Old house banisters: sliding down memory lane

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Musings

As we approach the holidays, a verse from a well known Thanksgiving song often comes to mind: "Over the river, and through the wood, to Grandmother's house we go" brings back a lot of fond memories of Thanksgivings spent at my grandparents' old house in western Pennsylvania. And while we didn't travel in a sleigh, it wasn't all that unusual to have snow on the ground in November back in those days.

What do I remember the most about those festive occasions so long ago? Well of course, the tempting aromas that escaped from the kitchen all day are near the top of the list. But even more than that, I recall the warmth that my grandparents' old house possessed -- a quality that my parents' newer home didn't seem to share.

grandmother's old house

..to Grandmother's house we go

And if I had to pick one item that may have been the reason, it might be the beautifully stained millwork throughout the house. Even to a child it was obvious how much time had been lovingly spent installing the intricate trim that was highlighted by the stairway banister.

Old house banisters: A lost art?

I've been in hundreds of homes over the years -- many of which I was building or remodeling myself. In my opinion, constructing banisters and stairways that project a sense of character has just about become a lost art. Somewhere along the line, stairway millwork went from being a decorative feature that could define the interior of a home to simply being functional -- a safety device that was built to meet code.

Even those found in new custom houses that cost millions of dollars often pale in comparison to the banisters that still exist in many old American Four Square and Victorian homes.

banister and newel post

Restore your old house's banister

What's the reason? Cost might be the biggest factor -- most modern banisters and stairway pickets are created in factories rather than being built on the jobsite or in a local millwork shop. A trim crew can put a banister in a new home in a matter of hours instead of the days they once had to budget. And those intricate newel posts that were often rumored to contain secret compartments -- they're now little more than a 4-by-4 turned a few times on a lathe.

Install your own old house banister

Of course, the ideal situation is to have the original banister in your old home that can be restored to its former luster. However, if that's not an option, there are several companies that specialize in salvaging parts from old houses slated for demolition. Retailers such as Architectural Salvage, Inc. and Maggie's Farm, LLC can supply missing newel posts or pickets or all of the components needed to build your old house banister.

You may even create a few Thanksgiving memories with the project.