KETCHIKAN — It would seem Ketchikan is the home of many staircases, from plain stairs covered in asphalt roofing shingles to handcrafted pieces of art.
When Martha Jacobson bought her house at the end of Kingfisher Road in 1986, there was plenty she wanted to do to it. One of the main projects she tackled was adding a staircase to access the loft.
The previous owners of the home reached the loft using a set of pegs stuck into the wall. Jacobson would have none of that, and, after living in the home for a year, she enlisted the help of Ketchikan carpenter Neil Weishahn to envision and create a custom staircase for her.
She said the two of them sat one afternoon and talked about her needs for the staircase. The house is not large, so the stairs could not be large. She didn’t want them to come straight down, and she wouldn’t allow them to reach into the room’s footprint very far.
“I told him to squash them as close as he could to the wall,” Jacobson said. “He did so well, they are magnificent.”
The stairs have unusually high risers, and are reminiscent of those found on a boat. With a slight curve at the bottom, they don’t protrude into the living room. The wood itself is dark, but rounded corners and a frame-like handrail don’t take up a lot of visual space.
The stairs’ support is made with 17 layers of approximately half-inch slices of Honduras mahogany and Wenge glued together. Jacobson said the beam sat in clamps in Weishahn’s workshop for two years to make sure the glue was ready.
Instead of cutting into the wood, the beam was shaped to add a slight curve at one end. Jacobson said she wanted the curve because it would be more artistic and interesting to look at.
The underside of the staircase is as finished as the top, with rounded edges to show off layers of wood and the grain.
Jacobson said Weishahn moved to California before the project was complete, and Ketchikan resident and carpenter John Stewart finished the project. Stewart helped Weishahn create the stairs’ railing and has completed many projects for Jacobson since.
“The stairs took six years, but aren’t they gorgeous?” Jacobson said. “It just gets more fantastic the more you look at it.”
Life-long Ketchikan resident and Tongass Forest Enterprises owner Larry Jackson said he was inspired by Jacobson’s home years ago, and used it as inspiration when he built his home.
“Her house has so many intricate details, and it is so warm and cozy,” he said. “I loved seeing their home.”
Jackson designed a unique staircase of his own, which was completed in 2008 before the rest of the house was completed
He said he had wanted to be able to climb through a tree to a “loft space,” but when he and the architect got together, they decided to have a large tree serve as a passageway to another level in the house.
Jackson bought the large yellow cedar from a logging company, used a boom crane to place it and built the rest of the house around it.
“It’s easy to take for granted, I walk the stairs multiple times a day,” Jackson said. “But it does strike you that you’re walking through a 210-to- 220-year-old-tree. It’s not practical to live in the woods, but if you can make the boundary less, then that’s fun.”
Jackson said logger John Gabriel used a chainsaw to carve the stairs through the trunk, and they worked with sanders and grinders to finish it.
“It’s just fun, and it adds something unique to the house,” Jackson said.
Jackson and Jacobson both used local species of wood to enhance and personalize their homes.
Jacobson recently finished a new front door for her home, using red and white cedar and ash. The project was started by Stewart, but Jacobson said that after taking a few carving classes at the Totem Heritage Center, she had “enough courage to finish it myself.”
“I figure if you’re gonna live in a house, and have a door, you might as well like your door, and your stairs and your rug,” Jacobson said. “And whatever else you have.”
Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com