St. Louis Stair and Wood Work - Building A Reputation One Step at a Time
August 14, 2011 | 7:03 pm CDT

Specializing in stair restoration for local homes and businesses, St. Louis Stair also is known for its reliability and quality craftsmanship.


Dennis Jakovac, owner of St. Louis Stair and Wood Works, has been applying his woodworking skills to staircases in the greater St. Louis area since 1981. He was first drawn to that millwork specialty when he "hooked up" with a county-based organization that was refurbishing old houses.

"They were working on a 100-year-old house, and nobody on the crew knew what to do with the stairs which were falling apart," he says. "I went to the library and read everything I could put my hands on to figure out what to do with those stairs. Then I went back to the house and put the stairs back together. While working on this project, it occurred to me that most of the elements of a staircase are a series of geometric forms. I could tell that my love of geometry and my math background in college was going to pay off."

Although he cut his teeth by restoring old stairs, Jakovac says he quickly figured out the important business strategy of diversification. Consequently, he developed his skills so that he could install stairs for new construction and make changes to existing staircases when people were interested in redecorating. Now, his work at any given time is a reflection of the economy.

"If the economy is brisk and lots of new houses are being built, I will be spending the majority of my time creating staircases for those new homes," he says. "When things slow down, people are more inclined to stay put and remodel and redecorate. That is when I get to participate in the process of replacing the outdated styles with whatever is currently the latest look."

Jakovac has been around long enough to witness both the demise and the rejuvenation of styles in stairs. His wife and business partner, Mary Jo, explains that over the years they have seen trends come and go. "Things have gone from dark to light, and now the majority of the interiors feature medium tones," she says. "One look that seems to always survive, though, is the use of natural wood in combination with wood that is painted white.

"In any case, almost everything in the interior of a house seems to follow what is going on in the kitchen," she adds. "However, we have noticed a trend adopted from European kitchens to use bright colors that we don't expect to see showing in staircases."

There also is a new trend to place the stairs in a prominent location in the house, Dennis Jakovac says. "Stairs used to be placed in the back of a lot of houses. Now they are becoming the 'hood ornament' of homes," he says.

For several years, Jakovac's skills were frequently utilized to solve a problem that many homeowners in St. Louis' historic Lafayette Square district were having with their stairs.

"In the three-story townhouses that were built there in the 1880s, the staircases were placed next to an outside wall. From the foundation to the roof, there was nothing holding the wall plumb," Jakovac says. "Over the years, the vibration caused by footsteps going up and down the stairs pushed the wall away from the edge of the stairs, causing a gap that could be as wide as one inch. It wasn't dangerous, but people were uncomfortable with that gap. Actually, it was often something that the present owners had put up with for years, but when they were going to sell the house, they figured that leaving the gap there would make it more difficult to sell."

The technique that he used to close up the gap was to place a threaded rod from the outside of the outside wall through each riser on the stair. Then, over a three-day period, he slowly turned the rod, causing the stair and the riser to reconnect.

"It has been several months since my last job in Lafayette Square. Now that I think about it, I probably have taken care of all of the houses in that neighborhood with that particular problem," he says.

St. Louis Stair also has gotten a lot of work in historic buildings that have experienced extreme neglect during decades of abandonment. One example is the former Austral Gallery, an art gallery that sold contemporary Australian art and was housed in a home at 2115 Park Ave. in the heart of Lafayette Square. The structure needed extensive restoration to the stairs before it could be opened.

Before the building was purchased for the gallery, many elements of its beautiful walnut staircase had damage and missing pieces, Jakovac says. As is customary during stair renovation, he first removed and numbered all of the baluster and handrail pieces to work on the treads and do repairs to the skirt boards. For this particular job, damaged and missing decorative acanthus leaves also needed to be repaired and, in some instances, totally recreated. Then the existing balusters and handrails were reinstalled from the first to the third floor, along with the missing pieces that were crafted by Jakovac.

Another interesting project was Jakovac's work on a structure that local residents fondly refer to as "the Warner mansion," which also needed a great deal of attention before it could become the current site for the Mental Health Institute. This mansion was originally constructed to be the home of lumber magnate Erastus H. Warner, who contracted around 1890 with architect Theodore C. Link to build his home at 1905 South Grand Avenue in St. Louis. Built around 1890, each room is decorated in a different kind of wood.

Over the years, an elaborate red oak staircase and landing on the second floor had been badly vandalized. In some areas, enough of the gingerbread pieces were missing to make it impossible to determine what the original pattern had been. Mary Jo Jakovac had the challenge of coming up with a design that would meet with the approval of the architect in charge of restoring the building. In order to create a pattern and design that was compatible and authentic, she says she relied on resources at the architecture library at Washington University. For that job, Dennis Jakovac recreated thousands of small wooden pieces, many of which required both bending and twisting.

Over the years, Dennis and Mary Jo have preferred to keep their business small. Currently, they gross about $250,000 annually. Mary Jo runs the showroom and Dennis does the woodworking. Mary Jo confided that when they first got started, she was "invisible" to contractors.

"They had a hard time believing that I could possibly know anything about the business," she says. "But I have held my ground and insisted that they get used to talking to me, and it seems to have worked."

She adds that people seem to genuinely appreciate working with a small operation and the fact that Jakovac does all of the woodworking himself.

"When people come into the showroom and ask me where we get our workers, I can tell what they are thinking," says Mary Jo. "They have a mental picture of us going down to the union hall and hiring workers there more or less on the spot, without knowing a whole lot about their skills. When I explain that we do all of our own work, they get a big smile on their faces and their eyes light up."

The equipment is their 2,800-square-foot workshop is basic. Jakovac uses Bosch drills and belt sander and a Makita plunge router and biscuit joiner. Other equipment includes a Reliant Joiner, a Foley-Belsaw moulder/planer, a Delta drill press, a DeWalt radial arm saw and a Mini-Max duplicating lathe.

Mary Jo says that the biggest challenge she has when negotiating with customers for a job is that she finds it difficult to tell people when Dennis will be ready to begin. Usually she tells a customer that they will probably have to wait six to eight weeks, but that when Dennis is ready to work on their job, he will be finished with the previous job and ready to concentrate completely on theirs.

Mary Jo observes that she and Dennis complement each other in their work styles. "In order to be successful in this type of work, you have to be able to complete what you start," she says. "We both do that. This reliability and quality craftsmanship are what keeps us going."


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