By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
In 1992, Bill and Janet Rigby were walking through 73 Elm St., deciding whether to buy that imposing Victorian home that, broken up into eight apartments, had fallen on hard times.
Hard times, yes. But there were hints of its former glory as home to Judge Walter H. Bunn’s clan, none moreso than the 30-step staircase that wound up from the ground floor to the third-floor attic.
All 67 balusters – the supports that connect the railing and the staircase foundation – were in place.
Bill Rigby, who had worked on restoration projects on Staten Island – he also operates American Historic Hardware here, replacing original hinges and fixtures – and Janet, who
had collaborated with him, couldn’t wait to get started.
But on buying the home and taking possession, they discovered: One of the balusters was gone.
“It was obvious: One was missing,” said Bill. “It was there when we walked through the house. It wasn’t there on the day of the closing.”
Over almost three decades, the Rigbys – at times with help from son Will and daughter Emily, now grown –painstakingly restored the house to its original glory – parquet floors, Victorian-era wallpaper, period light fixtures, leading up to the final challenge: The 65-baluster staircase.
They’ve learned the staircase was always considered a prize, an example of English staircase building, shipped here intact and installed in 1878.
Bill discovered the staircase was originally built for a larger hallway, and he and Art Calhoun of Calhoun & Son, the noted local metalworkers, designed bracing to reinforce the structure in its second home.
“This was so rickety,” said Bill, grabbing the banister. “Now it’s solid as it can be.”
The risers – the steps – were of English elm, and were painstakingly refinished. Janet created trompe l’oeil wainscoting, mirroring the stairs’ color – with trim matching the balusters – and creating a dramatic sweep.
And Bill, one by one, repaired each of the 66 uprights.
When built in England, the balusters were put in place with wooden pegs. But, when reinstalled, carpenters had hammered cut iron nails to hold them in place; many had since snapped.
Bill removed all the broken nails, and – in his basement shop – replaced all wood that had been broken off or nicked over the years. At a tag sale at Reiss’s Moving & Storage a few years ago, he picked up a couple of common walnut doors, using that matching wood to repair the original English walnut verticals.
Now, the years-long project is near the end. And still, the staircase is one original baluster short.
Who removed it? The Rigbys wonder. Maybe it’s in somebody’s attic. Maybe someone converted it into a standing lamp.
“If it happened to be around, we would love to see it,” said Janet, “no questions asked.”
Can you help solve the mystery?
The Rigbys have issued an appeal. If you recognize the baluster Bill’s holding in the first picture, let the Rigbys know. Email bill as email@example.com.
Help complete the restoration of a piece of Cooperstown history.