The Niche…Revisted

A few months ago I began restoring the stairhall niche.

This little space is, per square inch, the most architecturally jammed-packed in the entire house. In an area about 3-feet wide x 5-feet there are two paneled doors with elaborate trim, three arched stained-glass windows with elaborate trim, and two carved oak columns supporting a grand arch.


Sadly, most of this has been invisible for decades. The old shellac on the wood had turned a dark brown, obscuring most of the detail. There is no overhead light. The daylight from the north windows puts everything else in shadow. Indeed, I owned the house for about a year before having any idea of the glory of the niche, when I hooked up a 500W work light and went: Oh. Oh my!

Removing the old shellac offers an almost instant transformation. Some readers worry that I am making the wood too light but, as I have previously detailed, this is not true. Over and over and over again in the house I have discovered pristine finishes which had been covered over by something and these finishes are always very light.

And this makes sense. In an era where lighting would have been very dim by modern standards, having light finishes would have been greatly desired over dark, light-absorbing finishes.


After laboriously redoing the ‘snake” (an absurd AC duct) I was was able to restore the original ceiling height in the niche. The lowered ceiling had been just above the door trim. NOTE: I have the missing trim above the window.


The arch was so dark that one had zero idea…


…that it had a faux wood finish. This is painted directly on the plaster, giving the appearance of an oak arch. There is a thin trim piece just above the faux finish (far left) and most of this needs to be replaced.




It will feel like quite the miracle having the niche restored as it is a numbing about of work.

But when the work is complete, I get to reward myself by hanging an extraordinary light fixture which Bo recommended I buy.




  1. B. Davis on March 31, 2018 at 1:57 pm

    A labour of love. Beautiful Ross!

  2. Sandra Lee on March 31, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    So lovely! The light finish remains me of some of the really beautifully restored 1890s wood seen in OldHouseDreams. The wood in Cross House & all the details are so amazing.

  3. Dan Goodall-Williams on March 31, 2018 at 3:45 pm

    That’s amazing. What are you using to strip that? And for the life of me I can’t tell that it isn’t a wood arch. Why are you buying a light with so much in storage?

    • Cody H on March 31, 2018 at 6:22 pm

      Denatured alcohol and some elbow grease remove the alligatored shellac. It’s quite miraculous. The alcohol almost instantly dissolves it on contact.

      For the most part, the lights that Ross restores for his business are decades newer than the house, and architecturally and stylistically inappropriate. Combination gas/electric lighting was the acme of technology when the Cross house was completed in 1894, and he’s bending over backwards to try and make sure that every light fixture in the house reflects the technology of the time.

  4. SEB on March 31, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    What an astonicheing process of renewal! (sorry)

    Seeing young looking wood emerge from the old varnish reminds me of ideas of conservation expressed by a friend who is an expert at Japanese carpentry. He gets so frustrated at how wasteful it is to create throwaway objects from an enduring material like wood. And yet that is common practice these days.

    He argues that items made of wood should be built to last at least as long as the wood from which they are made. I find it deeply satisfying to see the wood of this house being conserved and renewed for the next generation.

  5. Sherry Seckler on March 31, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    I have just read your posts about selecting furniture, and I admire your rigor. I am in a long process of restoring an 1880 house that was greatly enlarged and turned more or less successfully from Eastlake to Colonial Revival. The remake was not quite finished when the owner became a guest of the state of Illinois for embezzling. He had great taste, fortunately. My take on the furniture is that it is the accumulation of generations of a family of middle income which allows some latitude. I can’t afford Belter or Herter so I won’t have any rich man’s furniture!

    I’ve known about you and your house for a couple years, but just found your blog. Thank God for people like you!

    • Ross on March 31, 2018 at 7:41 pm

      Very nice to meet you, Sherry!

  6. Marjie on March 31, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    I grew up in a Victorian style home that was built in 1894 in a small Northwest Iowa town. Unfortunately I don’t know a lot about the history of the house, but it did have its original step that you would have used to exit your carriage and tie your horse.
    All of the woodwork had been restored by the previous owner and it was all a light oak color. We had a set of sliding doors that separated the parlor from the living room and they were huge, probably 10 feet tall easily. I wish I had a picture that I could share….So I can totally see the light color of the woodwork being typical of that time period. We moved from that home after I graduated from high school and the current owners took out the step, I was crushed to see that piece of history disappear. (I believe that there was only one other left in town)

  7. Cody H on March 31, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    Have you decided whether or not you’re going to refinish the staircase after stripping the niche, or are you still trying not to think about it, such a monumental task?

    • Ross on March 31, 2018 at 7:39 pm


      What staircase?

    • Randy C on April 3, 2018 at 12:09 pm

      The niche is going to be beautiful. And yes, Cody, Ross will refinish the staircase if I have to spend the rest of my life in Emporia drinking wine while I supervise. It is my absolute favorite feature of the Cross House after the stained glass.

  8. Annette on March 31, 2018 at 7:51 pm

    After such a labour intensive task I feel you will have surely earned the right to buy a truely special light fitting. All that trim means so much work but boy is it going to have an impact when it’s finished. Looking forward to seeing it done. Easy for me to say!

  9. Seth Hoffman on March 31, 2018 at 11:11 pm

    That is looking fantastic! The faux grain painting on the plaster is remarkable, especially now that it is so clearly revealed!

    I do not envy the effort at stripping all those grooves and crevices! Our new house has a lot of badly alligatored shellac that needs stripping and renewal, but I am not excited about the labor, even though it is mostly simple, flat profiles (Circa 1926). Kudos to your patience!

  10. aBell on March 31, 2018 at 11:46 pm

    The capitals on those columns are absolutely a-maze-zing! Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! I remember when you had the windows put back in and I knew then this was possibly my favorite little nook in the Cross House. Well… there is that butler’s pantry. Oh! And that floor in the vestibule. Or maybe those tiles surrounding the bedroom fireplace? It may take a bit to decide this… I’ll get back to you. In the mean time, know there are several of us enjoying the show of resurrection of this Grand Lady.

  11. Stewart Mclean on April 1, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    Boy! With the results that you are getting with the denatured alcohol on the niche woodwork, it might be hard to stop. That is the kind of project that I find to be the most satisfying.

  12. Kim on April 1, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    It’s exciting seeing everything transform! I trust the niche will have a unique wall & ceiling to hold it’s own with the Windows & woodwork. Something shiny & reflective, perhaps? 🌟

    I’m intrigued with the lincrusta and even more so, the rope of lashed laurel spanning the arch. The mish-mash of details really ground the faux finishes to such a strong architectural element. It works so well – I would never have known it isn’t all carved!

    I can’t wait to see how this whole area turns out! I’ve got a feeling it will be a scrumptious little jewel – like a diamond earing. 🌻

  13. Architectural Observer on April 1, 2018 at 4:51 pm

    The niche can breath again with a proper ceiling height! Your transformation of the woodwork is nothing short of astonishing… looks great!

  14. San on April 1, 2018 at 5:56 pm

    Simply amazing. It’s going to be gloriously beautiful.

  15. Don F on April 1, 2018 at 6:41 pm

    Enjoy seeing you revive this Grand Old Dame….when you come and visit Aaron in Webb City give me a shout and visit our Old Gal as well. Here is our Facebook page.

  16. MrPeach on April 2, 2018 at 8:00 am


    I’m a newcomer to your site, having only become aware of it two days ago. I have read your adventure from the beginning and have been transfixed. So much so that I have been reading non-stop in spite of having other priorities I should be attending to.

    I love what you are doing, I love your old dump and I love your design ethic. Keep up the good work!

    I can hardly wait to see the results your latest grant produces.

    As I live in new New Hampshire, it’s highly unlikely I’ll be casually popping by, but I will be following your further posts with bated breath.

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