A "Miracle" Staircase
While discussing installation techniques with a client they mentioned a “miracle” staircase that had supposedly been assembled without the use of any nails. Of course, our curiosity was piqued, and we had to learn more about this. After a few quick searches online, we found ourselves immersed in the story behind the double helix spiral staircase in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This chapel, which was commissioned in 1873 by the Sisters of Loretto to be used for their girls’ school, was designed by two French architects; a father-son team Antoine and Projectus Mouly. The building was designed in a Gothic Revival style featuring imported stained glass, buttresses and spires. Unfortunately, Antoine passed before the completion of the chapel and never saw his work complete. With his passing came the challenge of finishing an all-important detail.
The chapel included a choir loft positioned about 22’ above the main floor, the chapel being so small meant they couldn’t install a traditional staircase. It was very common for the time to have ladders to a choir loft, but the Sisters protested as their attire wasn’t very ladder friendly
Here’s where the “miracle” part of the story comes in. After consulting several carpenters without finding a viable solution for their problem the Sisters took to their faith and prayed for an answer. The story goes that for nine straight days the entire order prayed to St. Joseph – the patron saint of carpenters – and on the 9th day a man arrived at their door with his mule and tools. The story can vary a little at this point, some renditions say he completed the work over night and others say it took six to eight months. Some stories say that he only worked when the chapel was empty, others say he asked the Sisters for tubs of water to soak the wood. Most amazingly is the realization that the staircase was in fact constructed without metal nails or screws, but rather wooden pegs. Which isn’t uncommon for the era, metal fasteners weren’t easily attainable and alternate methods of fastening wood were commonly used. More interestingly this staircase is a marvel of physics as the staircase stands seemingly unsupported without a central post.
When the Sister’s saw the staircase completed, they were overjoyed and had planned a banquet to thank and honour the carpenter only to discover that he had vanished. Without a word and without payment for the materials or labour the mystery carpenter disappeared. The Sister’s believed that it was St. Joseph himself who answered their prayers. When it was originally constructed there were no handrails or guards, and apparently some of the nuns were so terrified of the 22’ drop that they would ascend on their hands and knees. Railings were added in 1887 by Phillip August Hesch, as well as an iron support bracket which may have been intended to reduce vertical travel and stress on the stringers.
Research done over the years has brought answers to some of the mysteries surrounding the staircase, while some of the answers seem quite fantastical themselves. But no matter how you look at it, this staircase is an absolute marvel for its’ time; and its beauty is just as wonderous as when it was first completed. The Loretto Chapel has since become a privately-owned museum, as well as operating as a venue for weddings. The staircase isn’t typically used as by modern standards it isn’t very safe, construction methodology has advanced a lot in the years since and we put a high standard on construction safety. While we would certainly agree that almost anything can be built the question remains, how will it age? Ensuring that any structural component of a build has the longevity to remain structural over time is a demanding process. A lot of careful thought and planning goes into each of our staircases and we can appreciate the effort that was put into making this one.
I don’t know about you, but we sure want to go on a road trip and check this stunning staircase out for ourselves.