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Jack Smith

Step by step, block by block, the legends were built of saint and staircase, architect and hotel

May 26, 1987|Jack Smith

When you travel in an unfamiliar land, you pick up its legends. They are usually more charming than the facts.

Thus, in our recent drive through Arizona and New Mexico we picked up the legend of the miraculous staircase in the Loretto Chapel, at Santa Fe, which is believed by the nuns to have been built by St. Joseph himself, and the legend that Frank Lloyd Wright designed the palatial Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.

The chapel, an exquisite Gothic Revival, was built for the Sisters of Loretto in the 1870s by French and Italian masons under the direction of Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, celebrated by Willa Cather in her novel, "Death Comes for the Archbishop." But, much to the dismay of the sisters, the masons neglected to build a staircase up to the choir loft.

"This," according to a story published May 7 in the Arizona Republic, "ends the uncontested part of the story."

The legend is that the sisters prayed directly to St. Joseph, the carpenter, and that in time a man with a flowing beard came along on a donkey. He had a tool case containing only a saw, a hammer and a T square.

He worked for months in the chapel, then one day simply vanished, without asking for pay. He had built the "miracle" staircase. It spiraled 20 feet to the choir loft, apparently without nails or any interior support. Local lumbermen did not recognize the kind of wood used. The sisters were satisfied that the carpenter had been St. Joseph himself.

I have meanwhile received a poignant letter from Carol Monroe of Winnetka, a graduate of the Loretto Academy run by the Sisters of Loretto until a Texas syndicate took the chapel over in 1969.

Her reminiscence affirms the power of the legend:

"All Loretto girls were drilled in the story of the staircase by Sister Sylvester, a woman with an uncanny resemblance to a bulldog. The staircase makes two complete 360-degree turns in 18 feet--a feat that engineers say is not technically possible. The steps and risers are made from one continuous piece of the mystery wood. There are no nails, only wooden pegs, and the staircase stands unsupported.

"The sisters believed, unshakeably, that the old man on the donkey was St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, come to answer their prayers personally. They were somewhat matter-of-fact about the whole matter. If, after all, you need something done, go to the man in charge."

Alas, the Arizona Republic story, sent to me by Rose Taylor of Phoenix, seeks to undermine that pretty legend by reporting that its builder was a visiting Viennese craftsman named Yohon Hadwiger, that the wood was a local pine, and that magnets have disclosed interior steel supports.

These legend-shattering speculations have been brought forth by Mary Jean Cook, a Santa Fe writer and historian, and Myra Ellen Jenkins of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation.

"We're going to rewrite that history," said Jenkins. "We sometimes have a hard time in Santa Fe trying to keep our history straight. That chapel is a little jewel, and as a historian, I think the facts of the staircase are much more interesting than the fantasy. . . . But there is a certain resistance to the facts here."

As for the legend that Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Biltmore, I have documented evidence to the contrary from Dalia Blitzer and from Manfred McArthur, son of the true architect.

McArthur writes that his father, Albert Chase McArthur, was the architect of record on the fabulous "jewel of the desert." He encloses an article published by the hotel's current managing firm, Westin Corp., which asserts that McArthur was the architect, but notes that McArthur was a former student of Wright who hoped to design the building in the spirit of Wright's concepts.

It says, "He had served as an apprentice draftsman to Wright in his 20s and considered the now-famous American architect his mentor."

McArthur used a kind of ornamental concrete blocks that Wright had first used in a Pasadena house, and actually employed Wright, his former master, to come out and help with the construction. This uneasy relationship lasted only four months. Wright later said the building was turning out "even worse" than he thought it would.

Disturbed by the persistent public assumption that Wright was in fact the architect, McArthur asked Wright for a clarifying statement: "All I have done in connection with the building of the Arizona Biltmore," Wright wrote, "I have done for Albert McArthur himself at his sole request, and for none other. Albert McArthur is the architect of that building."

Later McArthur inscribed a magazine article about the building to Wright: "To F.L.W., my master, without whose aid the Biltmore would hardly have been possible."

It is little wonder that when a famous architect is associated in the construction of a project that reflects his concepts and his identity, the public is likely to believe that he was the architect.

We know now that Frank Lloyd Wright did not design the Biltmore, just as we know that St. Joseph did not build the staircase in the Loretto Chapel.

By the way, there is a happy ending to Carol Monroe's story:

In 1977 she was married in the Loretto Chapel. "It was my first and only choice." And afterward the nun in charge said that because she was a "Loretto girl," she and her husband could stand on the stairs for their wedding portrait.

"That picture remains one of my dearest possessions."

Thank you, St. Joseph.

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