The Helix Staircase of the Loretto Chapel
The Loretto Chapel is a small, French Gothic style church that was built in the 1870s in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the United States of America. It’s a beautiful chapel on the outside and inside and kept in good repair. It was a Roman Catholic Church that was originally run by nuns.
The inside decor is plain but beautiful, a look that you’d expect from a chapel of this size and location. But it has one striking feature that attracts architects, artists, designers and tourists alike. It is The Helix Staircase, a spiral staircase of some beauty. The nuns named it the “Miraculous Stairs.” Called such by the way of its engineering and construction.
The staircase itself is a spiral that turns 360 degrees, twice. The strange thing about this construction is that it has no centre pole, but it is structurally sound. That is only the start of the anomaly of the staircase, though. The mystery behind it lies within the way the stairs came into being, by a miracle no less, according to legend.
The nuns of the chapel, at the time of the construction and immediately after, had a dilemma, how to get access to the choir loft, that comprised a type of mezzanine floor at one end of the chapel over the doorway. There was no room to build a large traditional staircase in such a small chapel. They called on the local carpenters for advice, but none had a suitable solution.
The nuns prayed to Joseph for his help: Joseph a humble carpenter, a hardworking man who married the Virgin Mary, known to Catholics as Saint Joseph. Looked upon as the patron saint of carpenters and hard workers alike.
Sometime later, a man answered their prayers. He turned up offering to do the work on the staircase but had a condition that he could be alone in the chapel for three months. Strangely enough, he only had a few simple tools including a hammer, and saw and a T-Square.
He constructed the staircase on time, with wooden pegs for nails. It was a marvellous and beautiful construction, a work any designer or joiner would be proud of. It was perfectly symmetrical and had no middle column to support it. The usual construction of a spiral staircase is around a central column as a crucial part of its structure, but not this one. The engineering was so that he had designed it without one. An unusual method and should not be able to support anyone on the staircase, but it does and has done so for over 140 years.
After he finished the work, the carpenter left, collecting no payment. Never seen again by the nuns; they looked for him, but to no avail. Another mystery was where did the wood come from? In the 1990s, the manager of the chapel took a small piece of wood from the original part of the stairs (someone fitted the balusters10 years later for safety reasons) and sent it away for analysis. The results showed it was an unknown species of spruce. The wood was strong and dense and is like wood grown in freezing climates where it grows slowly. None grows in the area, anything even similar would need transporting thousands of miles from abroad.
Many experts have visited the chapel over the years to find the staircase intriguing by the craftsmanship and beauty of it. But such skill is not altogether impossible for the artisans of the day. History shows many structures of undeniable Intricacy and detail, but what makes this different is the story of the nuns praying for help, the stranger visiting the chapel and the engineering involved that almost defies gravity, and built by one man with a hand full of tools.
Of course, the story could be true or exaggerated. If we look closely at the design, we can see that if such a construction comprised pieces of wood that are fixed together and glued to become one solid piece, then it is feasible to suggest such a construction would work.
Even if the wood was sourced from thousands of miles, it would have still been quite possible, the only problem that might have hindered the project here would have been the cost.
Regarding the craft workers of the time, well, I would suggest that they would have been in good supply, even the highly skilled ones. You only have to look back in time to realise this, in an age of wood used for many elaborate constructions, the galleons that sailed the seven seas for instance.
There have been suggestions that the entire structure started and finished in France and shipped there as one solid construction. This is a possibility, but as mentioned above, the stranger brought with him only a few tools, including a T-Square. The interesting thing here is that T-Square. They use a square of this nature in architectural drawing, usually laid flat across a board. It is not a tool for fashioning wood, which would suggest that the carpenter designed the construction in situ.
Miracles happen, so miracle or not? You decide. But the facts are that it is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and an intriguing example of clever engineering, built almost 150 years ago in a plain chapel in a small town in New Mexico, US.
D. Marsden © 2020