Spanish Pueblo Style

John Gaw Meem’s Churches


Cristo Rey Church, Santa Fe (exterior / front entrance)

 

John Gaw Meem, some of whose public works I featured last week, was the son of an Episcopal priest and professor who also served as a missionary in Brazil. When discerning his vocation as an architect, Meem was drawn to projects involving the design and construction of new churches as well as the preservation and renovation of historical examples. With his churches, he most clearly demonstrated his early commitment to Spanish Pueblo Revival architectural design. Numerous examples exist, but here I would like to focus on a few key projects that well represent his approach.

A memorable instance is his Cristo Rey (Roman Catholic) church (1940). The solid massive forms of the asymmetrical towers abutting the entrance portal contrast nicely with the detailed attention to pattern and ornament in the woodwork between them. This is evident both on the door as well as in the porch and the corbeled beam above it, which in turn supports the vigas (or exposed beam ends).

Cristo Rey Church, Santa Fe (interior)

The interior of the church is just as evocative, which provided a new context for an historic altar reredos of carved stone. Not only does this 20th century building complement the centuries older altarpiece, Meem’s attention to lighting is particularly effective. A skylight or window above helps illuminate the textured form of the stone carving, while also drawing attention to the area upon which the liturgy is focussed.

Below are two churches Meem designed for the wider region around Santa Fe and to the west of Albuquerque, at roughly the same time.

Saint Anne and Santo Tomas churches, thanks to Stanford Lehmberg’s, Churches for the Southwest

With these two examples, we see very similar features to what we find in Cristo Rey, albeit in more rural circumstances. Cristo Rey, and Santo Tomas in particular, display an homage to the exterior form of the historic church at Ranchos de Taos, NM (depicted immediately below), memorable from a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe and the photography of Ansel Adams.

San Francisco de Asís Mission Church, Taos, NM (late 18th century)

An especially notable and earliest example of Meem’s exploration of the the recovery of a Spanish Pueblo approach to church architecture is his Taylor Memorial Chapel, at La Floret, Colorado Springs (below).

First designed in 1929, the building incorporates a beautiful painted and sculptural reredos, as well as decorative tile surrounding the doorways, by Eugenie Shonnard. Despite some early-recognized construction issues related to the stucco used on the exterior, the chapel remains a well-used venue today as part of a conference and retreat center.

At about the same time as Meem’s project for Cristo Rey in Santa Fe, he was commissioned to design a new church for the First Presbyterian congregation of that same city. Once again showing his appreciation for the outward form of the Ranchos de Taos church, Meem produced a plan for a building that also remains in active use, with some renovations.

First Presbyterian Church, Santa Fe (exterior and interior views / 1939)

This congregation’s commission of Meem for their new building was as much a testament to Meem’s reputation as an architect as it was a marked preference for a prevailing local style increasingly adopted in the wider community. It is remarkable to see a Presbyterian Church within the Reformed tradition of Christianity adopt and be comfortable with worship in a church whose architecture is so obviously indebted to the aesthetics of 17th century and later Spanish Roman Catholic design, and so heavily influenced by regional pueblo architecture.

The Architectural Vision of John Gaw Meem

Renovation and Extension of the La Fonda Hotel, Santa Fe (1927)

 

John Gaw Meem is generally credited with having led the recovery and promotion of an historically Spanish-Pueblo Revival approach to building design in the central district of Santa Fe, NM, as well as in its environs. Warm tones in beiges and browns adorning the surfaces; soft rounded edges and corners characteristic of adobe buildings; a general preference for asymmetry; slightly upward sloping walls with accompanying exterior buttresses; and protruding beam-ends of the flat roof supporting logs evident also in the interior ceilings; all these and more are features of this recognizable ‘style.’

Yet, speaking of ‘style’ may create a misapphrension. Whereas more recent contractors and builders may imitate some of the above mentioned features in homes now quickly built for mass consumption, John Gaw Meem pursued an informed appreciation for the structural character and integrity of his region’s most important historical buildings. He as diligently applied himself to the practice of historical preservation as he did to his own genuinely creative work, where he typically disciplined his architectural vocabulary so as to remain faithful to the traditional features he so intentionally studied.

Depicted above is the result of his design for a renovation and extension of the historic La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, a project that seems to owe as much to the historic Taos Pueblo as it does to modern needs and sensibilities. Set side by side with the above, we can consider Meem’s great achievement with the main library for the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, a sizable institution for which Meem designed and / or oversaw the planning of some 25 buildings after being named campus architect in 1933.

Zimmerman library, exterior main entrance (1936)

Zimmerman Library, interior courtyard

Zimmerman Library, interior view

Here we find two distinguished buildings, the La Fonda Hotel extension and the UNM Zimmerman Library, separated by less than a decade in terms of their design and construction, which both exhibit Meem’s sensitive appreciation for the legacy of Spanish-Pueblo architecture, as well as its adoption by the diverse immigrant culture of the Southwest.

Like the writer, Walker Percy, John Gaw Meem came to discern his vocation in the context of receiving care for tuberculosis in a sanitarium. For Percy, it happened in upstate New York, whereas Meem found himself and his guiding vision in Santa Fe. From small beginnings involving private commissions for houses, Meem expanded the range of his work to also include commercial buildings, historically-informed designs for new churches as well as the restoration of historic examples, and structures providing for the functional needs of public eduction that were equally attentive to humane and aesthetic considerations relevant to a learning community.

One of Meem’s highly regarded projects for a public building was his Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1934), a building reflecting the European modernist influence of his era as well as echoes of design ideas implicit in his obviously pueblo-adobe inspired buildings. This project clearly demonstrates how Meem’s high regard for historic precedents did not inhibit his ability to work more freely in a contemporary way, adapting chosen materials and design principles to emerging requirements.

Here (below) is a photo of Meem standing on a balcony of the original theatre of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

In the future, I look forward to offering a post related to some of  Meem’s designs for homes, as well as one featuring his evocative contributions for Santa Fe area church architecture.

Evidence of his influence: the Meem Library at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, by David Perrigo, inspired by and in honor of JG Meem