Newel posts – used to anchor the balustrade of an open staircase – have had many different looks over the centuries. Because of their high visibility at the foot of a stair, “starting” newels are often larger and more ornamental than secondary newels which typically follow over the course of several levels. These high-profile architectural elements have their own distinctive charm and can often tell us something about the house or building that surrounds them. Unfortunately, many old buildings have lost their original newel posts and balustrades in the name of modernization – often creating the impression of a younger structure. Age- and style-appropriate newel posts greatly enhance the character of their respective buildings; their presence is significant where architectural integrity is concerned.
Unless otherwise noted, photographic images below have been harvested from the absolutely fascinating (and habit-forming) Old House Dreams which culls through real estate offerings on Zillow and similar sites for the most interesting old houses on the market! Unfortunately, few realtors seem to know how to photograph a staircase and inevitably their listing photos show staircases starting half-way up the flight (or, perhaps even more teasingly, show only the tops of newel posts as if the rest of it were somehow irreleveant). It seems counter-intuitive, but many real estate listings for two-story homes don’t even bother to show the staircase at all! This has made finding good images somewhat challenging.
As with most things in life, the following are generalities and not absolutes; there are almost always exceptions to any rule. But the newel posts below will illustrate what was often common for styled houses in many parts of the United States for their respective time slots. Many of these examples will be from homes of the wealthy and are not always representative of what was typical for more modest, vernacular, interpretations of the styles represented. And specific styles, of course, don’t stop and start at precise dates; they were often popular both before and after the time frames shown below. For the sake of brevity, more obscure styles have been omitted. I’ll start with 1850, and work toward the present… one decade at a time! Part Two will follow eventually…
1850’s Popular architectural styles in the 1850’s included Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and Italianate.
1854 Greek Revival, Rayle, Georgia. This turned newel is beefier than many of its earlier, Colonial-era, predecessors but more petit than some that were then more fashionable. It evokes the 1850’s South very well.
1851 Gothic Revival, South Windsor, Connecticut. This chamfered newel is in a house designed by Alexander Jackson Davis.
1855 Italianate, Keokuk, Iowa. This handsome newel post is transitional between earlier turned posts and the later, beefier, hexagonal and octagonal shapes that were to soon become popular. The paint is not original; the handrail, balustrade and newel post are all likely of walnut.
1860’s Popular architectural styles in the 1860’s included Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire and Stick.
1867 Greek Revival, Humboldt, Nebraska. This has been painted and is only half-visible – but you get the idea.
1860’s Gothic Revival, Salem, New Jersey. This mid-size octagonal newel somehow escaped being painted.
Circa 1860 Italianate, Sardis, Mississippi. Exuberantly paneled, this type of newel post was fashionable from the 1850’s through the early 1880’s and was commonly found in Gothic Revival, Italianate and Second Empire houses which were highly styled.
1870’s Popular architectural styles in the 1870’s included Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire and Stick.
1879 Gothic Revival, Saint Paul, Indiana. A paneled octagonal newel post in excellent condition! Panels appear to be inset with burled walnut, a favorite technique of the era.
1878 Italianate, The Dalles, Oregon.
1875 Second Empire, Franklin, Pennsylvania. The panels of this newel post appear to be inset with burled walnut.
1880’s Popular architectural styles in the 1880’s included Italianate, Second Empire, Stick, Queen Anne, Shingle and Romanesque Revival.
Circa 1880 Italianate, Keosauqua, Iowa. This unusual newel post shows a transition to the “box newel” which was creeping into period millwork catalogs. Its panels appear to be of burled walnut.
1880 Second Empire, Quincy, Illinois. This substantial newel post, with its stylized ornament, is characteristic of the Aesthetic Movement which was fashionable when the house was built.
1886 Stick style, Britt, Iowa. The box newel is gaining popularity; here the form is combined with a novel balustrade themed with Moorish arches.
1887 Queen Anne, Eatonton, Gerogia. This stairwell uses a combination of turned and box newels. One of the turned newels also serves as a structural post helping to support the second floor above; it sports decorative banding on the shaft and brackets at its top.
1882 Shingle style, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Mary Fiske Stoughton House, a landmark example of the Shingle style, was designed by H. H. Richardson. The woodwork was originally varnished, not painted. Sedate turned posts show restraint compared to other newels of the period. HABS photo by Jack Boucher, 1965.
1888 Romanesque Revival, Middletown, Ohio. The lamp on this large, squat, newel appears to be a 1920’s replacement.
1890’s Popular architectural styles in the 1890’s included Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, and Colonial Revival.
1896 Queen Anne, Paxton, Illinois. Round columns atop paneled box newels support an arcaded opening in this George F. Barber design, typical of his elaborate style but hinting at the Colonial Revival influence that he was soon to embrace more fully.
1899 Romanesque Revival, Brooklyn, New York. Square fluted columns atop ornate box newels support a decorative grille in this narrow but opulent hallway.
1893 Colonial Revival, Neenah, Wisconsin. A tall box newel with appliqued ornament and an elevated balustrade anchor the landing of this dignified staircase.
1900’s Popular architectural styles in the 1900’s included Queen Anne Free Classic, Colonial Revival and Neoclassical Revival.
Circa 1900 Queen Anne Free Classic, Warren, Pennsylvania. The influence of the Colonial Revival is quite evident. The newel lamp appears to be a replacement from the 1920’s.
1904 Colonial Revival, Joplin, Missouri. Stout turned balusters and paneling emulate Colonial-era tradition.
1904 Neoclassical Revival, Maryville, Missouri. Classical elements join in an asymmetrical stairway composition, A simple box newel is overshadowed by short Ionic columns.
1910’s Popular architectural styles in the 1910’s included Colonial Revival, Neoclassical Revival, Prairie and Craftsman.
1913 Colonial Revival, Amelia Court House, Virginia. The handrail terminates in a volute at the foot of the stair atop a turned newel surrounded by simple, square, balusters.
1918 Neoclassical Revival, Barnwell, South Carolina.
1908 Prairie, Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Simplified and stylized design characterized the Prairie aesthetic.
1914 Craftsman, Springfield, Minnesota. Craftsman newel posts also tend to be pared down. The slat balusters are given interest with triangular apliques.
1920’s Popular architectural styles in the 1920’s included Colonial Revival, Neoclassical Revival, Italian Renaissance Revival, Spanish Revival, Tudor Revival and Craftsman.
1928 Colonial Revival, Kendallville, Indiana. A very high-style interpretation of a Colonial stair; the newel is again ensconced by balusters.
1925 Neoclassical Revival, Hamlet, North Carolina.
1925 Italian Renaissance Revival, Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida. A lamp standard serves as a newel post at the foot of this graceful iron balustrade.
1925 Spanish Revival, Altadena, California. An iron balustrade is anchored by a fanciful iron scroll in lieu of a newel post.
Circa 1920’s Tudor Revival, Leland Grove, Illinois. These newel posts suggest a Medieval tone. Colonial-inspired stair parts, as well as simple iron balustrades with minimalist iron newels, were also used in many Tudor Revival houses of the period.
1927 Craftsman, Woodbine, Kansas. Simple box newels of Colonial inspiration are often found in later examples of the Craftsman style.
1930’s Popular architectural styles in the 1930’s included Colonial Revival, Neoclassical Revival, Spanish Revival and Tudor Revival.
1934 Colonial Revival, Shaker Heights, Ohio.
1938 Neoclassical Revival, Somerset, Massachusetts.
1936 Spanish Revival, Columbus, Ohio.
1937 Tudor Revival, Springfield, Missouri. Many Tudor Revivals used balustrades of Colonial inspiration such as this one.