The Stair that Ate My Pants: Adventures in the Field

I’ve always viewed intellectual curiosity in a positive light. My curiosity has propelled my career, and helped forge paths to interesting places populated by interesting people. But sometimes, one must temper curiosity in light of rotting wood – and accept that sunlight shining through a roof isn’t necessarily an invitation for forward movement. I learned this the hard way the day the winder stairs ate my pants.*

This 1840s brick dwelling housed the stairs that so cruelly attacked me…

The day started off innocuously enough. I was excited to be visiting what had been described as the second oldest brick house in the county, purportedly built by the first sheriff in the area. Any  opportunity to see the interior of a historic house is not to be missed, especially when 95% of my job involves the exterior only (and lots of musing about what is hidden beyond the walls).

The entry door on the facade.

The house, vacant for quite some time, had a fenestration pattern of window/window/door/ window on the facade. Based on this, it appeared to be a hall-parlor plan. We made our way cautiously inside. The only light came from the doorway, for all of the other openings had been boarded up.

The plan of the house, drawn by William J. Macintire. A partition wall was added at a later date in the room on the right to form a sort of hallway (akin to a central passage).

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may have picked up that I am way into floor plans – when studying vernacular architecture, the layout of the interior will often tell you more about the occupants than any sort of ornamentation on the exterior of the house. Our hypothesis proved correct: the house was a hall-parlor, with a later partition wall added to the right of the entry to form a hallway.

The hall-parlor plan house is one of the earliest European derived house plans. The most common arrangement of hall-parlor plans is that of two rooms aligned end to end, with fireplaces at one or both gable ends. The high end examples had a fireplace in each room; other early structures had only one heated room. The hall was an all-purpose room; usually the larger of the two rooms, while the parlor, usually with a higher level of finish, was reserved for entertainment, sleeping or display of the family’s finer possessions, such as portraits or silver. After the 1830s, hall-parlor plans became associated with households of less affluence and stature. [1]

A detail of one of the masonry wall – three bricks thick.

In Kentucky, floor plans – just like architectural styles – tend to linger longer than in more urban, east coast areas. The house, laid in five-row common bond brick, likely dates from the 1840s, as  the interior is unabashedly Greek Revival with Greek ear door surrounds and two-panel vertical doors.

Woodwork on one of the gable end walls.

The interior finish that remained was fashionable for its time, which suggested that although the builder utilized an older, less stylish floor plan, details mattered.

What I really wanted to know, however, was whether or not the upstairs was heated.

I wasn’t thinking about moving in, but if the second story rooms were heated, then we knew a bit more about the original owner. Many upper stories were not heated during this period, so if the original owner could:

A.) Afford to build a brick house and

B.) heat all of the rooms,

C.) he was fairly well-off!

So I made my way toward the stair.

Oh treacherous staircase!

Located against the back wall of the house, the stair definitely showed signs of neglect. I figured if I kept my  body aligned over the stringers, everything would be alright.

It wasn’t.

I spy the fireplace! And the sky above…

I managed to get most of the way up and crane my neck (and camera) to ascertain that yes, there were fireboxes in the room, so it was heated.

And then the wood beneath me gave way, and down I went through the stair.

Fortunately, I was standing on one of the winder steps, which was wider than the other treads, and only plunged three to four feet to the first floor – which thankfully did not give way. I was fine, with only a few cuts (and some very impressive bruises), but the seat of my pants did not fare so well – they stubbornly resisted gravity and remained behind (pun intended).

The damage looks light in this angle, but many, many safety pins went into the temporary repair. I still mourn the loss of those pants.

Living up to my early years in the Girl Scouts, I was prepared. Not with a second pair of pants, which would have been preferable, but with a number of safety pins that I used to cobble my seat back together. Our trip to the brick house, you see, took place in the morning, and we had additional site visits for the rest of the day. My wardrobe malfunction had to be addressed.

For some time after this incident, I carried additional pants with me during fieldwork. I also resisted temptation when exploring buildings left open to the elements – if there isn’t a skylight, then I shouldn’t be seeing the clouds – and I shouldn’t be climbing those steps.



*A winder stair is just what its name suggests: an enclosed staircase that winds around on itself, rather than being a straight run. They are more utilitarian than an open stair.

[1] Gabrielle M. Lanier and Bernard L. Herman, Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic: Looking at Buildings and Landscapes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 16.


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  1. Annie Jaech says:

    I didn’t want your story to end! I, too had a run in – with Outhouse That (almost) Ate Me. On a routine cruise to check on the 1840s homes of my family, I stopped at the rural church cemetery I knew so well. ‘Decided to use the outhouse. Oh yes, I was alone. It was over 100 degrees that day and the little two seater was truly an oven. Rather than think, I didn’t think.
    The door had to be closed with a little peg like thingy or I couldn’t sit down. So I did that and took a half step back. At one with the shift of my weight was the shifting of the entire structure. The outhouse was at a frightening slant to my right. It was dark as a cave. And hot as hell. And the door was stuck tight. The shape of the structure had changed but the shape of the door was square at every corner.
    I pushed with my whole body and mind. Nothing happened. Fighting panic, I thought: “My family is buried here and they disapprove;” and at the same instant, “I will die very quickly in this heat and stench, so I must act!”
    I weighed only 115# but my legs were strong from hiking and skiing. There I was, lying at an odd angle across the two uncovered holes. Big, mighty thrust of legs (odd angle). Nothing. So, a very quick supplication, and another blow (even mightier). I could see a thin stripe of daylight. With head swimming from the heat, I threw my body on the door and fell to the grass.
    The outhouse was built upon 4 large stones that had been buried so that there was a level plane for the floor. The stones were intact, but the building had come off the left rear stone (the door was hard to the left). I haven’t been in an outhouse since then.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Oh my! I would much rather fall through the stairs than have your experience! I am so glad you made out alright…and thanks for reading!

  2. C.S.Miller says:

    Janie, I hope you have some homeopathic arnica gel for the bruising, and the pain.

    And a comment to Annie Jaech: In 2000 there was a SW Virginia man who fell through his outhouse. He was not discovered for a while. His mailman heard his cries.

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