The Man, The Donkey, The Toolbox
September 10, 2003 9:28 PM   Subscribe

Divine architecture or crafty workmanship? Mysterious guy shows up on a donkey to make a spiral staircase for the Loretto Chapel that defies structural possibility. Made mainly of wood, it contains no support beams and uses only wood pegs to hold it together.
posted by destro (12 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is most certainly a double post....someone help me out with the link.
posted by banished at 9:44 PM on September 10, 2003

that's a hell of a piece of craftsmanship, and while i haven't had a good timber design course i wouldn't be surprised if the thing is self supporting if it was constructed painstakingly over the length of several months (in a time period when craftsmanship would be a real tradition).

As for support beams i'd imagine the cross section of the stairs is probably made with the wood placed vertically (think of it as a beam that's been twisted around an axis that does not go along it's length but at an accute angle to the longitudinal, now rotate the whole thing and you have a spiral going up) so they are the support beams. However without seeing this beast first hand i could be off my rocker. Anyway, i'd still like to have one.
posted by NGnerd at 9:46 PM on September 10, 2003

If the wood is strong enough, it could be self supportive as a sort of large spring, only needing some horizontal balance by means of those small iron ornaments. Still, the amount of craftsmanship involved to get it this way seems beyond belief.
posted by destro at 10:18 PM on September 10, 2003

CSICOP sucks the fun out of everything... like your parents telling you there's no Santa. While I do appreciate the information sometimes divulged in their articles, the slant is often too far towards cynicism for my taste.

Nice Staircase, though.
posted by phylum sinter at 11:46 PM on September 10, 2003

I agree, ps. The article would leave a better aftertaste if it ended by saying that it was fallible ... but *nicely done* human manufacture.
posted by magullo at 12:47 AM on September 11, 2003

erm... correct me if I'm wrong, but that's a helix, not a double helix...
posted by twine42 at 4:41 AM on September 11, 2003

Wouldn't wooden pegs actually be stronger than nails? Almost all good furniture is held together by pegs and glue, and this is basically a piece of furniture.
posted by smackfu at 7:07 AM on September 11, 2003

I agree, ps. The article would leave a better aftertaste if it ended by saying that it was fallible ... but *nicely done* human manufacture.

although the fact that it's closed to traffic leaves some question as to how nicely done one can claim it to be - I'm all for pretty, but an unusable staircase is less than completely inspiring.
posted by mdn at 7:33 AM on September 11, 2003

When they say double helix I think they mean the supports, one helix on the inside, one on the outside with the risers running twixt the twain. The story's rather similar to the legends surrounding the Cambridge Mathematical Bridge and the debunking just as harsh. Nice staircase though - I want to believe.
posted by grahamwell at 11:43 AM on September 11, 2003

The article, when it talks about the mysterious carpenter, reminds me a bit of Monty Python's the Life of Brian. You know the bit:

posted by sic at 1:43 PM on September 11, 2003

Rec'd the following via email today:

Concerning the thread about the staircase, there's some
information that might be of interest to you and the
others. I'd post it myself, but I'm not a Metafilter

The following is from a later CSICOP issue. The
article text is not on the Web. I got it from my
library's online magazine database.

'Miracle staircase' carpenter finally identified
Joe Nickell. The Skeptical Inquirer. Buffalo: Sep/Oct
2000. Vol. 24, Iss. 5; pg. 8, 2 pgs

Now in an article in the January 2000 New Mexico
magazine-"Loretto Staircase Mystery Unravels" by Tamar
Stieber-the identity of the enigmatic craftsman has
been revealed. Credit for the discovery goes to an
"intrepid and highly respected amateur historian"
named Mary Jean Cook She learned of a "hermit
rancher," Franqois-Jean "Frenchy" Rochas, who lived in
"godforsaken" Dog Canyon, nine miles from Alamogordo.
Learning that he had left behind a collection of
"sophisticated carpentry tools," Cook searched for his
death notice, which she found in the January 6, 1896,
issue of The Santa Fe New Mexican.

It described Rochas's murdered body being found at his
isolated rock cabin and described him as "favorably
known in Santa Fe as an expert worker in wood." He had
built, the brief obituary noted, "the handsome
staircase in the Loretto chapel and at St. Vincent
regards, jim c.

posted by mdn at 7:52 PM on September 11, 2003

Nice followup, mdn. Thanks for passing that on.
posted by NortonDC at 10:54 AM on September 15, 2003

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