Stunning Staircases

With wow factors such as glass walls, inset windows and rustic wood risers, stairways have evolved from practical to the stunning

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Old Meets New

Photos by Angie seckinger/Rill Architects

The whimsy and Old World feel of spiral staircases appeal to Tracy Vargo and his wife, Mary. “When we spend time in Europe, I love castle keeps and buildings that evolve over time,” Tracy says. So when the couple set out to expand their 1970s Potomac farmhouse, they decided to incorporate a set of dramatic winding steps. Constructed in 2007, the stairway includes 13 recycled barnwood stairs that ascend to Tracy’s home office, which is located at the top of a clapboard tower resembling a New England lighthouse. “It’s a way of creating private space,” he says. “I like that I can climb up, leave a note on the steps that I’m working, and be in my own world.”

Tracy hired Bethesda-based architect and builder Jim Rill to reimagine and expand the house’s footprint and the way its spaces link to each other. For Tracy’s office, Rill planned the three-story tower, connecting it to the main house via an interior breezeway. “The idea was to create a fun, artistic stair that was comfortable to move up and down, which tied into the home’s farmhouse vernacular,” Rill says. “The stairs have a wider-than-usual radius, and they’re open at the center. If you’re a kid at the top, you can drop a water bottle on your little sister’s head at the bottom.”

From underneath, the swirling, twirling stairs look like the inside of a nautilus shell, except they’re made of honey-colored fir wood reclaimed from a Maryland barn. The same kind of planks comprise the floor of Tracy’s office. “I love the wood’s imperfections from nail and screw holes, and the way light is visible through them at various times of the day,” he says. In the stairwell, the sun filters in through small, porthole-esque windows. Bent fir handrails, also made of vintage barnwood, complete the old-meets-new effect.

The slightly rugged Craftsman energy is intentional, Rill says. “Many times, when a customer does a tower like this, they’ll want to drywall everything in, which doesn’t show the beauty of the framing. I like that Tracy wanted to have fun.”

So much fun that in later renova-tions the two collaborated on three more spiral staircases climbing from the Vargos’ children’s bedrooms to loft spaces carved out of the former attic above. “Everyone gets a little room of their own,” Tracy says.

The West Comes East

Photos by Michael Bennett Kress Photography

Sarah and Devin Schain enjoy traveling to Colorado, where they admire the dramatic landscape and the rustic architecture. So, when their 11,000-square-foot Bethesda home was built in 2008, “they went for what I call a ‘Zen Cowboy’ look, with natural materials and an airy feel,” says interior designer Colleen Brand, who worked on the project with architect Joan Janicki of Custom Design Concepts, architectural designer Miriam Dillon, and Sandy Spring Builders. One of the key elements of this Craftsman-meets-mountain cabin manse? A statement-making two-story staircase with a rugged rock-clad wall that’s inset with jumbo windows.

“The intention was that there wouldn’t be a line between the outdoors and the indoors,” says Sarah, who helped plan every aspect of the house. The team achieved a light, haute-lodge feel by using reclaimed European white oak with a pale stain for the stairs, a decorative iron baluster and a matching white oak handrail. “I have three dogs, and if the stairs and floors were dark, they’d show shedding and scratches,” Sarah says. “That lighter stain is ideal, and I love that the wood is reclaimed.”

The rock wall that frames the floor-to-ceiling windows blends into the often verdant landscape outside. It’s crafted of beige-gold granite from the Adirondacks, a nod to Sarah’s upstate New York roots. “There’s a lot of stone throughout the house, which really produces that Western feel,” says Sandy Spring Builders’ Chief Operating Officer Mimi Kress.

The stairway’s 90-degree turns are softened by sinuous handrails and fan-shaped steps that form miniature landings. “We couldn’t have a true suspended staircase, but this was a solution to make it feel like it was floating,” Brand says. It looks ethereal in the evening, when a whitewashed iron chandelier and sconces from Laura Lee Designs illuminate the space.

“The light fixtures are the jewelry of the space,” Sarah says. “At night they’re just beautiful, like white clouds.”

Rustic and Renewed

Photo by Ty Cole

Before Jeff Dorn and Airi Maeno moved into their 1921 Takoma Park bungalow in 2008, it had been a group house. “The place was disgusting—it smelled like cat pee and dudes, and it had small, dark rooms and a bad addition at the back,” Airi says. After living in the home while doing some minor renovations, the couple hired Takoma Park architect Wakako Tokunaga in 2012 to rip out the 1940s add-on and create a new, modern space that would allow the sun to shine in and provide the family with a fresh, hip kitchen. “The front of the house was charming, but the addition had made everything choppy and dim,” Tokunaga says.

Central to the project was a new staircase that links the vintage bungalow to a 900-square-foot contemporary addition that features the family’s kitchen, a dining area and a home studio for Airi, who’s a potter and jeweler. Tokunaga gave the addition two-story ceilings and a double-height glass wall to open up the space; the stairs serve as both a connection and a showstopping punctuation to the space.

The stairs feature a steel and wood banister with chunky wooden risers. “The idea was to play with the materials and contrast with the concrete floor in the addition,” Tokunaga says. The staircase’s industrial-cool feel is complemented by the addition’s most dramatic element: a wall clad in vintage fir wood reclaimed from the demo of the earlier addition. “It really layers the two eras of the house, putting materials from the first addition into this new stairway,” Tokunaga says.

A small window, also a leftover from the demolition, peeks out of the lower portion of the wood-covered wall and provides natural light to Airi’s studio beyond. “Jeff and I met in art school,” Airi says, “and the idea of found materials was revolutionary to us as students.”

Now, the couple and their 9-year-old son love making their way down the stairs and into their new living space. “It’s a place we really want to be in,” Jeff says. “It functions so much better, and the amount of light we get is amazing compared to the old house.

Letting In The light

Photo by John Cole Photography/ Anthony Wilder Design/Build

Like many house rehab projects, the updated stairway in Jackie and Leonard Hayes’ two-story 1970s contemporary in Potomac stemmed from a different job. “In 2009, we had Anthony Wilder Design/Build put in a new double-glass front door and move our front entrance to get more light,” Jackie says.

But after the sleek new doors went in, the couple realized that their narrow staircase was also making the home’s interior seem bleak. “It was small, dark and boxed in. It didn’t feel cohesive with the rest of the house, plus you had to enter through a sort of vestibule,” says designer Keira St. Claire of Anthony Wilder, who, with company architect George Bott, came in 2012 to help the Hayeses achieve a sparkling, modern connection to the second floor.

Out went the walls that separated the dining room and great room; in went an unusual open-plan staircase. St. Claire and Bott combined thicker-than-normal cherry treads (a little over 4 inches each), a clean-lined matching cherry bannister, and a central steel support beam that runs beneath the stairs. A thick glass wall on one side of the stairs keeps them safe and airy. “It’s all about creating light and openness to the windows at the back of the house,” Bott says.

Another set of stairs just beneath the main stairway got a mod, matching railing, and, thanks to the see-through main stairs, a less claustrophobic vibe. “You don’t feel like you are going underground anymore,” Jackie says. “The basement now seems like an inviting part of the house.”  

The Hayeses love the impression their new door and stairway creates. “Things just fit together better now,” Jackie says. “The wood on the stairs ties in with the outdoors, and it all just feels less divided.” 

Jennifer Barger is a freelance design, travel and home writer whose work appears in The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure and Washingtonian Magazine. After working on this article, she is thinking of painting the stair risers in her 1920s townhouse shocking pink.

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