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.*
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 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.
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. 
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
 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.