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When Does My Cast Iron Staircase Need Attention? Always!

By Paul Ponzelli*


Original cast iron staircases, a common sight in the lower sections of the District of Columbia and Capitol Hill are a glorious testimony to a masterful art that highlights houses lucky enough to have them. Or still have them. Or still have one that is intact.

Washington’s original cast iron staircases are unique. Unique to the city, sometimes unique to a street, or even a single house. Unique not only because they represent some of the finest staircases ever cast anywhere, but also unique because they were cast right here in the city for nearly exclusive use here; in some cases by foundries representing several generations of the same family-owned experts of the cast iron art.

These original staircases represent many things aside from being highly sought after items. They are things of beauty and a focal point for that all important “curb appeal” to a historically correct house.

Today, the most noticeable (and troubling) thing they represent is the fact that they are disappearing from the once proud houses they highlighted at a pace that is not only troubling, but in some cases unnecessarily. Disappearing, never to return. They can’t, because they are not made anymore. Unnecessarily because in some, if not most cases, they can be saved if properly maintained. They must also be properly used.

The majority of cast iron staircases here were made and installed between the late 1800s and the 1930s. It should, therefore, be no surprise that they were not designed for the lifestyle of today’s average household or commercial building — such as moving a 300-pound refrigerator, complete with two, 200-pound delivery men up or down the fragile cast iron staircase, especially bouncing it down the steps on a hand truck. Obviously not a concern during the time period they were made in. Add to the equation 100+ years of time passage and even a well-maintained original cast iron staircase is quite likely to have maintenance or repair issues. With this type of material, a serious or even hazardous condition may exist or one may suddenly appear without warning. They are at a stage of their life where constant monitoring is not only prudent, but necessary.

There are two main factors that lead to problems with these original cast iron staircases.

DETERIORATION. Chiefly, this is the result of neglect. While it is true that cast iron is much more resilient to wear and long-term weather conditions, and it can withstand prolonged periods of not being protected by paint, such conditions will take a toll over 100 years. Try that with one of the steel staircases of today! Did you ever wonder why manhole covers are made of cast iron? Some are older than your staircase. And they are still made of cast iron today. Manhole covers are not cost-prohibitive, however, so they did not go the way of the cast iron staircase; nor do they require a lifetime of experience to design and craft, or a complicated foundry to manufacture.

Unfortunately, most of these cast iron staircases were neglected in many ways. Material-specific paint and even more importantly, the correct primer, is a must. Another form of neglect is not paying attention to changes taking place and having them addressed before more serious problems arise. Loose components, misaligned pieces, bolts shearing off or missing completely, settling or sagging, loose or broken railing posts, cracks, broken stringers, etc. A good telltale sign that a previous owner had serious problems with the staircase and repairs were not made is the presence of added supports, posts, props or bricks, etc. to hold the staircase up. Of course that sounds obvious, but many people pay that makeshift added support thing no attention. That could be a costly mistake.

DAMAGE. This can result from a variety of things, including construction, renovating, moving heavy items over the staircase, dropping something on the staircase from above, placing a ladder in the center of a step or on the stoop plate, tree limb falls, bouncing down the steps or skipping steps while descending the staircase, and improper repairs.

It should be remembered that cast iron is fragile. It will not bend like steel. It will snap and break. Damage can also occur, and frequently does, from improper welding practices and poorly designed and carried out repairs. An inordinate amount of repairs are necessary due to improper welding. Sometimes the piece that was welded is not salvageable, and usually this welding has more serious consequences than the original problem presented. That is not to say that sometimes, contrary to the belief of some, that welding is not called for. In a perfect world, parts can be replaced with “salvage” parts from other similar model staircases, but it is not a perfect world when dealing with antique structures and the right part in the right size from the right model staircase are not always available. And some of the “reproduced” ones are a horrific replacements.

Availability of the parts needed and cost-effectiveness sometimes dictates proper welding to make the staircase safe again. Installing poorly engineered support under the staircase or in the wrong places can almost certainly cause damage or structural failure. Don’t just “prop it up”, instead, determine the reason it suddenly needs artificial support. Usually, something more serious is going on. Structural integrity is everything with any structure, but it is even more important with castings. Obviously, these staircases consist extensively of castings.

One of the major causes of damage to one of these original cast iron staircases is poor or improper support due to ground settling, causing the staircase to drop or lean toward the bottom or one side. This will cause it to be out of level and result in poor or no support in critical areas. It can also cause too much stress in some areas and weight not being equally transferred to the ground at the bottom step. In extreme cases, the bottom step will not even be in contact with the ground. Look for a make-shift bottom step or bricks holding up the bottom step. A sure sign repairs are needed.

Severe settling of the ground near the bottom of the staircase can cause the stoop plate (the flat landing or porch area) and/or the hand railings to pull out of the building.

Risers (the “up” section between the steps) can break out and treads (steps) can crack or break. Bolts that hold the risers and treads in place can be broken or missing and both can be loose as the components became misaligned. A dangerous condition indeed.

The stringers (long “side” pieces that run from the bottom step up to the house) can crack or break, and in a worse case scenario cause a collapse.

On many of these staircases, a stringer’s flat structural support bar that runs behind and along it is rotted and no longer in contact with the bottom step. Continuous longitudinal support of the stringers (main side supports) is thereby interrupted and the entire weight of the staircase can be on the fragile castings which are largely ornamental in nature and not designed to support the total weight of the staircase.

When these staircases were installed, the current practice and technology of digging a deep hole in the ground (below the freeze line) and pouring an adequate concrete footer to serve as a foundation for the staircase was not done. Understandable for the time period, but this factor alone continues to contribute to settling of the staircase resulting in serious damage. In some more serious cases, such a concrete foundation must be added before repairs to the staircase can be made.

What can you do to preserve your original cast iron staircase into perhaps the next generation when it will be even more valuable? The answer is — read again the above-discussed, two problem factors of deterioration and damage. Look for any of these signs, and keep looking. They require constant monitoring now and into the future. We can only guess if the artisans who crafted them thought their masterpieces would endure into a time generations beyond them, but to their tribute and to the testimony of original DC architecture, they have. Now it is up to you.

If you notice any of the conditions mentioned here, or any others of concern, or if you have any doubts regarding the structural integrity of your cast iron staircase, call a qualified ironworks or welding company for an inspection. As previously mentioned however, cast iron is markedly different from steel and the materials commonly used today in staircases. They were produced by experts qualified by many years of experience with cast iron. Similarly, they must be repaired and maintained by such experts. These experts are hard to find anymore, but do your homework and don’t be discouraged by a backlog of work they may have. Unless you have serious or dangerous problems with your cast iron staircase, it may take a little time to get the repairs you need. But it should not be a problem to at least get them to do a thorough inspection and evaluation of your needs and a priority for those repairs. Loose or separating parts can lead to a hazardous condition and costly repairs. Early detection and repair is best.

WARNING: These are not the type of repairs to shop for the cheapest cost estimate, since that is likely what caused some of the damage in the first place, even though it may not be evident if you don’t know what to look for.

Unfortunately, the amount of cast iron staircases needing repairs in our area has not gone unnoticed by unqualified individuals, some from states far away, seeking to profit by promising “expert” repairs. Be leery of someone with a telephone number from out of the area, a pager phone number, a telephone number or company name you cannot find in the Yellow Pages, an individual with no company name at all or someone showing up with only a pickup truck and not an obvious larger service body truck equipped for ironworking or any truck not prominently lettered showing the company name and local phone number (except for estimator’s vehicles). Also watch for far away state tags on the truck. There are many “horror stories” of unprofessional and even damaging repairs being made and the individual could not be located afterward. It should have been obvious with any of the above conditions existing, but he was cheap and he said he has been doing this for 106 years and was an expert. He was, but not at what you paid him for.

*Paul Ponzelli has been the owner of Suburban Welding Company located in Alexandria, Virginia for, as of 2019, nearly 50 years. He is a GOLD member of NOMMA (National Ornamental And Miscellaneous Metals Association) and a member of the American Welding Society. He has contributed to, and has been featured in, articles published in Welding and Ironworking as well as Time-Life publications and the Washington Post magazine. Prior to forming his own company, he had been a welding instructor training apprentice ironworkers and working in a large forge and foundry. His company provides a full line of ironwork and welding services, including repairing original cast iron staircases. For more information, call (703) 765-9344.

Copyright © 2009, 2019 Paul Ponzelli & InTowner Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 & 108 (“fair use”).