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Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Foyer & Vestibule [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Drawing Room, Bathroom & Morning Room [Next Chapter]



WHAT is technically known as the staircase (in German the Treppenbaus) has, in our lax modern speech, come to be designated as the hall.

In Gwilt's Encyclopedia of Arcbiteclure the staircase is defined as "that part or subdivision of a building containing the stairs which enable people to ascend or descend from one floor to an­other"; while the hall is described as follows: "The first large apartment on entering a house. ... In magnificent edifices, where the hall is larger and loftier than usual, and is placed in the middle of the house, it is called a saloon; and a royal apartment consists of a hall, or chamber of guards, etc."

It is clear that, in the technical acceptance of the term, a hall is something quite different from a staircase; yet the two words were used interchangeably by so early a writer as Isaac Ware, who, in his Complete Body of Arcbttefture, published in 1756, continually speaks of the staircase as the hall. This confusion of terms is difficult to explain, for in early times the staircase was as distinct from the hall as it continued to be in France and Italy, and, with rare exceptions, in England also, until the present century.

In glancing over the plans of the feudal dwellings of northern Europe it will be seen that, far from being based on any definite





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conception, they were made up of successive accretions about the nobleman's keep. The first room to attach itself to the keep was the "hall," a kind of microcosm in which sleeping, eating, enter­taining guests and administering justice succeeded each other or went on simultaneously. In the course of time various rooms, such as the parlor, the kitchen, the offices, the muniment-room and the lady's bower, were added to the primitive hall; but these were rather incidental necessities than parts of an organized scheme of planning.1 In this agglomeration of apartments the stairs found a place where they could. Space being valuable, they were generally carried up spirally in the thickness of the wall, or in an angle-turret. Owing to enforced irregularity of plan, and perhaps to the desire to provide numerous separate means of ac­cess to the different parts of the dwelling, each castle usually con­tained several staircases, no one of which was more important than the others.

It was in Italy that stairs first received attention as a feature in the general composition of the house. There, from the outset, all the conditions had been different. The domestic life of the upper classes having developed from the eleventh century onward in the comparative security of the walled town, it was natural that house-planning should be less irregular,2 and that more regard should be given to considerations of comfort and dignity. In early Italian palaces the stairs either ascended through the open central

[1] Burckhardt, in his Gesebiebte der Renaissance in Italien, justly points out that the seeming inconsequence of mediaeval house-planning in northern Europe was probably due in part to the fact that the feudal castle, for purposes of defence, was generally built on an irregular site.   See also Viollet-le-Duc.

[2] " Der gothische Profanbau in Italien . . . steht im vollen Gegensatz zum Norden durch die rationelle Anlage." Burckhardt, Gesebiebte der Renaissance in Italien, p. a8.

108                 The Decoration of Houses

courte to an arcaded gallery on the first floor, as in the Gondi palace and the Bargello at Florence, or were carried up in straight flights between walls.1 This was, in fact, the usual way of build­ing stairs in Italy until the end of the fifteenth century. These enclosed stairs usually started near the vaulted entranceway lead­ing from the street to the cortUe, Gradually the space at the foot of the stairs, which at first was small, increased in size and in im­portance of decorative treatment; while the upper landing opened into an antechamber which became the centre of the principal suite of apartments. With the development of the Palladian style, the whole staircase (provided the state apartments were not situated on the ground floor) assumed more imposing dimensions; though it was not until a much later date that the monumental staircase so often regarded as one of the chief features of the Ital­ian Renaissance began to be built Indeed, a detailed examination of the Italian palaces shows that even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such staircases as were built by Fontana in the royal palace at Naples, by Juvara in the Palazzo Madama at Turin and by Vanvitelli at Caserta, were seen only in royal pal­aces. Even Morelli's staircase in the Braschi palace in Rome, magnificent as it is, hardly reaches the popular conception of the Italian state staircase—a conception probably based rather upon the great open stairs of the Genoese cortili than upon any actually existing staircases. It is certain that until late in the seventeenth century (as Bernini's Vatican staircase shows) inter-mural stairs were thought grand enough for the most splendid palaces of Italy (see Plate XXX). The spiral staircase, soon discarded by Italian architects save as a

i See the stairs of the Riccardi palace in Florence, of the Piccolomini palace at Pienza and of the ducal palace at Urbino.


(showing inter-mural stairs and marble floor.).

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means of secret communication or for the use of servants, held its own in France throughout the Renaissance. Its structural difficul­ties afforded scope for the exercise of that marvellous, if sometimes superfluous, ingenuity which distinguished the Gothic builders. The spiral staircase in the court-yard at Blois is an example of this kind of skilful engineering and of the somewhat fatiguing use of ornament not infrequently accompanying it; while such anomalies as the elaborate out-of-door spiral staircase enclosed within the building at Chambord are still more in the nature of a tour de force,—something perfect in itself, but not essential to the organ­ism of the whole.

Viollet-le-Duc, in his dictionary of architecture, under the head­ing Cbdteau, has given a sympathetic and ingenious explanation of the tenacity with which the French aristocracy clung to the obsolete complications of Gothic house-planning and structure long after frequent expeditions across the Alps had made them familiar with the simpler and more rational method of the Italian architects. It may be, as he suggests, that centuries of feudal life, with its surface of savagery and violence and its undercurrent treachery, had fostered in the nobles of northern Europe a desire for security and isolation that found expression in the intricate planning of their castles long after the advance of civilization had made these precautions unnecessary. It seems more probable, however, that the French architects of the Renaissance made the mistake of thinking that the essence of the classic styles lay in the choice and application of ornamental details. This exaggerated estimate of the importance of detail is very characteristic of an im­perfect culture; and the French architects who in the fifteenth century were eagerly taking their first lessons from their contem­poraries south of the Alps, had behind them nothing like the great

110                   The Decoration of Houses

synthetic tradition of the Italian masters. Certainly it was not until the Northern builders learned that the beauty of the old build­ings was, above all, a matter of proportion, that their own style, freed from its earlier incoherences, set out on the line of unbroken national development which it followed with such harmonious results until the end of the eighteenth century.

In Italy the staircase often gave directly upon the entrance way; in France it was always preceded by a vestibule, and the upper landing invariably led into an antechamber.

In England the relation between vestibule, hall and staircase was never so clearly established as on the Continent The old English hall, so long the centre of feudal life, preserved its some­what composite character after the grand'satle of France and Italy had been broken up into the vestibule, the guard-room and the saloon. In the grandest Tudor houses the entrance-door usu­ally opened directly into this hall. To obtain in some measure the privacy which a vestibule would have given, the end of the hall nearest the entrance-door was often cut off by a screen that sup­ported the musicians' gallery. The corridor formed by this screen led to the staircase, usually placed behind the hall, and the gallery opened on the first landing of the stairs. This use of the screen at one end of the hail had so strong a hold upon English habits that it was never quite abandoned. Even after French architec­ture and house-planning had come into fashion in the eighteenth century, a house with a vestibule remained the rarest of excep­tions in England; and the relative privacy afforded by the Gothic screen was then lost by substituting for the latter an open arcade, of great decorative effect, but ineffectual in shutting off the hall from the front door.

The introduction of the Palladian style by Inigo Jones transformed

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the long and often narrow Tudor hall into the many-storied central saloon of the Italian villa, with galleries reached by con­cealed staircases, and lofty domed ceiling; but it was still called the hall, it still served as a vestibule, or means of access to the rest of the house, and, curiously enough, it usually adjoined another apartment, often of the same dimensions, called a saloon. Per­haps the best way of defining the English hall of this period is to say that it was really an Italian saloon, but that it was used as a vestibule and called a hall.

Through all these changes the staircase remained shut off from the hall, upon which it usually opened. It was very unusual, except in small middle-class houses or suburban villas, to put the stairs in the hall, or, more correctly speaking, to make the front door open into the staircase. There are, however, several larger houses in which the stairs are built in the hall. Inigo Jones, in remodelling Castle Ashby for the Earl of Northampton, followed this plan; though this is perhaps not a good instance to cite, as it may have been difficult to find place for a separate staircase. At Chevening, in Kent, built by Inigo Jones for the Earl of Sussex, the stairs are also in the hall; and the same arrangement is seen at Shobden Court, at West Wycombe, built by J. Donowell for Lord le Despencer (where the stairs are shut off by a screen) and at Hurlingham, built late in the eighteenth century by G. Byfield.

This digression has been made in order to show the origin of the modern English and American practice of placing the stairs in the hall and doing away with the vestibule. The vestibule never formed part of the English house, but the stairs were usually divided from the hall in houses of any importance; and it is difficult to see whence the modern architect has derived his idea of the combined hall and staircase.   The tendency to merge into 6ne any

112                   The Decoration of Houses

two apartments designed for different uses shows a retrogression in house-planning; and while it is fitting that the vestibule or hall should adjoin the staircase, there is no good reason for uniting them and there are many for keeping them apart

The staircase in a private house is for the use of those who in­habit it; the vestibule or hail is necessarily used by persons in no way concerned with the private life of the inmates. If the stairs, the main artery of the house, be carried up through the vestibule, there is no security from intrusion. Even the plan of making the vestibule precede the staircase, though better, is not the best In a properly planned house the vestibule should open on a hall or antechamber of moderate size, giving access to the rooms on the ground floor, and this antechamber should lead into the staircase. It is only in houses where all the living-rooms are up-stairs that the vestibule may open directly into the staircase without lessening the privacy of the house.

In Italy, where wood was little employed in domestic architec­ture, stairs were usually of stone. Marble came into general use in the grander houses when, in the seventeenth century, the stairs, instead of being carried up between walls, were often placed in an open staircase. The balustrade was usually of stone or marble, iron being much less used than in France.

In the latter country the mediaeval stairs, especially in the houses of the middle class, were often built of wood; but this material was soon abandoned, and from the time of Louis XIV stairs of stone with wrought-iron rails are a distinctive feature of French domestic architecture. The use of wrought-iron in French decoration received a strong impulse from the genius of Jean Lamour, who, when King Stanislas of Poland remodelled the town of Nancy early in the reign of Louis XV, adorned its




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streets and public buildings with specimens of iron-work un­matched in any other part of the world. Since then French dec­orators have expended infinite talent in devising the beautiful stair-rails and balconies which are the chief ornament of innumer­able houses throughout France (see Plates XXXI and XXXII).

Stair-rails of course followed the various modifications of taste which marked the architecture of the day. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries they were noted for severe richness of design. With the development of the rocaille manner their lines grew lighter and more fanciful, while the influence of Gabriel, which, toward the end of the reign of Louis XV, brought about a return to classic models, manifested itself in a simplified mode of treatment. At this period the outline of a classic baluster formed a favorite motive for the iron rail. Toward the close of the eighteenth century the designs for these rails grew thin and poor, with a predominance of upright iron bars divided at long intervals by some meagre medallion or geometrical figure. The exuberant sprays and volutes of the rococo period and the archi­tectural lines of the Louis XVI style were alike absent from these later designs, which are chiefly marked by the negative merit of inoffensiveness.

In the old French stair-rails steel was sometimes combined with gilded iron. The famous stair-rail of the Palais Royal, designed by Coutant d'lvry, is made of steel and iron, and the Due d'Aumale copied this combination in the stair-rail at Chantilly. There is little to recommend the substitution of steel for iron in such cases. It is impossible to keep a steel stair-rail clean and free from rust, except by painting it; and since it must be painted, iron is the more suitable material.

In France the iron rail is usually painted black, though a

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very dark blue is sometimes preferred. Black is the better color, as it forms a stronger contrast with the staircase walls, which are presumably neutral in tint and severe in treatment Besides, as iron is painted, not to improve its appearance, but to prevent its rusting, the color which most resembles its own is more appropriate. In French houses of a certain importance the iron stair-rail often had a few touches of gilding, but these were spar­ingly applied.

In England wooden stair-rails were in great favor during the Tudor and Elizabethan period. These rails were marked rather by fanciful elaboration of detail than by intrinsic merit of design, and are doubtless more beautiful now that time has given them its patina, than they were when first made.

With the Palladian style came the classic balustrade of stone or marble, or sometimes, in simpler houses, of wood. Iron rails were seldom used in England, and those to be found in some of the great London houses (as in Carlton House, Chesterfield House and Norfolk House) were probably due to the French influence which made itself felt in English domestic architecture during the eighteenth century. This influence, however, was never more than sporadic; and until the decline of decorative art at the close of the eighteenth century, Italian rather than French taste gave the note to English decoration.

The interrelation of vestibule, hall and staircase having been explained, the subject of decorative detail must next be consid­ered; but before turning to this, it should be mentioned that here­after the space at the foot of the stairs, though properly a part of the staircase, will for the sake of convenience be called the ball, since in the present day it goes by that name in England and America.

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In contrasting the vestibule with the hall, it was pointed out that the latter might be treated in a gayer and more informal manner than the former. It must be remembered, however, that as the vestibule is the introduction to the hall, so the hall is the introduc­tion to the living-rooms of the house; and it follows that the hall must be as much more formal than the living-rooms as the vesti­bule is more formal than the hall. It is necessary to emphasize this because the tendency of recent English and American decoration has been to treat the hall, not as a hall, but as a living-room. Whatever superficial attractions this treatment may possess, its in-appropriateness will be seen when the purpose of the hall is con­sidered. The hall is a means of access to all the rooms on each floor; on the ground floor it usually leads to the chief living-rooms of the house as well as to the vestibule and street; in addition to this, in modern houses even of some importance it generally contains the principal stairs of the house, so that it is the centre upon which every part of the house directly or indirectly opens. This publicity is increased by the fact that the hall must be crossed by the servant who opens the front door, and by any one admitted to the house. It follows that the hall, in relation to the rooms of the house, is like a public square in relation to the private houses around it. For some reason this obvious fact has been ignored by many recent decorators, who have chosen to treat halls like rooms of the most informal character, with open fireplaces, easy-chairs for lounging and reading, tables with lamps, books and magazines, and all the appointments of a library. This disregard of the pur­pose of the hall, like most mistakes in household decoration, has a very natural origin. When, in the first reaction from the dis­comfort and formality of sixty years ago, people began, especially in England, to study the arrangement of the old Tudor and Eliza-

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bethan houses, many of these were found to contain large panelled halls opening directly upon the porch or the terrace. The mellow tones of the wood-work; the bold treatment of the stairs, shut off as they were merely by a screen; the heraldic imagery of the hooded stone chimney-piece and of the carved or stuccoed ceiling, made these halls the chief feature of the house; while the rooms opening from them were so often insufficient for the requirements of modern existence, that the life of the inmates necessarily centred in the hall. Visitors to such houses saw only the picturesqueness of the arrangement—the huge logs glowing on the hearth, the books and flowers on the old carved tables, the family portraits on the walls; and, charmed with the impression received, they ordered their architects to reproduce for them a hall which, even in the original Tudor houses, was a survival of older social conditions.

One might think that the recent return to classic forms of archi­tecture would have done away with the Tudor hall; but, except in a few instances, this has not been the case. In fact, in the greater number of large houses, and especially of country houses, built in America since the revival of Renaissance and Palladian architecture, a large many-storied hall communicating directly with the vestibule, and containing the principal stairs of the house, has been the distinctive feature If there were any prac­tical advantages in this overgrown hall, it might be regarded as one of those rational modifications in plan which mark the differ­ence between an unreasoning imitation of a past style and the in­telligent application of its principles; but the Tudor hall, in its composite character as vestibule, parlor and dining-room, is only another instance of the sacrifice of convenience to archaism.

The abnormal development of the modern staircase-hall can­not be defended on the plea sometimes advanced that it is a




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roofed-in adaptation of the great open cortile of the Genoese pal­ace, since there is no reason for adapting a plan so useless and so unsuited to our climate and way of living. The beautiful central cortile of the Italian palace, with its monumental open stairs, was in no sense part of a " private house " in our interpretation of the term. It was rather a thoroughfare like a public street, since the various stories of the Italian palace were used as separate houses by different branches of the family.

In most modern houses the hall, in spite of its studied resem­blance to a living-room, soon reverts to its original use as a pas­sageway; and this fact should indicate the treatment best suited to it In rooms where people sit, and where they are consequently at leisure to look about them, delicacy of treatment and refinement of detail are suitable; but in an anteroom or a staircase only the first impression counts, and forcible simple lines, with a vigorous massing of light and shade, are essential. These conditions point to the use of severe strongly-marked panelling, niches for vases or statues, and a stair-rail detaching itself from the background in vigorous decisive lines.1

The furniture of the hall should consist of benches or straight-backed chairs, and marble-topped tables and consoles. If a press is used, it should be architectural in design, like the old French and Italian armoires painted with arabesques and architectural motives, or the English seventeenth-century presses made of some warm-toned wood like walnut and surmounted by a broken pediment with a vase or bust in the centre (see Plate XXXIII).

The walls of the staircase in large houses should be of panelled stone or marble, as in the examples given in the plates accom­panying this chapter.

[1] For a fine example of a hall-niche containing a statue, see Plate XXX.

    In small houses, where an expensive decoration is out of the
question, a somewhat similar architectural effect may be obtained by the use of a few plain mouldings fixed to the plaster, the whole being painted in one uniform tint, or in two contrasting colors, such as white for the mouldings, and buff, gray, or pale green for the wall. To this scheme may be added plaster medallions, as suggested for the vestibule, or garlands and other architectural motives made of staff, in imitation of the stucco ornaments of the old French and Italian decorators. When such ornaments are used, they should invariably be simple and strong in design. The modern decorator is too often tempted by mere prettiness of de­tail to forget the general effect of his composition. In a staircase, where only the general effect is seized, prettiness does not count, and the effect produced should be strong, clear and telling.

For the same reason, a stair-carpet, if used, should be of one color, without pattern. Masses of plain color are one of the chief means of producing effect in any scheme of decoration.

When the floor of the hall is of marble or mosaic,—as, if possible, it should be,—the design, like that of the walls, should be dear and decided in outline (see Plate XXX). On the other hand, if the hall is used as an antechamber and carpeted, the carpet should be of one color, matching that on the stairs.

In many large houses the stairs are now built of stone or marble, while the floor of the landings is laid in wood, apparently owing to the idea that stone or marble floors are cold. In the tropically-heated American house not even the most sensitive person could be chilled by passing contact with a stone floor; but if it is thought to "look cold," it is better to lay a rug or a strip of carpet on the landing than to permit the proximity of two such different substances as wood and stone.

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Unless the stairs are of wood, that material should never be used for the rail; nor should wooden stairs be put in a staircase of which the walls are of stone, marble, or scagliola. If the stairs are of wood, it is better to treat the walls with wood or plaster panelling. In simple staircases the best wall-decoration is a wooden dado-moulding nailed on the plaster, the dado thus formed being painted white, and the wall above it in any uniform color. Continuous pattern, such as that on paper or stuff hang­ings, is specially objectionable on the walls of a staircase, since it disturbs the simplicity of composition best fitted to this part of the house.

For the lighting of the hall there should be a lantern like that in the vestibule, but more elaborate in design. This mode of light­ing harmonizes with the severe treatment of the walls and indi­cates at once that the hall is not a living-room, but a thoroughfare.1

If lights be required on the stairs, they should take the form of fire-gilt bronze sconces, as architectural as possible in design, without any finikin prettiness of detail. (For good examples, see the appliques in Plates V and XXXIII). It is almost impossible to ob­tain well-designed appliques of this kind in America; but the increasing interest shown in house-decoration will in time doubt­less cause a demand for a better type of gas and electric fixtures. Meantime, unless imported sconces can be obtained, the plainest brass fixtures should be chosen in preference to the more elaborate models now to be found here.

Where the walls of a hall are hung with pictures, these should be few in number, and decorative in composition and coloring. No subject requiring thought and study is suitable in such a

[1] In large halls the tall torchier* of marble or bronze may be used for additional lights (see Plate XXXII).

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position. The mythological or architectural compositions of the Italian and French schools of the last two centuries, with their superficial graces of color and design, are for this reason well suited to the walls of halls and antechambers.

The same may be said of prints. These should not be used in a large high-studded hall; but they look well in a small entrance-way, if hung on plain-tinted walls. Here again such architectural compositions as Piranesi's, with their bold contrasts of light and shade, Marc Antonio's classic designs, or some frieze-like proces­sion, such as Mantegna's "Triumph of Julius Caesar," are espe­cially appropriate; whereas the subtle detail of the German Little Masters, the. symbolism of Durer's etchings and the graces of Marillier or Moreau le Jeune would be wasted in a situation where there is small opportunity for more than a passing glance.

In most American houses, the warming of hall and stairs is so amply provided for that where there is a hall fireplace it is sel­dom used. In country houses, where it is sometimes necessary to have special means for heating the hall, the open fireplace is of more service; but it is not really suited to such a situation. The hearth suggests an idea of intimacy and repose that has no place in a thoroughfare like the hall; and, aside from this question of fitness, there is a practical objection to placing an open chim­ney-piece in a position where it is exposed to continual draughts from the front door and from the rooms giving upon the hall.

The best way of heating a hall is by means of a faience stove— not the oblong block composed of shiny white or brown tiles seen in Swiss and German pensions, but one of the fine old stoves of architectural design still used on the Continent for heating the vestibule and dining-room. In Europe, increased attention has of late been given to the design and coloring of these stoves; and if




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better known here, they would form an important feature in the decoration of our halls. Admirable models may be studied in many old French and German houses and on the borders of Switzerland and Italy; while the museum at Parma contains several fine examples of the rocaille period.

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