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 the inside and has been kept in good repair. It was a Roman Catholic Church that was originally run by nuns.
The inside décor is plane, simple 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 it was engineered and constructed.
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 consisted of 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 hard working man who married the Virgin Mary , known to Catholics as Saint Joseph. Looked upon as the patron saint of carpenters and hard workers alike.
Some time later it seems that their prayers were answered when a man 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, a saw and a T-square.
The staircase was constructed 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. Generally a spiral staircase is built around a central column as a main part of its structure, but not this one, the engineering was so that it had been designed 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 the work was finished, the carpenter left without collecting any payment. He was 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 (the ballusters were added 10 years later for safety reasons) and sent it away for analysis. The results showed that it was an unknown species of spruce. The wood was strong and dense and is similar to wood grown in very cold climates where it grows slowly. Nothing of this kind grows in the area, anything even similar would have to be transported thousands of miles from abroad.
Many experts have visited the chapel over the years and have been intrigued by the craftsmanship and beauty of the staircase. But such skill is not altogether impossible by the artisans of the day. History is littered with 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 partly exaggerated. If we look closely at the design we can see that if such a construction was made up of 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 had to be transported 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.
As regards to the craftsmen 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 when wood was used for many elaborate constructions, the galleons that sailed the seven seas for instance.
There have been suggestions that the whole structure was made 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. A square of this nature is used in architectural drawing, usually laid flat across a board. It is not a tool for fashioning wood, which would suggest that the construction was designed and constructed in situ.
Miracles do happen, so, miracle of 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 and simple chapel in a small town in New Mexico, US.