The Helix Staircase of the Loretto Chapel
The Loretto Chapel is a small, French Gothic style church 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 run by nuns.
The inside decor is plain but beautiful, a look 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 forms a spiral, turning 360 degrees, twice. The strange thing is, it has no centre pole, but is sound. This is the beginning of the staircase anomalies. The mystery lies within the way the stairs came into being, by a miracle no less, according to legend.
The nuns of the chapel had a dilemma: how to get access to the choir loft, a type of mezzanine floor at one end of the chapel over the doorway. There wasn’t room for a large staircase in the 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, but had a condition he could be alone in the chapel for three months. Strange enough, he had only a few simple tools, including a hammer, and a saw and a T-Square.
He constructed the staircase on time, with wooden pegs for nails. A marvellous and beautiful construction, a work any designer or joiner would be proud of. It was symmetrical and had no middle column to support it. The usual construction of a spiral staircase is around a central column, a crucial part of its structure. The engineering was so that he had designed it without one. An unusual method and should not support any weight 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 tried to locate him, but couldn’t. Where did the wood originate? In the 1990s, the manager of the chapel took a small piece of wood from the original part of the stairs. (the balusters were added 10 years later for safety reasons) and sent it away for analysis. 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 at a slow rate. None grows in the area. Anything even similar would need transporting thousands of miles from abroad.
Over the years, many experts have visited the chapel and found the staircase intriguing. They agree it is possible for artisans of the day to do such a task. 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 almost defying gravity, and built by one man with a hand full of tools.
Of course, the story could be true or exaggerated. If we look closer, we see that such a construction, comprising pieces of wood fixed together and glued to become one solid piece, would work. So, it is feasible to suggest such a construction is possible.
If they sourced the wood from thousands of miles, it would have still been quite possible. The only problem that might have hindered the project would have been the cost.
The craft workers would have been in good supply, even the highly skilled ones. Just glance 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.
One theory is of the entire structure being constructed in France and shipped as one solid piece. This is a possibility, but as mentioned above, the stranger brought with him only a few tools, including a T-Square. The T-Square is interesting. They used a square of this nature in architectural drawing, laid flat across a board. It is not a tool for fashioning wood, which would suggest the carpenter designed the construction in situ.
Miracles happen, so miracle or not? You decide. But the facts remain: 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