Stanford Lehmberg

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.