Remodeling and Home Design


Reprint of article from "On The Water" July 2007

Written by Rick Berg

On the Water

For Green Bay attorney Greg Conway and his wife Diane, it’s all about the "grand sweep" of the curved staircase in their De Pere home on the Fox River and the way the staircase complements the striking view of the river. "It’s really quite aesthetically pleasing," says Conway. "You know how when you walk into some grand hotels and there’s this kind of ‘Gone With the Wind’ stairway look? This might not be as big as that, but it still has that sweep to it. There are five levels of windows along the staircase, so as you walk up this sweeping stairway you’re seeing the river everywhere. What we love about it is both the beauty and the precision of manufacturing. It was within an eighth of an inch of tolerance and I thought that was just astonishing for something this size."

Architect Mark Biggar of Biggar Development Ltd. in Appleton has much the same feeling about the curved staircase in his Lake Winnebago home on Cowling Bay Road in Neenah, and doesn’t hesitate to recommend a similar design solution for his clients.

"I got excited about architecture because of my dad and what got him excited about it was Frank Lloyd Wright," says Biggar, whose father, Curtis, founded the company on Aug. 29, 1959 — "which was the day I was born and also his birthday," adds Biggar, who went on to study architecture at Taliesen — the school Wright founded in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

"One of Wright’s ideas was that you should bring someone into the home and make them feel hugged," says Biggar. "To do that, you need to understand the elements of our nature and environment, and build on a human scale, lending the design with nature. That’s not an easy thing to do when you live on Lake Winnebago with a neighbor 10 feet off your side yard, but when we designed and built this home that was our goal. We live on the south side of Neenah, almost on the Oshkosh border, looking over at Calumet Harbor and Stockbridge, so we have a pretty dramatic view. When you come into my house, you’re directed to the opening that ascends all the way up two levels along this curved staircase. It’s a very dramatic effect and an open design.

The stairway is featured by about 15 feet of glass that goes up all those levels. I can look out my windows and view almost 2,000 feet of lake and scenery, without looking at a neighbor who is only 10 feet off my property line. I have 100 feet of shoreline, so that’s 1,900 feet of what I call psychological space, and as I always tell people, psychological space is tax free."

Curved and spiral staircases, with price tags that range from a few thousand dollars to well over $100,000, may not be for everyone, but people who make their homes on the water already place a high value on quality of life and aesthetics, so it may not be surprising that many choose to spend the extra money to upgrade from a standard L-shaped stairway to the "grand sweep" of a curved or spiral staircase.

"The thing about a custom, curved stairway," says Biggar, "is that it’s not only functional, but it’s also like a piece of artwork in the home. I’m passionate about what I do. I have one of the most fun jobs in the world because I get to help people create their dreams. We’re trying to create living art for people."

Like the Conways’ staircase and may others, Biggar’s was designed and produced by a Northeast Wisconsin company that has seen its worldwide design influence grow in recent years.

Tom Stilp, co-owner of Arcways in Neenah, which has been building curved and spiral staircases for more than 40 years, says he’s amazed at the evolution of staircase design as home owners seek to make their staircases a reflection of their own design aesthetic. Arcways, which ships staircases all over the world, including the Middle East, Asia and Europe, does only about 13 percent of its business in Wisconsin. Nonetheless, Stilp has seen firsthand how much value Northeast Wisconsin home owners place on personalized one-of-a-kind design.

"We’re growing by about 16 percent in dollar volume, but the number of stairways we produce has remained the same — about 200 units per year," says Stilp, "so people are obviously spending more on each stairway, adding their own touches and ideas that are unique to them."

They have many options to choose from, including hammerforged wrought-iron balustrades, custom-designed and hand-crafted by artist Boleslaw Kochanowski. There are also hand-carved wood newel posts, as well as laminated glass sidewalls with embedded fiber-optics, stone treads and risers, and an almost endless variety of exotic wood species like Brazilian cherry. One Arcways client in Hawaii is having Kochanowski hand-forge baluster details of tropical foliage like elephant leaves and parrot flowers.

"If you think about it, a staircase like this is going to be the largest millwork item in the whole house, and so we’re seeing that home owners are intimately involved in designing and creating this item," says Stilp. "It’s amazing to see how much more home owners are getting involved in the design of their homes than they were a few years ago. They are demanding intimate detail and one-of-a-kind designs that they help create, and they seem to be willing to invest much more time in it than ever before. They want to be able to tell their friends and family members that they took an active role in designing and choosing these one-of-a-kind items. I think it’s about the "wow" factor, creating a first impression with their guests."

No one knows the value of creating a "wow" factor for their guests more than Dave and Kathy Greening, who opened the Angel Inn bed and breakfast on the western shore of Green Lake in 2000. As part of their renovation of an historic 1910 Greek Revival mansion, the Greenings decided to add a curved staircase from Arcways. Though the staircase is new and replaces a more standard L-shaped stairway, it looks like it’s always been there.

"That was the intent," says Dave Greening. "It had to fit the existing décor. We thought the center point to capture people’s attention when they came in, and we think the stairway design that Arcways came up with accomplishes that."

While first impressions are important and the staircase provides a memorable one for first time visitors, the open design of the staircase continues to provide an impressive view from the second floor for guests during their stay, whether it’s watching a spectacular sunrise over the calm morning waters or enjoying the blaze of colors that accompanies sunset. It’s all about enhancing the experience of tranquil lakeside living.

"Being on the water, the view is very important and we think this offers a very elegant and open feeling," says Greening. "From their first step into the hallway in the morning, the guests see the stairway and the lake, and it’s a spectacular view. It really fits in with the experience we’re trying to provide for our guests."

The Greening’s renovation is just one example of a growing trend. While many — if not most — of Arcways staircases are going into new homes, Stilp says he’s seeing a growing market for curved staircases in existing homes that are being renovated. Some may be 100-year-old mansions like the Angel Inn, but many are of a much more recent vintage — homes built 20 or 30 years ago and grown outdated all too soon.

"A lot of the homes that were built in the ‘70s and ‘80s are outdated now. They’re being gutted down to the studs and the interiors are being completely transformed," says Stilp. I’m excited because there are many homes like that on the lakes and rivers of Northeast Wisconsin, and I think we’re going to see more of them being updated and upgraded. You know, they were designed at the time with the aesthetics that were prevalent then, but as we’ve all seen, some design aesthetics change over time and become outdated. Some things are timeless and others are fads. If you look at architectural design throughout history, curved staircases have always been an important part of elegant design, so I think it’s safe to say they aren’t a fad. They really are timeless."

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