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New Mexico Chapel Showcases Magnificent Spiral Staircase

Completed in 1878, Loretto Chapel in Sante Fe, N.M., contained no ladder or stairs to its choir loft--until a carpenter came up with a helix-shaped solution that perplexes designers to this day.

By Church Designer Staff   •  July 20, 2017 12:56 pm EDT

Tags: architectural design, historic renovation, innovation, interior design,

When the Loretto Chapel in Sante Fe, N.M., was completed in 1878, there was no means to access its choir loft sitting 22 feet above. Carpenters were reportedly called in to address the issue, but all concluded that access to the loft must be via ladder since a staircase would interfere with the interior space of the small chapel.

Legend says that to find a solution to the choir seating problem, the Sisters of the Chapel made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth, final day of prayer, a man appeared at the chapel with a donkey and a toolbox for work. Months later, the elegant circular staircase was completed, and the carpenter disappeared without pay or thanks.

The stairway is reported to be a magnificent structure that perplexes experts, with two 360-degree turns and no visible means of support. In addition, it is said that the staircase was built without nails -- only wooden pegs. Questions also surround the number of stair risers relative to the height of the choir loft, and about the types of wood and other materials used in the stairway's construction.

[Editor's note: Architects and other designers who have visited the chapel in Santa Fe may leave a comment below.]

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