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Stairways from Heaven

While it may be among the oldest architectural elements, the staircase has long ceased to be simply an answer to man’s age-old challenge – getting from on one level to another. Just think of the countless staircases that have made their mark in architecture, literature and film. The iconic one in Gone with the Wind immediately comes to mind, of course, but so do the White House’s red-carpeted stairs and the heart-shaped limestone steps at Gilded Age mansion Rosecliff in Newport, Rhode Island. In England, the famed helical Tulip Stairs at the Queen’s House, a former royal villa in Greenwich, continue to astonish visitors with their brilliant combination of engineering and majesty. More recently, thanks to major advances in technology, the 20th century witnessed an explosion in design creativity that resulted in ground-breaking staircase shapes. The trend continues today, when, more than ever before, this architectural element conceived in function has become an art object unto itself.

In a home, “staircases add value,” says Diletta Giorgolo Spinola of Sotheby’s International Realty in Italy, which has offices in Florence, Rome, Milan and Como. “They are a status symbol. Throughout the ages, staircases have played an important role in giving a house a special style and elegance.” Winding, curved, spiral, helical, flared, twinned and seemingly gravity-defying, these architectural achievements are all complex affairs in which aesthetic considerations must compromise with building codes and engineering capabilities. When all stars align, a staircase can define the character of a home and set the tone for its interior design. In estates of distinction, staircases can be focal points, the varying shapes of their twists and turns expressing everything from brazen power and glamour to subtle chic and ingenuity.

Lately, beyond their role as visual showpieces, staircases have become experiential. Custom builder Ted Visnic of Visnic Homes in Rockville, Maryland, explains that some homeowners ask that their staircase be “tucked around a corner so you discover [it], if you will.” Others, he notes, request that theirs be framed by a bank of windows to “wash the homeowners in natural light” as they move from one level to the next. Shape, materials and finishes dictate the pricing. In one of Visnic’s current residential projects, the staircase cost upwards of $120,000 to build – not bad, really, for a scene-stealing work of art.

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