Engineering miracle or just good carpentry?

While visiting Santa Fe recently, I checked out the “miraculous” spiral staircase that that leads up to the choir loft in the Loretto Chapel. It seems back in 1878 when the Chapel was built, the architect had left out an important detail: how to get from the chapel floor 22-ft up to the choir loft. He said there wasn’t room in the relatively small chapel for stairs. The day after the nuns at he chapel completed a Novena to St. Joseph, putative patron saint of carpentry, asking for heavenly intervention into their staircase problem, a wandering woodworker showed up and built them one.  He used no nails, just wooden pegs to hold his 720° spiral stairway together and there was no center column. Without taking pay or even leaving his name, he and his donkey went off into the sunset when his job was done.

And it is an impressive staircase, though it has been somewhat modified. The nuns added a handrail and balusters, which would have made it much safer to climb and descend. There are also a few metal supports to the nearby wall and balcony. I don’t begrudge the nuns or whoever is running the show the $3 admission, though I hope some of the cash is going to charitable works and care for the nuns. But I wish there had been more engineering/carpentry info on the stairs at the Chapel. And who build a church and choir loft without a way to get up to the loft? That original architect must’ve been in league with the devil.

What do you think? Been there? Know of any other engineering miracles?

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Dec 27, 2014

I visited The chapel in 2006, I thought it was quite interesting.
30+ years ago I developed a spiral lamp, Using this technology, I could build a self supporting spiral staircase, whatever dimensions required.
Check out,

on Jul 9, 2016

I was at a school at Los Alamos Labs back in the '60's and was looking for something to do for the weekend when one of the people showed me a news paper article about the Staircase. Friday evening I and my M151 drove to Santa Fe. Saturday morning I found the Church and had a chance to see the Staircase and it amazed me. A few years ago I was in Farmington, New Mexico for an Institute of Outdoor Drama Conference and was going to stop again in Santa Fe but as I neared Santa Fe I saw the Hot Air Balloons so I figured that things would be crowded so I headed on East. I'm surprised that the Catholic Church gave up the Church.

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What's A Skeptical Engineer?

A questioning, sometimes humorous look at technologies, engineering, and the world.


Stephen Mraz

Steve serves as Senior Editor of Machine Design.  He has 23 years of service and has a B.S. Biomedical Engineering from CWRU. Steve was a E-2C Hawkeye Naval Flight Officer in the U.S. Navy. He...
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