A spiral staircase in Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has no center column to provide structural strength and stability. Some estimates say that the stair should have collapsed at first use. Yet, the stair has been used daily since its genesis in 1878. Explanations of the strength of the structure varied from “basic mechanics” to “miracle”. This article presents a stress analysis of the stair using a finite element model. The loading is 16 persons on steps 1, 3, 5, …, 31 of the stair (as shown in an old photograph), the weight of the stair, and the weight of the railing. Stress computation was performed with a finite element model built and run in Abaqus CAE (Dassault Systemme, 2016). The analysis shows that the center spiral is severely stressed. The maximum Von Mises stress, which occurs near the top of the center spiral, is 1.7MPa. The ultimate strength of strong Engelmann spruce is 2.0MPa. The absence of the center column is significant because a center column would reduce the maximum stress in the stair to about 0.3MPa.

Full document

The PDF file did not load properly or your web browser does not support viewing PDF files. Download directly to your device: Download PDF document


[1] Angelillo, M. 2016. The Equilibrium of Helical Stairs Made of Monolithic Steps. International Journal of Architectural Heritage, 10(6):675-87.

[2] Bobbin, J. 1998. “The Staircase” Review in TV Topics. The Buffalo News, April 12.

[3] Bullock, A. 1978. Loretto and the Miraculous Staircase. Santa Fe, N.M.: Sunstone Press.

[4] Carter, T. 2010. The Loretto Chapel staircase: A lesson in physics, not miracles. The Washington Post. January 16.

[5] Dassault Systeme. 2016. Abaqus Student Edition. Software downloaded from https://academy.3ds.com/en/software/abaqus-student-edition 6

[7] Invernizzi, S. 2016. Numerical Modeling and Assessment of the Ebe Schooner-Brig. International Journal of Architectural Heritage, 6(5):453-77.

[8] Knight, C. 1997. Just What Kind of Wood? Wall Street Journal, October 22.

[9] Matweb. “North American Engelman Spruce Wood”. 2017. http://www.matweb.com/search/DataSheet.aspx?MatGUID=972210a797e2437982460b d800c31dc3 . Accessed Oct. 1, 2017.

Back to Top

Document information

Published on 30/11/21
Submitted on 30/11/21

Volume Interdisciplinary projects and case studies, 2021
DOI: 10.23967/sahc.2021.282
Licence: CC BY-NC-SA license

Document Score


Views 53
Recommendations 0

Share this document

claim authorship

Are you one of the authors of this document?