Jay W. Christopher

Reconsidering the newel post

The main staircase of Glessner house is a major design element of the interior of the house, however its delicate detailing stood in stark contrast to the elaborate and intricate staircases found in many of the Prairie Avenue mansions of the period.  For the Glessner stair, H. H. Richardson looked back to the Colonial period for inspiration.  Such Colonial Revival details became fashionable at the time of the centennial of the United States in 1876, and Richardson frequently used them in his designs.  Dentil mouldings, fluted pilasters, and the configuration of fireplaces, are just some of the examples seen in Glessner house.

 For the Glessner staircase, Richardson utilized a slender turned newel post of quarter-sawn oak.  The simple post tapers upward above which is found a delicately carved section featuring several motifs including acanthus leaves and a bead trim.  The top of the newel serves as the start of the handrail which makes a graceful turn as it heads up the staircase.  Beyond, the turned balusters are carved in five different designs, repeated once on each step.  The idea for the alternating balusters came from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow house, a home that the Glessners visited when meeting with Richardson at his Brookline Massachusetts office.  Many years later, John Glessner recalled that the balusters cost $1.00 a piece to produce!

For those with an interest in learning more about the history and design of newel posts, Rolf Achilles, president of the Glessner House Museum board, has just co-curated an exhibit of newel posts at the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University in Indiana.  “The Art of the Newel” features more than 80 stunning newel posts from the collection of Jay W. Christopher.  Running through November 18, 2011, the exhibit is co-curated by Erika A. Lusthoff with the assistance of Brauer Museum of Art Director/Curator Gregg Hertzlieb.  This is the first known exhibit of its kind to focus on this specific architectural element and the assemblage is most impressive.  Posts produced from the 1880s to the 1920s represent the Italianate, Eastlake, New Gothic (Gothic Revival), and Renaissance Revival styles.  Although many appear to be hand-carved, most are in fact machine made, a reflection of the advances in technology during the mid- to late-19th century.  As such, many of the posts on exhibit were mass-produced, making them affordable to a growing middle-class. 

Complementing the exhibit are period architectural catalogs and plates illustrating additional newels and their incorporation into full staircase designs.  As a whole, the collection is an excellent way to view the changing tastes and styles of the period represented, as newel posts were frequently one of the most elaborate elements in the design of a house.

For further information on the exhibit:
Brauer Museum of Art
Valparaiso University
1709 Chapel Drive
Valparaiso, Indiana
219.464.5365
http://www.valpo.edu/artmuseum/events/index.php