Dude Descending a Staircase

Where did all the skinny spiral staircases go? That was a time.

How about the silver one in Sunday in New York in 1963 (sing: “Life’s a ball …. Let it fall right in your lap”) that goes up to a sleeping loft in Jane Fonda’s airplane-pilot brother’s 65th Street apartment, where she and Rod Taylor have to go change or they’ll get pneumonia (they were in the rain), and they run up and down the stairs discussing whether a woman should remain a virgin before marriage?

Or those metal spirals in the brownstone duplexes of the 1970’s, when people had to crawl to get up the steps, after all the sniffing and inhaling, their turtlenecks choking them, and Al Green is singing “Let’s Stay Together.” The man at the top, with a glass of Scotch, is holding tight to the center pole.

Or singer Craig Pomranz’s spiral in the 1980’s, in his 85th Street duplex on the Upper West Side. “My friend woke up one morning at the bottom with a ukulele and a sandwich on her head,” said Mr. Pomranz, who now lives in an open loft space a few blocks away. Another time, he said, “I had a dinner party for a high-powered attorney in town. This famous politician from that big Democratic family came to see her. He didn’t care about us at all. He looked at his watch and said, ‘I don’t have a lot of time.’ They went up the spiral. It ran right up in the hole in the ceiling to the second bedroom. We heard everything.”

It’s all over. The duplex is no longer so de rigueur. The man in the turtleneck is now a boy staring at a rectangular screen. He wears no gold around his neck. All the ornament is in the digital image, going left or right. Life has become an eternal pan, a horizontal prison. There is no secret upstairs: no murder, no spiritual ascent.

New Yorkers now can afford to buy the whole townhouse or brownstone and reconvert it back to how it was before 1930’s Depression desperation led to a cutting-up of rooms. If New Yorkers have staircases now, they can afford to buy bigger, more solid and angular ones—perhaps in sensible pine—instead of the tight, skinny metal spirals of yesterday. “Spiral stairs used to be a lot more popular 20 years ago,” said Alex Manuele, a longtime custom-stair-builder based in Tribeca. “I don’t believe that my typical client had a fraction of the money they do now. Spiral stairs are cheaper and take up half the space. People who call me are worth millions of dollars. By the time the person has bought something in Manhattan, paying $40,000 for a regular staircase instead of $3,000 for a spiral is minor.” (Do-it -yourself spiral kits can be found for as little as $499 on the Internet.) What about the people who bought two studios on top of each other in the 70’s and 80’s? “What they got for $65,000 20 years ago, they just sold for two and a half million,” Mr. Manuel said. “They are gone from New York.”

The wind blows through the empty land.

There are still some spirals leading to basements in illegal landlord-carpeted purgatories in Queens; some in Brooklyn brownstones; also the two famous French-library ones in the penthouses of the 367-369 Bleecker Street Condominium, formerly the two townhouses of Pierre Deux Antique owners Pierre LeVec and Pierre Moulin, who had two of everything until they died. (They met working on the Marshall Plan in Paris.) Gunther Moses, Soho’s foremost electrician since the early days, thinks there is still one in his ex-wife’s loft.

But then there are all these mothers now, and they are wagging their fingers, and architects for mothers are advocating regular stairs. “Buyers with children find spiral stairs to be hazardous,” Corcoran agent Suena Williams said.

The mothers and their architects are rejecting the Gropius-Bauhaus spirit of let’s-make-the-home-like-a-factory, the machine-age excitement of industrial high-stakes life, running down in the submarine (“Captain, there’s a torpedo coming!”) or running up to the lab (“Professor, a monsteroid broke out of a test tube!”).

Don’t the mothers and their architects know that stone spiral stairs were in medieval castles because they were good for protection in swordfights? The enemy going up, typically carrying the sword in his right hand, couldn’t fight properly if the stairs went counterclockwise; thus the person at top could fight magnificently. Leonardo da Vinci loved spirals—in water, in smoke—drawing his left to right because he was left-handed (and he died not far from the great double-spiral staircase at Blois).

And what about that marvelous transformation that happens on a tight spiral (not the broad, circular one of The Spiral Staircase, or the endless angular stairs of Vertigo, that go hand in hand with murder)? On the skinny, triangular treads of the narrow staircases, one loses all sense of one’s form; the narrowness, the concentration, forcing a person to become the shape of the stair, like a ride, or a conch going round and round in its seashell—though if you look at a picture of a conch, the strangest-looking animal, it is anything but like a spiral.

Staircase manufacturers insist that spiral business is better than ever. Bob Maiaro at Mylen Stairs: “You should see the one we did in Westchester.” Or Howard Cohen at the Iron Shop: “Staten Island!” Perhaps it is in the country, on the prairie, where the craving for vertical and dangerous life overwhelms, or where there is a need to connect up decks and laundry rooms in those big, swollen houses.

Of course, a high-end spiral has emerged. There is one in the duplex penthouse of Charles Gwathmey’s Astor Place tower, with spacious glass steps three feet wide. And in Richard Meier’s glassy Perry Street building, the 10,500-square-foot triplex of Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, will have a spiral with steps three feet and one inch wide, made out of steel, plaster and wood, said Meier spokesman Ron Broadhurst. The apartment is large enough to enjoy the spiral twirling madly within the rooms’ right angles.

Neither Mr. Gwathmey nor Mr. Meier was available to discuss their vertiginous creations, but architect Michael Canter pointed out that both men taught at Cooper Union. In the 1970’s, “it was one of the prime intellectual centers,” said Mr. Canter, an alumnus, reminiscing about a renovation by the then dean, John Hejduk. “In the library were those spectacular stairs, all curved around ….

“The spiral,” he said, “is one of geometry’s most exciting shapes—the curves are very complex. It is one of the hardest things to draw by hand. It comes out of a love of geometry. It is a very pure outgrowth of rational thought.”

Dude Descending a Staircase