Spiral Staircases: Their Beauty and Mystery

The Beauty and History of Spiral Staircases

Spiral staircases aren't just beautiful to look at; they're also accompanied by mystery and legend. As one legend goes, in the late 1800s, the nuns of the New Mexico Loretto Chapel needed a stairway to get to the choir loft. The chapel was small, so a regular staircase would not do. For nine days, the nuns prayed for the help of St. Joseph. Soon, a stranger came to the door and told the nuns he would build a staircase. For three months, he locked himself in the chapel. As soon as the staircase was built, the mysterious stranger disappeared, taking his identity with him. The only thing the stranger left behind and was a beautiful spiral staircase, which is still admired today.

But the Loretto Chapel staircase isn't the only staircase to inspire awe and mystery. Throughout history, spiral staircases have wowed and amazed. Where do these structures come from? And why are they so awe-inspiring?

History of the Spiral Staircase

Early Beginnings
Historical accounts of the first uses of the spiral staircase are foggy. Some believe that a spiral staircase led to the altar of King Solomon's temple, constructed in the 10th century B.C.E., but there is no physical evidence to verify this.

The oldest surviving spiral stairways are from about 480 B.C.E., found in Temple A in Sicily. These two spiral staircases led from the porch entrance and the inner chamber of the temple to the gallery above.

While you can't actually walk on many of these ancient staircases, you can still walk on the spiral staircase at Trajan's Column, a Roman column built-in 133 C.E. to commemorate Emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars.

Design Evolves
As time went on, spiral staircases' design evolved. In the 16th century, the San Nicola campanile stair in Pisa became the first spiral staircase without a central column. Technically, these types of staircases are called helical or circular stairs, but they are still referred to as spiral staircases.

In the 19th century, spiral staircases took another important structural jump. While the first spiral staircases were made of stone, then wood, they were now made of steel. Steel is still considered a safer material for spiral staircases, particularly when it comes to fire hazards.

Purposes of a Spiral Staircase
Historians theorize that in the early days of spiral staircases, the functionality may have been stressed over beauty. After all, spiral staircases that wound clockwise around towers or pillars provided an advantage in combat: those defending the building could come from the top towards the enemy. In addition, enemies would find it difficult to fight with their right hands-most people's "sword hand"-as they ascended the staircase.

Unlike their ancient counterparts, modern spiral staircases are created to be aesthetically pleasing. They are especially useful for area s with a smaller space, as they take up less floor space than other staircase types.

Spiral staircases can be categorized depending on the type of turn they make. The turn indicates how far the person ascending the stairs rotates from their starting position. These turns include:

    Quarter turn
    Half turn
    Three-quarters turn
    Full turn

Continuous spiral stairs make multiple turns.

Famous Spiral Staircases
When you're out sightseeing, finding the most beautiful spiral staircases might not be on your to-do list. But consider these marvels:

The Vatican Museums: The staircase here involves two separate helixes, one going up and the other down. Interestingly, these stairs form a double helix pattern, although when they were built this was not yet identified as the structure for DNA.

Chimney of the Bóbila Almirall: In Spain, you'll find this incredibly tall chimney with a spiral staircase leading to the top.

The Tulip Stairs: Located in the Queen's House in Greenwich, England, these stairs were the first helical stairs in Britain. The symbol on the stairs is not actually a tulip, but a Fleur de Lis, a symbol of Queen Henrietta Maria's family.

Chateau de Chambord: As the centerpiece of this French chateau, two open helix staircases spiral next to each other but never meet. As you climb the stairs, you'll see light pouring in from above at the highest point of the chateau.

Ancient Kauri Museum: Climb inside a tree trunk using spiral stairs carved out of a kauri tree at this museum in New Zealand.

Spiral Staircases: An Ancient and Modern Marvel
If you're thinking about adding a spiral staircase to your home, you're probably not thinking of protecting your home from an enemy or impressing the queen. Yet, you still want a staircase that's beautiful and functional. Whether you want your spiral staircase to stand indoors or out, consider a spiral staircase that will add value to your home for years to come.

For more information, don’t hesitate to contact our helpful staff at Riverside Ironworks!

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