How's Bayou? Home, Sweat Home #2
Jet engines roared overhead as I introduced myself to Rickie at Authement Ironworks, located just off the flight path at New Orleans International Airport. On the phone he'd seemed doubtful of my plans for a new staircase railing, and I was there to try to convince him of the possibility of achieving the impossible.
Several months before, I'd returned to our modest 900-square-foot condo in Uptown New Orleans to find New York Magazine on my diminutive desk, open to a photo of an eye-catching black-and-red wrought-iron staircase in a trendy Manhattan apartment. Millie loved it, and loved the fact that I loved it, too.
There was so much love goin' round that I christened it The Love-Fest Staircase and began my quest to replicate it for a fraction of what the original must have cost.
The last time I'd dealt with an ironworks company was when I first renovated our house in the French Quarter. The office of the fire marshal had approved the plans to remove from the front of the building an unsightly, three-story-high exterior fire escape that prevented me from opening shutters and doors onto the balcony. But his inspector had other ideas, even though I showed him the plans with the approval stamp and signature as he leaned out the third-story bedroom window.
"I don't care," he scowled at me. "I can't let you sleep up here without it, so it ain't coming off. I'll get the marshal to revoke it as soon as I get back to the office."
Within minutes, I was on the phone to the director of the Vieux Carre Commission, who had lauded my plans to remove the offensive series of iron ladders that marred the face of our historic 1816 residence.
I explained my dilemma and asked, "If I can get that thing off, will the commission prohibit me from putting it back?'
She answered yes, and I grabbed the Yellow Pages and thumbed through to ironwork. Within hours the offending structure was down, to the dismay of the inspector, who was having trouble convincing the head of the department to revoke his own approval.
Fast-forward 40 years, and there I was, dealing with ironwork again as I gazed nervously skyward.
Rickie seemed even less certain when I showed him the photo of the Manhattan original.
It would be expensive, he assured me; and he wasn't certain we could acheive the desired effect, particularly the ribbon-like handrailing, with standard wrought-iron pieces.
Our staircase was the definition of bland, and visually confining to boot. It was the typical "contractor's special," composed solely of standard 2-by-4s and 2-by-2s, painted an unimaginative white. But the 2-by-4 handrailing had a solidity and stability that Millie was not sure we could achieve with a flat wrought-iron ribbon, and Rickie began to have an inkling that such a handrailing wasn't going to materialize in this project.
He should come out to measure and discuss options, we decided; and when he arrived, he was pretty sure the idea wouldn't work.
Then genius struck: Why spend all that money, Rickie suggested, when we could mimic the original by removing every other upright, painting the remaining ones flat black, and finishing off the sturdy 2-by-4 handrailing with a brilliant Sherwin Williams red, oil-based enamel paint? An attractive bargain-basement solution, and Millie could retain her sound-as-the-Rock-of-Gibraltar railing.
What I heard was how much money we'd save. I began stepping down in my mind from the $2,000 + figure Rickie thought it might cost to something more on the order of $700-$800, if I could convince Mr. Kruse, our semi-resident Mr. Can-do, to tackle the task. He welcomed the challenge.
Off I headed to Lowe's for flat-black paint, but I was concerned the effect woundn't be jazzy enough -- that the uprights would just be fewer and a different color. The answer was small, flat-black, hammered-iron drawer pulls that were on clearance for 99 cents each. Screwing two of these into the last few inches of the square banisters, which overlap the edge board of the staircase, would give the impression that the 2-by-2s were riveted into the stairs. Voila: loft chic at a basement price.
It all came together, and we couldn't be happier with the result. The cost, including paint and drawer pulls, as well as labor to remove half the uprights and paint the remaining ones, was less than $700 -- a steal for the dramatic new element that adds zest to our living room.
And Rickie? What can you say about a guy who tells you the right way to do something, even if it affects him adversely?
All I know is that the next time I have an ironwork project that actually can be realized, I'll find myself avoiding descending aircraft overhead as I bring the plans to Rickie at Authement.
How's Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now juggles his time between Dixie Art Supplies in New Orleans and Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.
How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.