Restoring the Banquet Hall Stairs

Written by: Patrick Sheary, DAR Museum Curator of Furnishings
October 24, 2019

As part of the recent restoration of the Memorial Continental Hall Banquet Hall at DAR Headquarters, we undertook a complete rebuilding of the roof terrace stairs. The roof terrace stairs have been part of the original design since Memorial Continental Hall opened in 1910. DAR members used the terrace to host tea parties and other functions. The original roof terrace stairs can be seen in this 1911 photo of the room. Made from cast and wrought iron, they featured a central landing with steps on either side. These stairs were removed in the 1960s.

In the 1990s, carpenters installed a new wooden staircase based on the original configuration. Time took its toll on the replacement staircase which had begun to fall apart. Treads split, the railing became loose and various decorative elements started to come off. Also, the railing’s height did not comply with building code. The National Board decided to have a new set of stairs constructed.

Complete rebuilding provided an opportunity to re-examine aesthetics. The plain box-like newel posts and square spindles did not relate to similar, more elaborate features in the Banquet Hall. The goal of this rebuilding became twofold: first, correct the structural and code deficiencies; and second, devise a design that relates to the building’s architecture.

A survey of stair details in Memorial Continental Hall helped guide the new railing design. Another source of inspiration came from 1910s and 1920s design books showing details of design and construction. This information helped when I created a basic conceptual pencil drawing showing two options. Amy Hollis of our historic restoration partner Worcester Eisenbrandt then created a construction plan based on the chosen design. The new look features turned spindles, paneled newel posts and scrolled railings and a paneled front.

After finalizing design and construction details, demolition day arrived with Oscar Bonilla wielding the first blows. Even yours truly got involved. After demolition, only the steel frame remained. The carpenters took over under the direction of master carpenter Will Arsnow, who began by constructing structural supports for the railing. The new staircase took shape with the installation of the newel posts. Traditional joints such as mortice and tenons secure the turned balusters. Once the landing was complete, it was time to work on the railing. Will calculated the precise angle of the railing and laid out the mortices so that everything would line up perfectly. For this, he used various templates. Geometry played an important role especially when figuring out the beautiful curves.         

As construction of the railing progressed, installation of the front panel began. Moldings around each panel replicate those in the room. Each piece had to be carefully cut for a precise fit. Carpenters made jigs to hold the molding in place for cutting, which was especially tricky when trimming narrow angles. Sculptor Stephen Hollis created newel post drop finials to complete the historic look. These hand-made elements copy carved marble versions on the Memorial Continental Hall staircases.

With the completion of the stair railings, finishers took over sanding, painting and staining. The railing’s dark stain was chosen to match the color of the original furniture in the room. Now complete, the new staircase will not only last a long time but also appears to have been there since 1910.          

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