Looking Up

by Don Friedman on April 12, 2017


Ever wonder why they’re called “stair wells“? The photograph above gives the answer: the old-fashioned version has a continuous open shaft that the stairs and stair halls wrap around, creating a well or tunnel effect.

That photo is looking up from the second floor of 224 Centre Street, built in 1848 as Odd Fellows Hall and expanded with two more floors of loft space for a printer in 1881-2. That stairwell is actually a good tip-off that the building predates the first comprehensive building code in New York, enacted in 1882. Wood stairs with open wells, like this one, are about the worst possible configuration in a fire. The fire will spread – as was proven time and time again in the nineteenth century – up the stairs. This type of stair will simultaneously fail in its egress function and actively serve as a route for fire spread. That’s why open-well wood stairs were outlawed in 1882 and why those that remain, like this one, have had sprinklers retrofitted.

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