We planned to take a ”rest day” in the middle of our cross country road trip from Florida to California because puttering along in a uHaul towing a car with five cats, one dog and a very unhappy baby made this pretty much a mandatory mini-vacation.
So after we visited Roswell, New Mexico, we checked in to a hotel in beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico for two nights to see the sights, experience the culture and try some of the local cuisine! When I first suggested Santa Fe as our vacation spot along the route, Jonathan said, “Santa Fe?! Why? What’s so special about that place?” After our fun and relaxing stop, and all the fun experiences we were able to soak into two days, now he’s happy I insisted we stay there!
Santa Fe (meaning “holy faith” in Spanish) is the capital of New Mexico. It was originally occupied by a Pueblo Indian village called Ogapoge that was founded between 1050 to 1150 on what is today the city Plaza.
What makes Santa Fe such a hot tourist attraction today is it’s large concentration of artists and it’s distinct architectural style that is unlike any other city in the states. There was a city sponsored architectural restoration project that launched in the 1920’s and that mandates that buildings could only be erected or remodeled according to traditional techniques and styles, thus creating the “Santa Fe style”.
The unified building style primarily relied on the Spanish Pueblo Revival look. The defining features of this style include vigas, which are rough, exposed beams that extrude through supporting walls, and are visible outside as well as inside the building, and canales, which are rain spouts cut into short parapet walls around flat roofs. These features are borrowed from many old adobe homes and churches built many years before and found in the Pueblos, along with the earth-toned look – reproduced in stucco – of the old adobe exteriors.
Santa Fe is a unique and timeless city. An old tourist advertising campaign from 1928 is just as true today as it was then:
“This year we are making a studied conscious effort not to be studied or conscious. Santa Fe is now one of the most interesting art centers in the world and you, O Dude of the East, are privileged to behold the most sophisticated group in the country gamboling freely… And Santa Fe, making you welcome, will enjoy itself hugely watching the Dude as he gazes. Be sure as you stroll along looking for the quaint and picturesque that you are supplying your share of those very qualities to Santa Fe, the City Incongruous… Be yourself, even if it includes synthetic cowboy clothes, motor goggles and a camera.”
Our first stop in Santa Fe is to visit the Loretto Chapel, a former Roman Catholic church that is known for its unusual helix-shaped spiral staircase, often called the “Miraculous Stair”. A famous unsolved mystery, the story of the staircase is really awesome.
Basically, in 1872 Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the Bishop of the Santa Fe Archdiocese, commissioned the building of a convent chapel to be named Our Lady of Light Chapel, which would be in the care of the Sisters of Loretto. The chapel was designed by French architect Antoine Mouly in the Gothic Revival style, complete with spires, buttresses, and stained glass windows imported from France. Although it was built on a much smaller scale, the chapel bears an obvious resemblance to the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.
The Sisters found themselves in a unique dilemma when the architect died suddenly without having build any type of stairway to the choir loft. Upon seeking a new architect, the Sisters learned that due to the chapel’s small size, a standard staircase would not work – it would have to be far too large for the churches tiny frame. A ladder to the loft was out of the question because nuns, ya know, wear dresses. And it was in the 1870’s. Nuns in the 1870’s don’t just climb ladders. Or something.
As the story goes, desperately needing a way to get up to the choir loft, the nuns prayed for Saint Joseph ‘s intercession for nine straight days. On the day after their novena ended a shabby-looking stranger appeared at their door. He told the nuns he would build them a staircase but that he needed total privacy and locked himself in the chapel for three months. He used a small number of primitive tools including a square, a saw and some warm water and constructed a spiral staircase entirely of non-native wood. The identity of the carpenter is not known for as soon as the staircase was finally finished he was gone. Many witnesses, upon seeing the staircase, feel it was constructed by St. Joseph himself, as a miraculous occurrence.
The staircase is an impressive work of carpentry. It ascends twenty feet, making two complete revolutions up to the choir loft without the use of nails or apparent center support. The staircase was completely constructed using dowels and wooden pegs.
The legend claims that there were no reports of anyone seeing lumber delivered or even seeing the man come and go while the construction was being done. Since he left before the Mother Superior could pay him, the Sisters of Loretto offered a reward for the identity of the man, but it was never claimed.
The staircase remains a mystery to this day. Master carpenter Tim Carter views the staircase as a magnificent work of art, and a near impossible feat to create using modern tools, let alone with crude hand tools and no electricity. Carter explains that,
“A simple staircase has two beams, called stringers, and the treads of the staircase rest on these beams or are connected to them…the weight of the staircase is transferred to where the two stringers touch the floor. The only difference with the staircase at the Loretto Chapel is these beams or stringers have been twisted into a helix.”
The staircase was beautiful and impressive. We spent some time snapping pictures, walking the aisle, listening to the presentation with the intrigueing story, and enjoying seeing Tessa marvel at everything around here. Do we think it was Saint Joseph who built the staircase? I’m thinking probably not. But was it a miracle. Sure, why not? God has done some wonderful and miraculous things in this world, and if this staircase is one of them, it’s certainly one his lesser accomplishments. But it was fun to marvel at!
One of the other highlights of our trip was checking out the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, commonly known as the Saint Francis Cathedral – another Roman Catholic church in downtown Santa Fe.
The cathedral stand out in contrast to the surrounding adobe structures, being designed in the Romanesque Revival style. The cathedral features characteristic round arches separated by Corinthian columns and truncated square towers. The large rose window in front and those of the Twelve Apostles in the lateral nave windows were imported from Clermont-Ferrand in France.
Jonathan humored my photography touristy side and took me back to the cathedral at night to snap some fun night time photography shots. The town is just as beautiful and quaint at night as it is during the daytime! The street outside the cathedral was lined with photographers surrounding the building, blocking traffic with tripods. Some cars slowed down to ask what the big deal was. When we answered back, “Just taking night time photography!” Someone answered back, “Oh man, I thought the Pope was coming or something!”
To check out the local food scene, we stopped by Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen, a local staple since 1952. Featured on a couple of Food Channel shows for it’s signature margarita’s, Maria’s is the inventor of the New Mexican “Tortilla Burger” and author of the best selling book “The Great Margarita Book”. We tried two pemium margaritas, and Jonathan and I split a tortilla burger and blue corn enchilada, another classic Santa Fe dinner (Santa Feans discovered the blue corn tortilla).
The morning before we left Santa Fe, we strolled the Plaza, window shopping and checking out the street vendors selling Mexican and New Mexican art and souvenirs. We bought a couple of hand woven Indian baskets, a baltic amber necklace for baby girl, and a cool fossilized crystal ammonite nautilus for myself before hitting the road. The shops, the colors, the smells, the sounds, made for some fun memories of this unconventional vacation spot!