"No one knows, or if they do, it's a closely guarded secret, who built this staircase.
Loretto Staircase Facts
- Well worth the visit and money to see
- Spiral stringers that support treads are just simple beams
- Design very common throughout Europe for centuries before
- Miracle man built it but using common engineering in your own home
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DEAR TIM: I recently was vacationing in Santa Fe, NM, and saw the Loretto Chapel staircase. It’s a beautiful wooden circular staircase thought to be constructed between 1877 and 1881 by an unknown carpenter.
There's no center support and nothing seems to be holding up this staircase but the will of God, or so promulgates the private owners of this building. Is the miraculous staircase in the Loretto Chapel just that, or is there a scientific explanation for why it’s not a pile of splinters on the chapel floor?
Michele B., Minneapolis, MN
DEAR MICHELE: I’ve also seen the Loretto Chapel spiral staircase in person.
Loretto Chapel Staircase - Work of Art
It’s a magnificent work of art, that humbles me, and I've done my fair share of finish carpentry, including installing several circular staircases. To create a staircase today like this using an assortment of power tools and modern hand tools would be a feat.
Is it Really Possible To Build It Without Power Tools?
Yes, it's possible to build a circular staircase like this without power tools. It’s mind-boggling to think about constructing such a marvel with crude hand tools, no electricity, and minimal resources.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Nothing in this column is meant to question your faith about who built this magnificent staircase. The discussion that follows simply speaks to the regular engineering principals that everyday engineers and builders use to build things.
No one knows, or if they do, it's a closely guarded secret, who built this staircase. It's without question a magnificent example of finish carpentry that was done by other carpenters in Europe for hundreds of years before this staircase was built in the desert southwest of the USA by some mystical carpenter.
How Complex is the Staircase?
It's very complex to create a circular staircase.
But that doesn’t make it impossible, nor more complex or mystical than many other building and engineering masterpieces that are clearly visible in old structures around the world.
Another key point is there are countless examples of extraordinary workmanship like this scattered all over Europe in cathedrals, castles and royal residences like Versailles.
What Do the Owners of the Chapel Claim?
The current private owners of the Loretto Chapel state on their website:
“The stairway confounds architects, engineers and master craftsmen. It makes over two complete 360-degree turns, stands 20 feet tall and has no center support. It rests solely on its base and against the choir loft. The risers of the 33 steps are all of the same height. Made of an apparently extinct wood species, it was constructed with only square wooden pegs without glue or nails.”
Who are the Confounded Architects?
When I read that statement it makes me wonder if the owners of the Chapel have only talked to a handful of architects, engineers or master craftsmen or they didn’t listen closely when they talked. It’s painfully obvious to me that there's nothing miraculous holding this staircase in position.
Have the Owners of the Chapel Challenged Your Claims?
The owners of the Loretto Chapel have never reached out to me to challenge what you're about to read.
It’s important to realize the Loretto Chapel staircase is subject to the same laws of physics as any staircase in your own home, even if they’re not circular. Another key point is I'm quite certain the owners of the chapel have Google alerts set and knew about this article within a day of it being written.
What Secrets Did the Carpenter Possess?
The carpenter that built the Loretto Chapel staircase knew about the secrets of circular staircase construction that had been known for hundreds of years in Europe.
This will all make sense if you allow me to explain to you the basic structural components you might discover in your own home. The talented carpenter who built the Loretto Chapel miracle staircase just happened to know what I and a few others know about beams.
Can the Staircase Stand Up All Alone?
Yes, a balanced circular staircase can stand up on its own just like odd-shaped rocks stacked upon one another.
Here's an image taken from an online store that sells models of the exact same spiral staircase at the Loretto Chapel. Note how it's able to stand on its own and doesn't even connect to anything at the top. I explain how this is possible below.
What Supports the Staircase?
The twisted outer and inner rings of wood that hold up the stair treads are supporting the staircase.
If you live in a house with a wood floor system, the floor you walk on each day supports you. It doesn’t collapse under your weight, the weight of the furniture and any guests you may have during a large party.
The floor system is made up of joists and wood that covers the joists. The floor joists under your feet are beams not unlike steel I-beams in a skyscraper.
Are Floor Joists Parallel Beams?
Floor joists next to one another are just parallel beams. Most run parallel with one another on 16-inch centers. The joists are covered with plywood or other wood sheeting.
The joists rest on a foundation wall or sometimes another beam that rests on a foundation wall. The weight of the entire system and anything on it is transferred to the foundation by the joists.
Gravity is pulling everything towards the earth including this spiral staircase.
Can Two Joists Create a Narrow Floor?
Imagine if you had a narrow floor, meaning just two joists and you cover these with plywood. This would be very similar to a narrow footbridge.
You could walk across it and the platform or bridge would not collapse. Drop one end of this narrow platform to the ground leaving one end up on the foundation wall. The platform becomes a ramp.
Is a Staircase Just a Steep Ramp?
The normal staircase in your home is just like a steep ramp. Ho,wever the carpenter made flat steps or treads so you could climb it without slipping or sliding.
Do Most Staircases Have Two Beams?
A point often overlooked is a simple staircase has two beams, called stringers, and the treads of the staircase rest on these beams or are connected to them. The stair treads are no different than the wood that covers a flat floor.
When the carpenter set your steps in place, the weight of the staircase was transferred to the floor below where the two stringers touch the floor.
Can Beams Be Twisted?
Yes, staircase beams can be twisted. The only difference with the staircase at the Loretto Chapel is these beams or stringers have been twisted into a helix. Think how a piece of licorice candy is a twisted stick. You can do the same thing with a piece of wet wood.
You can take a piece of flat wood, get it wet and then twist it. It's much easier to do this with thin pieces of wood.
Can a Paper Towel Tube Reveal the Stringer Secret?
To put it another way, just carefully cut apart the center cardboard core of a roll of paper towels along the glued seam. Stretch it and you'll recreate one of the spiral stringers you see on the Loretto Staircase.
Go one step further and flatten this piece of cardboard out and you'll see it's just a simple rectangle. No magic or miracles here unfortunately.
Is the Loretto Staircase a Miracle?
No, the staircase is not a miracle. I'm sorry to be the one to challenge your inner ideology.
If you took the staircase apart and just allowed the inner and outer stringers to stand there by themselves, they would do so like the flagpole just outdoors on the plaza, even though each stringer is made up of several pieces of wood glued and pegged together.
It’s that simple. For one thing, it’s not a miracle at all that the staircase is standing there in front of you and that it can support the weight of people climbing it.
Are the circumstances surrounding the construction of the staircase a miracle? Perhaps.
That's where your faith comes into play.
Who Is Shielding the Whole Truth?
This legend is being perpetuated by the owners of the chapel. The Lorettor Chapel owners have a vested interest to make sure tourists come to see this masterpiece. They make significant money from couples that continue to get married in this magical building.
If the owners just told you that the staircase was just a regular staircase that was resting on the floor of the chapel and it was connected to the choir loft above like your staircase is built in your home, you’d might not part with your cash at the entrance to the chapel.
Is It Worth Seeing?
But please understand that it’s well worth the price to see it. I say this as a very modest carpenter who stands in awe of the man or men who worked together to build the staircase in the Loretto Chapel.
All things considered, if you're near Santa Fe, NM, I urge you to go to the chapel. In order to see what can be done with simple hand tools hand over your money to view the stunning staircase.
At the same time be sure to dust off your high school physics and math. Not only will you see a great example of diligence, determination and discipline, but also expert psychological marketing!