“Loretto Chapel; The Mysterious Staircase”

Explanations for the mystery

The subject of rumor and legend for over a hundred years, the riddle of the carpenter’s identity was finally solved by Mary Jean Straw Cook, author of Loretto: The Sisters and Their Santa Fe Chapel (2002: Museum of New Mexico Press). His name was Francois-Jean “Frenchy” Rochas, an expert woodworker who emigrated from France in 1880 and arrived in Santa Fe right around the time the staircase was built. In addition to evidence that linked Rochas to another French contractor who worked on the chapel, Cook found an 1895 death notice in The New Mexican explicitly naming Rochas as the builder of “the handsome staircase in the Loretto chapel.”

The supposed “miraculous” nature of the staircase. The staircase has been claimed to be unsafe since its helix shape may make it oscillate just like a very large spring. To appreciate the architectural and other problems such stairs present we must recognize that builders use turns in staircases to save space or to adapt to a particular floor plan. As to its apparent ability to stand without a central support (central pole), however, this staircase appears to have a concealed central support, an inner wood stringer of a very small radius that, because of its small size, functions effectively as a central pole. This technique is well known. In addition — and this seems to have gone unnoticed by those who choose to emphasize the “mysteries” of the staircase — the outer stringer is attached to a neighboring pillar via an iron bracket, providing extra structural support.

As to the wood, that it has not been identified precisely means little. The wood has reportedly been identified as to family, Pinaceae, and genus, Picea — i.e., spruce, a type of “light, strong, elastic wood” often used in construction. But there are no fewer than thirty-nine species — ten in North America — so that comparison of the Loretto sample with only two varieties can scarcely be definitive.

All in all, nothing about Loretto’s design of manufacture evidences any sign of the miraculous. The Loretto Chapel is now a museum and no longer functions as a church . Call it an inspired feat of engineering, call it an aesthetic triumph — the spiral staircase of Loretto Chapel is the work of beauty and deserves its status as an international tourist attraction.

The case was investigated and subsequently re-enacted in the Unsolved Mysteries episode “The Staircase“.


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