Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Restoring workaday service stairs

The principal stairs at 6 Fitzroy Square, running from the hall up to the second floor, are made of beautifully-cut, finely-finished Portland Stone: made to be seen, and to be seen on. The separate staircase down to the basement is in some ways a different proposition: a straightforward workaday route for servants with no pretensions to delicacy of design or construction. The stair rail has plain, black-painted iron balusters, ramrod-straight; the steps are cubes, unsmoothed and unshaped, left rough-hewn on the underside with tooling marks left open to view on the outer edge. This is very much below-stairs; yet the effect is impressive and pleasing, the honesty and lack of refinement giving a feeling of monumentality.

This effect had been lost, or hidden, until now, with the stairs boxed in to form a cleaning cupboard and the steps covered with glued linoleum fixed with plastic nosings nailed into the stone. We were expecting the steps underneath all this to be in poor repair, and indeed were advised by one or two stone specialists that the mess we were likely to uncover was such that it would be better to forget about restoration and carpet them. But in fact the nosings have left only small nail holes, easily filled with Portland stone dust; and the brittle lino on the horizontal treads has lifted to reveal well-preserved, clean stone. Only on the vertical risers, where far more glue was used to keep the lino in place, has any real residue been left. Here, a special poultice has been applied which, together with elbow grease, should ease the glue off to leave a reasonably clean step. The outer edges have been brushed to remove paint, leaving the patina of old distemper and the tooling ridges made by the original masons. The underside has been left open, the whitewashed stones with their rough quarry marks forming a spectacle in themselves.  


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