another shelf for a faded family photograph. So it wasn’t really a window at all in the traditional sense of the word. My husband tore it from the wall with the only tools available – an aged claw hammer and rusted prybar. But save it he did, in a burst of uncharacteristic sentimentality.

Now the remodel is complete and we’ve moved back into the new old place. The telephone desk has been repainted (black, of course) and the tattered, split seat has been replaced with a sturdy new foundation, cushy new foam and a kicky Sunbrella fabric. It takes pride of place in the Lake Room and because it has its own handy built-in drinks table, it is often the first seat chosen by visitors dropping in for late afternoon cocktails.

The stair railing found its way back into the cottage, too. We mounted it on the wall of the enclosed front porch, right above a built-in bench. We mounted the tiny window on the wall above the stairs, just as it should be. It creates the illusion of a stairway to nowhere. Everyone recognizes it as the old railing and seems delighted that it remains here at the cottage with all it’s memories intact. Maybe its not a stairway to nowhere, after all. Maybe it’s a stairway to heaven.

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