The front porch certainly had seen happier days by the time we moved into Comstock House. Part of the floor was rotted and needed urgent replacement, the stone lions had crushed the stair side platforms (original 1905 redwood, too), almost all treads were split, and the entire step assembly was pitching forward away from the house. And, as we found out, that wasn't the bad news.

Our original restoration plan for the stairs was to simply replace the treads and risers, believing the supporting structure was still sound. The treads felt firm, except for a little sponge on the split boards. But once we looked closer, it became apparent that the steps could have collapsed at any moment. The side walls had no foundation at all and were simply sitting on dirt, with one of those walls haphazardly braced by a pair of 1x6 planks nailed to the back (a beer can was also found in the dirt next to this fine workmanship). While the base of the stringers rested unbolted on three sturdy concrete piers, the stringers themselves were rotting because they were unsealed raw pine. Except for a few puny nails connecting the top of the stringers to a floor joist - which itself was crumbling with dry rot - the entire structure was free-standing. Had any of the stringers failed, the whole mess would have lurched and collapsed to one side or the other, like a puff on a house of cards.

LEFT: What happens when 100 lbs. of stone meets 100 year old redwood
RIGHT: No foundation under the steps, except for the front piers

LEFT: A foundation was formed around the existing piers
RIGHT: Pressure-treated stringers are bolted into the new foundation

ABOVE: Framing the new side walls

Aside from a debate about period-proper handrails, construction was uneventful. Architect Mark Parry created a foundation plan where new concrete was poured around the old footings (which are two feet deep). A sill bolted into the new concrete provides support to the pressure-treated stringers, which are placed between the piers. The stairs now feel sturdy and should last for decades.

There's still some work to be done. The cedar steps need another coat of paint, and the caps on the side walls will have to be refinished (again), a project that will come up in a later post.

The back stairs were a lesser headache. Those steps were still firm, and might have lasted another ten years or more; the immediate concerns were instead the railings, which were becoming more wobbly each year on both sets of stairs. We already had made emergency repairs to prevent collapse of the kitchen railing when we moved into the house in 2006, and since then I had used consolidant to fill holes and major cracks.

None of that construction dated back to origins of the house; both entrances were apparently rebuilt at the same time, c1960. Some of the details matched the blueprints, other parts not so much. The railing on both landings retained architect Brainerd Jones' hallmark "Union Jack X," but the house side of it was attached directly to the building, not to a half post, as indicated. The caps on the backyard posts were square and flat, not rounded; the handrail was likewise a flat 2x4, where the blueprints suggest a curve. Yet the kitchen posts had arched tops, and that handrail seemed to follow the drawings with what was called at the time a "toad's back" (AKA toadback, toad-back) curve to the top, making it inviting to hold. Why were they different? Were they rebuilt by different carpenters at different times? Small mysteries.

LEFT: The backyard steps; notice the flat platforms atop the posts and the white patches of consolidant on the railings
RIGHT: Detail of kitchen railing

Although both stringers and decks were still in reasonable shape, it was decided to replace everything at once, using modern materials such as pressure-treated wood for the supporting structures. Moving the stringers adjacent to the house closer to the center also allowed a gap between the treads and the wall to prevent water from pooling on the steps.

Contractor David Jessen performed his usual magic in restoring the design shown in the blueprints. Once more the landing rail terminates into a half-post attached to the house; the tops of the posts are again curved on all four sides. At our request he placed the newel post on the second step instead of on the ground, as shown in the drawing. We believe this is how it was originally built, providing a "swing around" that's also found on the interior staircases.

None of material from those stairs was worth salvage, but we were able to refashion original redwood left over from the rebuild of the front porch balustrade in a few parts. The half-posts on both back porches are old wood, as is the kitchen porch top rail and the backyard porch newel post.

LEFT: The backyard steps before finishing; notice the old redwood newel post and half-post at the top
RIGHT: The kitchen steps after oil treatment


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