Sunday, September 7, 2014

Stairway




Could a dying man's last wish be a new set of steps? In his slow decay is it trying or comforting to see rotten and skewed rebuilt upright? Is time best spent fixing the things that can be fixed? Our answer was yes, so Betsy and I spent the last ten days or so in Minnesota rebuilding the porch legs and constructing a new staircase with Rex's blessing. He and his aide sat porch side, observing, while we took to our work.


The porch was sinking in the northeast corner, evident at the junction of house and porch where a gap had formed over the years. It wasn't until we removed the porch steps and it's stock standard, 45 degree, three step stringer that we could begin to see the whole of the problem. The house architectural drawings indicated below the frost-line 12 inch concrete piers and 4x4 treated posts. The problem was that these posts were to some degree covered at the base with wet clay soil, not at all elevated above the moisture-holding concrete, and not at all anchored in any way to the concrete piers.  They simply rotted and moved from their original position allowing the porch to slowly pull downward. Although our intention was only to replace the staircase, and as is so often the case, when you look into it you realize the full extent of the work before you.


First, remove the old staircase, the lattice work under deck, then the fascia boards.


Old, rotten-bottom posts removed as we jack up the porch with a very old school jack. 


New treated posts installed with steel post-header ties (the old were toe-nailed).


Not choice, but available: plastic post bottoms to separate the new post from the concrete pier. Each is said to be good for five thousand pounds.


We also compromised on the anchor -galvanized steel angles at the back of each post, then each post backfilled with course gravel.


I found this blue-spotted salamander, Ambystoma laterale, under the plastic near one of the posts. Trying to get it out, it only climbed in deeper, so I let it be. I wonder how it keeps dirt out of those bulging black eyes.


After the posts were set and anchored we set about doing the staircase. The main complaint about the old steps was their steep incline and rickety railings (they had rotten) so we stretched the run to five feet from the porch. This changed the configuration from four, eleven-inch treads with eight-inch risers to six, twelve-inch treads with five and three quarter-inch risers.  The longer run had the structure landing on the concrete pad, adding concern about frost heave (which every one else was less concerned with). We compromised by designing the railings so that they are integral to the staircase structure but do not attach at all to the posts holding up the porch roof. This allowed us to remove the chance that frost heave pressure would be applied to the porch posts.


I reused as much of the original cedar risers as I could, but this also meant that I was limited by their length. We had wanted to overshoot the stringer sides by an inch or so but the old boards wouldn't allow it. We compromised by bringing the riser board to the top of the tread instead of behind it, and extended the tread board just a half inch on either side.


The treads were notched around the posts.


I fitted the post notch with a small piece of cedar to fill.


The different shades of cedar on a cloudy day.


While it was a marathon effort for him, Rex made the journey out to see the finished staircase. The following afternoon, I found him sitting on them.  I don't think I will get as much joy out of doing these projects without him there to appreciate it. Things need to be done, to be sure, but his glowing appraisal makes it worth the extra effort. As I had to leave to get back to work in NYC, not two days after I wrapped up the work on the staircase, I knew I could be seeing him for the last time. He said to me "you have value, remember that." Seems like such a simple thing, but it chokes me up. Rex was motivated to get the staircase rebuilt because his elderly friends were having trouble climbing the old set when they came to visit. I suppose, then, that a staircase could be a last wish. It's a way to extend oneself beyond the boundaries of life and death, a courtesy to those friends who will thank me for the effort and good work, at his house, soon enough.



4 comments:

  1. Oh, Frank. That last paragraph finished me.

    I admire, so much your and Betsy's ability to build things, and to know how they work - to put them back together again.

    That was beautifully done.

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  2. Frank, who else could turn the construction of a staircase into a poem and a fond farewell? Thank you for sharing this. I hope you see Rex again.

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  3. What a wonderful thing that you and Betsy did for Rex! It has so much more meaning when someone builds from the heart, and with their own hands. We (my parents and I) think of Rex often and know his health is declining. - "Stairway to Heaven".

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