Logic intersected with the twisting mystique of a perceived miracle in Santa Fe this week.
About 170 stair-building professionals from around the world are congregating for a four-day conference at La Fonda on the Plaza — a confab highlighted, perhaps, by the opportunity to ponder the mystery of the corkscrew stairs within the Loretto Chapel.
Stairbuilding is what those who belong to the Stairbuilders and Manufacturers Association do, but even the most analytical and skeptical were left to wonder exactly how the 33 helix-shaped steps of the “Miraculous Staircase” were designed.
“You get misty-eyed when you look at it; it’s beautiful,” said stair designer Patty Managan, who works for Arcways, a Wisconsin staircase builder.
“I believe it’s a miracle,” added Arcways’ office manager, Jill Leksander.
At a Thursday night reception, scores of stair professionals set aside libations — drinks aren’t allowed inside the chapel — and filed inside with cellphones and cameras to poke and pontificate on the finer points of the stairway.
“I wonder if they ever had a bunch of stair guys come in touching, ‘How did they do this, how did they do that?’ ” said Greg Chamberlain of stair-builders Star South, Inc. of Eatonton, Ga. “We all like to think we create creative stair designs and nice curved staircases, but to think how they did it that long ago and still attain the same quality is breathtaking.”
Long ago was 1878, when the chapel was completed.
According to the Loretto Chapel website, there was no access to the choir loft, 22 feet above the floor. Legend has it that nuns made a novena, a special prayer or service, to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a carpenter with a donkey and toolbox came looking for work.
The stairs were completed months later, and the stranger vanished without accepting thanks or payment.
There may be other explanation as well.
Historian Mary J. Straw Cook researched the stairs and wrote a book about them, according to the Historic Mysteries website. She found information in an 1881 nun’s daybook that a man named Rochas was paid for wood. She also references an article from The New Mexican that Francois-Jean Rochas was the skilled woodworker who built the staircase and was “a member of a French secret society of highly skilled craftsmen and artisans called the Compagnons, which had existed since the Middle Ages.” Cook wrote that Rochas came to the U.S. with the purpose of building the staircase with wood shipped from France.
The staircase, apparently connected only with wooden pegs, has two 360-degree turns. Seattle-based stair design consultant Shawn Christman said the structure bears distinct French design qualities he has seen in books. Christman said he thinks it took at least a year and possibly two for one person to build the stairs.
“One hundred and fifty years ago it took a very well-trained, seasoned, experienced master craftsman,” said Christman, adding the stairway could well be a melding of good design and divinity, if not precisely a miracle.
“We have been building them for centuries like this,” he said. “The fact that somebody showed up out of the desert might be a miracle, but he knew exactly what he was doing.”
For a stair-builder, Loretto was a natural draw for a stair-obsessed conventioneer, and the four-day conference’s organizers took advantage: Manufacturers Association President Steven Guenzel, Santa Fe architect Gayla Bechtol and Erik Farrington, associate principal with the architectural firm Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger, Inc., led a staircase design and engineering symposium Thursday. The topic of their case study was “Loretto Staircase — How Would it be Built Today?”
The stairs still leave some engineers puzzled, said Bechtol, who was awarded a New Mexico Historic Preservation Award for her work on the Santa Fe Railyard.
“It’s not clear even to them (engineers) how they would do it,” said Bechtol.
Engineering challenges notwithstanding, industry professionals like Farrington, who first saw the stairs 15 years ago, gave some grudging nods to iterations of miraculous notions.
“As an engineer, it’s tough to do that,” said Farrington. “It’s a miracle that it’s so lightly framed and still works. That’s how I would look at it, as a miracle.”
Engineers can’t see inside the stairway to see how it was assembled, but its light-framed, wood construction probably would not meet today’s building codes.
Guenzel, in an interview before he viewed the stairs, said that if built today, the stairs would be constructed similarly to the original — which makes the chapel all the more impressive.
“Even in this current age we would be pretty challenged to built that stair,” he said.
Still, many in the group were clear-eyed as they examined every inch of the design.
Rafe Jones, with Shavano Architectural Millwork in Montrose, Colo., said he saw a French influence but was deferential on miracles. “I don’t want to diminish anybody’s story,” he said. “It’s not unusual; the French did it forever. … The craftsmanship is incredible.”
Association president Guenzel came away from his viewing suitably impressed.
“It’s pretty incredible, for sure,” he said.
But could today’s builders recreate the miracle stairs?
“I think we could; it’s definitely hard,” Guenzel said. “It comes back to making it stand and hold its own weight.”
Added Bechtol: “It is still a challenging engineering problem.”
Contact Andy Stiny at 505-986-3007 or firstname.lastname@example.org