Winding History

13 Staircases Worth the Climb (Photos)

Looking at any major city today, it's hard to imagine a time without staircases. A new book takes a look at the winding history of getting from one floor to the next.

First it was guns, germs and steel, then it was salt—now, it’s the invention of stairs that changed the history of mankind. In a new book, Staircases (published by Vendome Press this month), co-authors Oscar Tusquets Blanca, Martine Diot, Adelaïde de Savray, Jérôme Cognard, and Jean Dethier present a sweeping history of the innovation that allowed man to get off the flat ground and start walking through space. Using examples from the past 900 years, they explain the important position steps have held in our history; going well beyond just a functional—and often decorative—place in the home, staircases have also been imbued with meaning, particularly as a sign of social status (the primary, ceremonial set in the front of the house versus the servants’ stairs hidden in the back). With beautiful images of a range of stairways—from the steps of a Mayan pyramid to those of Versailles, from palaces to private homes, from the grand stairway at the Paris Opéra to those on the roof of Gaudí’s Casa Milà, from the round ramp at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City to I.M. Pei’s innovative design at the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar—see a history of the trends, innovations, and modernizations of the seemingly simple invention that helps us get from one floor to the next. 

Catherine Donzel

Steps climbing up to the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka.

Marc Walter

Staircase in the building that accommodates the Oeuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg. This stair, built by Hans Thomann Ulberger in 1578-85, consists of a newel in the form of a hollow spiral encircled by slender Corinthian columns. The underside of the steps is decorated with fluting and lopped branch motifs.

Marc Walter

The staircase of the Hôtel de Ville in Nancy, built in 1755, has decorative wrought-iron balustrades by Jean Lamour. Above the landing rise trompe-l’oeil frescoes by Jean Girardet.

Massimo Listri

The monumental staircase of the Palazzo Canossa in Mantua, built in the seventeenth century and refurbished in 1779 by Paolo Pozzo. The spirit of the Baroque emerges here in the figures that greet the visitor on the landing.

Dennis Gilbert

For his austerely elegant staircase at Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland, Sir John Vanbrugh took his inspiration from the Palladian style introduced by Inigo Jones a century earlier.

Florian Monheim

The steps leading up to the palace of Sanssouci, built in Potsdam for Frederick the Great of Prussia from 1745.

Marc Walter

The staircase leading to the apartments of Ludwig II of Bavaria in his castle at Neuschwanstein, built by Edward Riedel, Christian Jank, and Georg Dollmann. The decorations, a hybrid of the Gothic and the exotic, were designed by Julius Hofmann in 1881.

The grand staircase, also called the Cedar Staircase, at Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire, built in the 1830s and 1840s. The paternity of this precocious masterpiece of the Baroque Revival remains a mystery: it is attributed variously to Anthony Salvin, William Burn, and David Bryce.

Pierre Louis

One of the cast-iron spiral staircases in the State Law Library of Iowa in Des Moines (1884).

Bastom & Evrard/Brussels

Victor Horta’s house for the Tassel family in Brussels, built in 1892. In 2000 it was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Schuetze/Rodemann

The access steps to the observatory overlooking the former industrial wasteland of Lausitzer Seenland, Senftenberg, Germany. This monumental work, completed in 2008, is by the Architektur & Landschaft group.

Jochen Helle

I.M. Pei’s staircase at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar (2008).