When my wife suggested to me three years ago that her dream was to buy a 19th-century historic home, my reaction was mixed. On the one hand, I believe dreams are meant to be fulfilled, and I wholeheartedly support my wife’s passions. On the other hand, as a life-long wheelchair user, I wasn’t convinced of the practicality. After all, we had a fully-accessible ranch-style home I’d designed and built 13 years earlier. Life was easy and good, right down to my beloved roll-in shower. However, in my mid-40s, looking for my next life change and adventure, I was intrigued by my wife’s dream of a “forever home.” I’d enjoyed growing up on rural land, and the thought of an old farmhouse on acreage seemed a tantalizing break from development living. But would I — a 21st century power chair user with CP — be able to reside in a 19th-century home?
As we began looking at homes, my accessibility concerns proved true. On the east coast, in our region, single-story homes are extremely rare — non-existent in the circa 1900 era. We found countless dream homes, but all were multiple-story, with grand staircases. They would make great settings for a remake of Gone with the Wind, but how could they be practical for a power chair user.
After several months of looking at homes and frustration, I finally realized all was not lost and, in fact, I became inspired by the challenge of making a historic home wheelchair accessible.
The biggest hurdle? How to get from the first to the second floor. Bathrooms and kitchens are relatively easy to make accessible; however, getting a power chair to a second floor would take some thought, expense, and technology.
I began by looking into residential elevators. While wonderful and appropriate for my mobility needs, they had major drawbacks. First, an elevator needs a shaft, so a physical space and substantial construction were needed. Second, such an elevator costs around $50,000, which is a lot to put into such a niche aspect of a house, likely putting it over market value. Lastly, an elevator takes months to order and install, with a lot of unknowns when retrofitting a 100-something-year-old home.
With an elevator ruled out, I turned to incline platform lifts. If you’re familiar with a conventional stair lift that uses a chair on a track, it’s the same concept, only instead of a chair, it’s a platform that you roll your wheelchair onto and travel up the staircase. The cost is around $15,000, and as long as the staircase is of appropriate dimensions, installation takes less than a day. With this technology researched, I knew that if my wife and I could find the right home, with the right staircase, we could install such a lift.
As our house hunt continued, we paid special attention to staircase layout and dimensions. The incline platform lift I wanted, manufactured by Harmar, required a straight-up staircase — no bends! — that was wider than 37 inches with at least 57 inches of floor space at the landing. After spending over a year looking, we found our dream home, built in 1829, with a staircase that appeared compatible with adding a Harmar incline platform lift.
We purchased the home, and the lift was installed with a few predictable hurdles when working with an older home — wall studs weren’t on center, and the overall width of the staircase varied by an inch from top to bottom, making a tight fit at points. Nevertheless, the lift worked!
The biggest challenge ended up being not with the lift, but the weight of modern full-size power chairs. Some full-power seating, complex rehab power chairs weigh in at 400 pounds unoccupied, so it’s easy to exceed the lift’s 500-pound weight capacity. Fortunately, I’m slender and have a compact power chair that works within the lift’s capacity. However, for most individuals, a manual wheelchair is the most compatible mobility product for this type of lift.
As home projects tend to go, adding an incline platform lift to a 19th-century farmhouse wasn’t without its challenges. But for the first time in my life, I have an accessible multistory home. Although this isn’t a practical project or living arrangement for everyone, I have observed that the cow pasture does appear greener from the second floor.