I am trying to find the name and location of an old Spanish Mission that has a famous staircase ‘built in’and free standing.

My answer to this question was: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.

Much of the movie was shot on location in San Francisco and features prominent city landmarks: the California Palace of Legion of Honor, Fort Point at the SF Presidio, the Golden Gate Bridge etc. and two of the old Spanish missions. San Francisco de Asis, better known as Mission Dolores appears in a scene featuring the small mission cemetery. The other mission – and the one you refer to – is San Juan Bautista in the town of that name, about 90 miles south of San Francisco.

The movie contains a number of captivating exterior scenes shot around the San Juan Bautista mission, the 19th century buildings and stables across from the mission and the town plaza (the only original Spanish Plaza left in California).

Unfortunately the bell tower where the mystery of Vertigo is revealed was created in Hollywood. Hitchcock added the tower to the existing church in a painting and then built a full scale replica for the interior staircase shots and the belfry scene.


Scott wrote back and said that, interesting as this information was, he was thinking of another mission which might not even be in California. He wrote: The movie [in which I am interested] was made about the building of this staircase by a mystery visitor to the mission who disappears after the stairs were finished. The story revolved around the building of the choir loft and then at the end of the construction, the staff realized they had not built an access to this loft.

After a few days Scott discovered that the staircase in which he was interested was in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Loretto Chapel is not a mission era church. It was built between 1873-1878 as the chapel for the Academy of Our Lady of Light, founded by the Sisters of Loretto in 1853 in what was then New Mexico Territory. The chapel was designed by Antoine and Projecturs Mouly of Paris, France and pattered after the famous Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. It is a Gothic Revival-style structure, quite distinct from the adobe churches built by the Spanish in the mission era.


The famous staircase, which legend says was constructed or inspired by St. Joseph the Carpenter, was built in 1880-81. The “Miraculous Staircase” makes over two complete 360-degree turns, has 33 steps and stands 20’ tall. It rests solely on its base and against the choir loft. The staircase was constructed with only square wooden pegs without glue or nails.


As Scott correctly remembered, the staircase was featured in a movie, the 1998 Kraft Premier Movie entitled The Staircase. This made-for-TV movie was developed by Craig Anderson Productions and starred Barbara Hershey and William Petersen. It received the Award of Excellence from the Film Advisory Board.

Sadly, the Academy of Our Lady of Light closed in 1958. In 1971, prior to its sale, the Loretto Chapel was informally deconsecrated as a Catholic Chapel. It is now a private museum. For further information see www.lorettochapel.com