Spiral staircases – reaching dizzying heights


Spiral staircases used to show opulence and grandeur in period properties and the homes of aristocrats and royalty. Today they are found in houses throughout the world, you can even buy “do-it-yourself” kits off the internet.

Structurally speaking, spiral staircases are curved around a central support column and have only one balustrade, whereas helical staircases have a curved structure with two balustrades.

There are many examples of fantastic spiral and helical staircases around the world, some even date as far back as the 1600s.

The Tulip Stairs are at The Queen’s house in Greenwich, a former royal residence that was designed by Inigo Jones and built between 1614 and 1617. The stairs are believed to be the first example of a geometric, centrally unsupported spiral staircase to be constructed in England. They were named because of the stylised wrought-iron balustrade, however the flowers in the balustrade are actually thought to be fleurs-de-lis, not tulips.

The Tulip Stairs and lantern at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. Pic by Wiki Commons user Mcginnly.

The Tulip Stairs are also the location of the Rev. R Hardy’s ‘ghost’ photograph, which was taken on the 19th of June 1966. When it was developed, the photo appeared to show two or three shrouded figures on the staircase, despite the Rev. Hardy and his wife claiming that the stairs were empty at the time.

The Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico was commissioned in 1872 and designed by the French architect Antoine Mouly, who died before the construction was completed in 1878. It was only after the chapel was finished that the builders realised that there was no way to access the choir loft on the floor above. Despite various carpenters being called to address the problem, each concluded that a staircase would interfere with the interior space of the chapel, so access to the loft would have to be by ladder, which is where the mystery of the Loretto stairs begins.

The Loretto Chapel ‘Miraculous’ stairs. Pic from Wiki Commons, user BenFrantzDale.

Legend has it that the Sisters of St. Loretto prayed for St. Joseph’s intercession and after nine days a carpenter arrived and spent three months working on the staircase in complete privacy. The identity of the carpenter was never discovered, and if it was, it has been long since forgotten.

The mystery is continued when you consider the staircase construction. Dubbed the ‘Miraculous staircase,’ it ascends 20 feet, making two 360 degree turns without any attachment to the walls of the building, or any apparent centre support. The outer railing shown in the above picture was attached in 1887, 10 years after the original construction, and fastened to the adjacent pillar.

The Vatican Museums spiral staircase was designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932. The structure is actually two separate helical staircases that start and end on opposite sites of the circle. One stair leads up and the other leads down.

The Vatican Museums helical staircases. Pic by Castielli from Wiki Commons.

Cedar Creak Observatory on Mt. Rainier has a rather unique entrance. To start with, I should probably point out that it’s built in a tree and secondly, it’s accessed by a short jaunt up the 82 foot spiral staircase that is built around a huge Douglas Fir. If that wasn’t enough, after you’ve made it up the stairs, you have to cross the 44 foot Rainbow Bridge walkway that is suspended 82 foot above the forest floor before finally reaching the observatory.

The ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and the Rainbow Bridge walkway at Cedar Creek Observatory. Pic from Brainz.org.

Before the stairs were built, the observatory was accessed by way of a ladder, which is now obsolete. Known as the ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ the staircase was constructed by Cedar Compher in 2003 and is the only structure of its kind in the world. Each stair is supported by a steel tread fixed into the tree itself. With every revolution of the tree, the staircase gains 8 foot in height.

Having looked at those few examples, it’s no mystery that so many people choose spiral or helical feature stairs for their project. Whether you’re gazing at the construction with awe wondering how the treads appear to float, or in a dizzy terror that you might have to climb it, there’s no denying that each one is a wonderful piece of design.

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8 Responses to “Spiral staircases – reaching dizzying heights”

  1. Owen Philipson (@ESIinteriors) Says:

    Great post Emma. I remember a set of iron (I think) stairs at the University of Glasgow that went up to the office of one of the English Literature lecturers- possibly the tightest spiral stair I have ever been up. It made you feel like you were in some sort of special inner sanctum when you sat down to find out how poor your literary analysis was!

  2. Marie McKelvie (@ESI_Marie) Says:

    I rememember those tight spiral staircases well. Although most of the Literature department then moved to University Gardens where the staircases were much brighter and wider!

    The university has a lot of nice stairways actually: http://glasgowuniversity.wordpress.com/tag/staircase/

  3. Emma Garrell (@ESIEmma) Says:

    Thanks Owen. On your ‘inner sanctum’ feeling, I always think there’s something fairytale like about narrower spiral stairways!

    Glasgow seems to be pretty good at stairs – the Lighthouse ones are pretty impressive http://www.theglasgowstory.com/image.php?inum=TGSI00023&t=1&urltp=story.php?id=TGSFA

  4. Joren van Dijk Says:

    interesting article! I wonder what the effect of spiral staircases is on the experience of users of an environment. That is, people experience positive affect from fractals in architecture http://thor.info.uaic.ro/~avitcu/MINCU%202010-2011/SEMESTRUL%20I/Arta%20fractala/Fractal%20Architecture.pdf and this is definitely a great example of such.

  5. Benedikte Ranum Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Joren! I’m having a read of the PDF you linked to. Very interested in the idea that people benefit from/are attracted to fractal architecture.
    I’ve had a look at your website, too. My Dutch isn’t up to much (!) but I take it that you specialise in how the physical environment affects people/psychology ā€“ how interesting!
    I did a post on this blog last year on Environmental psychology and facade design ā€“ http://bit.ly/clFCGc ā€“ would be interesting to hear your thoughts.
    I’d also love to hear how you came across our blog?
    All the best,

    • Joren van Dijk Says:

      You’re welcome šŸ™‚ I understand Dutch is a bit hard for you. I wrote a blog in English, but unfortunately a lot of Dutch people didn’t read it. So I changed back to Dutch recently and now I get a lot of response. Anyhow, your assumption about the effects of the physical environment on people is right, that’s what I do!

      I’ll read and comment your post about environmental psychology & facades, I’m a bit tired now šŸ˜‰

      How I came across your blog… I honestly can’t remember anymore. At a certain point, I added you to my RSS-reader and from then I followed you.

  6. Emma Garrell (@ESIEmma) Says:

    Hi Joren, thanks for your comments, I’m glad you liked the post. The PDF you linked to was a very interesting read.

    Its a shame you don’t have a translate on your blog, it sounds like fascinating stuff.

    All the best.


    • Joren van Dijk Says:

      You’re welcome!

      Shame on me šŸ˜‰ I’m trying to translate, but it takes a lot of time. Maybe in the near future, when more people are active at my Blog.

      Kind regards,


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