Cable rails and open treads expand a claustrophobic split-level entry.

Reconfiguring a Split-Level Entry

by Benna Crawford

A split-level entry can be a cluttered stroller-park, a dumping ground for book bags and coats as kids race up or downstairs -- or a serene, sophisticated introduction to your home. If your split-level foyer feels crowded and chaotic, hemmed in by too many stairwells and poorly defined, invest in an upgrade to make the foyer a feature, rather than a drawback -- and stash the strollers, rubber boots and sports gear next to the side entrance in the garage.

1. Sleek Steel Staircases

A split entry represents a pause between two choices as you decide whether to head for the basement rec room or the upper-level living and bedrooms. Obliterate the sense of hesitation by opening the entry completely with carbon steel posts and see-through stainless steel cable railings, open plank steps and uncurtained expanses of glass in picture and clerestory windows. The view as you step inside your door is all one wide space, full of light, unobstructed and unenclosed. The open entry unifies two or more levels into a sophisticated bi- or tri-level staging area with substantial glimpses of the open rooms on each floor. It's a modern design that works well with spare contemporary furnishings, a carefully edited modern art collection and high ceilings -- toys scattered on every floor optional.

2. Outer Limits

When you can't expand inward to make your split-level entry feel less precipitous, build out. Create more of a gradual introduction to your space with a pillared, extended front porch that focuses attention on the main door and establishes an atmosphere of arrival. A curving path from the street to the door, one or two steps up, porch pillars framing the doorway and good outdoor entry lighting slow guests down and prepare them to step into your up-or-down staircase foyer. If there's no room for a porch, enclose a slab outside the front door with wood-framed glass, like a conservatory. Add a few climate-appropriate, low-maintenance plants, a glass door that echoes the main front door with hardware and paint colors, and lighting that sets the greenhouse anteroom aglow by night.

3. Welcome Station

A split-level foyer large enough to turn around in should be a stopping point, not just a pass-through. Tile the floor with variegated Mediterranean terracotta and set a primitive African hand-carved wood bench against one wall. Hang large modern or folk art pieces on opposite walls and spotlight the bench and art with galley spots that are ceiling- or wall-mounted, depending on ceiling height. If the entry must have a coat rack, hunt for one made from a real tree branch and tuck a large clay pot of bamboo, indoor tree or giant hanging fern in the corner. Treating the entry as an event in itself prevents the sense of uncontained energy running upstairs and downstairs all at once in the space.

4. Book Nook

Get some use out of that empty, soaring space from the front door entry to the cathedral ceiling of the top level of your home. Constructing a loft over the front foyer gives you a small, additional upstairs area to stock with built-in bookshelves, a comfortable reading chair and lamp, and even a computer station or writing desk if there's room. It's a cozy spot for kids to play while you work, or do homework on a shared family computer. Natural light will come from the windows with some help from a ceiling pendant or under-shelf lighting on the bookcases. If the new, lower ceiling in the entry costs you windows and light there, add a glass transom and glass side windows over and next to the front door to compensate.

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