'The City Different' Santa Fe: History, legend and literature come together in a town that plays host to more than a million visitors each year

March 17, 1996|By Gerri Kobren | Gerri Kobren,SUN STAFF

In 1877, in the city of Holy Faith - Santa Fe capital of the U.S. territory of New Mexico, the Sisters of Loretto unveiled a miracle.

They had come here some 20 years before at the behest of the energetic young Bishop Jean Baptist Lamy to establish a school for girls; and they had done so. But when their school's chapel was near completion, a flaw in the design became evident: There was no space for a staircase to the choir loft.

So the nuns prayed to St. Joseph, patron saint of carpenters, in a nine-day novena. In the answer to their prayer the "miraculous staircase" of Loretto lies one of the attractions of Santa Fe, a city of 62,000 people and 4,500 hotel and motel rooms, where tourism and state government are the primary industries.

Named by readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine their

favorite destination in the world in 1992, Santa Fe is today host to more than 1 million visitors a year.

The Sisters of Loretto needed just one. And on the last day of their novena, he appeared an old man, carrying carpenter's tools.

Working for the next six months, with wood from heaven only knows where (which he bent, as needed, in a bucket of water and joined without metal connections), the unnamed stranger fashioned a spiral staircase of 33 steps that doubles twice upon itself and, unsupported, rises 23 1/2 feet to the loft, while occupying only the floor space of the lowest tread.

And then, the story goes, he disappeared.

History, legend and literature come together in Santa Fe, and in the little chapel on the famous Santa Fe Trail. The staircase (with an admittedly nonmiraculous railing added in 1888) is a fact; the identity of the carpenter is a matter of faith or family pride: On exhibit at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum is a mixed-woods and varnish structure, about 15 inches high, called "Miraculous Stairs of Loretto Chapel." It was made in 1975 by Oscar E. Hadwiger, grandson of a German woodworker named Yohon Hadwiger, who was, according to museum information, credited with the design and construction of the Loretto Chapel stairs.

About Jean Baptist Lamy there's fact and fiction too. Bishop and later archbishop, he did indeed live and labor here. And then he passed into literature as the model for Jean Marie Latour in Willa Cather's 1927 novel "Death Comes for the Archbishop."

He's part of an odd little factoid as well: The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway never stopped in Santa Fe itself; the terminal is 15 miles away, in Lamy, a town named for the indefatigable churchman.

"The City Different," Santa Fe calls itself, and indeed it is. In one of the newer states New Mexico was the 47th when it was admitted to the Union in 1912 it is this country's oldest capital city, established by Spanish conquerors in 1610, 10 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. It sits in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, an oasis in a desert, at an altitude of 7,000 feet.

The scenery is no less breathtaking than the elevation, with the towering Sangre de Christos to the east and the majestic Jemez range to the west. Mountain views abound throughout the area, and one of the attractions of Santa Fe is its proximity to other scenic, tourist-friendly cities Taos to the northeast, Albuquerque the southwest, Los Alamos to the northwest.

Getting there getting anywhere in northern New Mexico is half the fun. The drive, whether "scenic" or direct, winds through a landscape studded with rust-colored rock statues, nature's own sculpture, carved by the elements into fantastic, almost animalistic, shapes.

Within Santa Fe itself, tourist-attracting shops rim a one-square-block plaza where high-priced galleries rub shoulders with inexpensive gift stores. On the north side is the old Palace of the Governors, now a state-history museum; in front of the palace, Native Americans, original owners of this land, sell hand-made jewelry, tax-free. On the south side, Woolworth's displays beads and silver of its own.

East of the bustling plaza is St. Francis Cathedral, another of Lamy's projects, and his final resting place. Its French-Romanesque design would be an architectural oddity in this adobe town were it not for the fact that so much else in the City Different is also different in some way:

The Loretto Chapel, for instance, is Gothic. The state Capitol is in the round, recalling a Zia sun symbol. Territorial-style buildings with big windows and wood trim recall the period after the United States wrested New Mexico from the Spanish in 1846, when the railroad brought construction materials and designs more common on the East Coast.

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