The mission church at Acoma Pueblo is an exceptional treasure of New Mexico’s built environment, but in the early 20th century it was approaching “ruin” status. During the 1920s, the Committee for the Preservation and Restoration of New Mexico Mission Churches (CPRNMMC), working with the pueblo, invested about $5,700 and a tremendous number of man-hours to restore the 17th-century San Esteban del Rey mission. The areas of focus included a major roof restoration, foundation and wall repairs, replastering, and rebuilding (in stone) the iconic towers.

The main part of the church has the largest load-bearing adobe walls in the American Southwest, according to Kate Wingert-Playdon, author of John Gaw Meem at Acoma: The Restoration of San Esteban del Rey Mission. Made of 22-inch-long adobe bricks, the church is 145 feet long and 44 feet wide, with walls about 5 feet thick.

The mission — incorporating the church and the convento of buildings surrounding a square placita as well as a cemetery and corral — was built between 1629 and 1644. It is said the 35-foot ponderosa pine logs that were used for the vigas were transported from Mount Taylor, about 30 miles away, and were never allowed to touch the ground because they were considered sacred. “The stories about building the mission continue to be told,” Wingert-Playdon said. “They define the commitment of the first people who built the mission. Maintenance, repair, and rebuilding have left traces of the work of every tribal member who participated. Sometimes the church has been presented as something of the Franciscans, but what I felt was very interesting is that the building of the church was by the Acomas, and it’s as much theirs as it is the Franciscans’.”

Wingert-Playdon’s first “memorable encounter” with Acoma was in the spring of 1999, as the pueblo governor and the director of Cornerstones Community Partnerships prepared for a visit from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to announce a Save America’s Treasures grant to Cornerstones. During the 2000s, that organization, which works with communities to restore historic adobe buildings, focused efforts on San Esteban del Rey.

Wingert-Playdon is the chair of the architecture department at Temple University, Philadelphia, and executive editor of the journal of the international Architectural Research Centers Consortium. In 1999, she served as a volunteer with Cornerstones, doing emergency roof work on the old Acoma church. Her primary source for the book was the trove of letters between Meem and the Acoma project supervisors Lewis Riley (1924) and B.A. Reuter (1926 to 1929).

San Esteban del Rey stands as a record of more than 300 years of maintenance and repair, but there are signs of experimentation with both materials and construction. Archaeologist Michael Marshall, who did an analysis of the mission’s convento in 1975, wrote that church architecture in 17th-century New Mexico was indeed “highly experimental.”

“In Marshall’s records, he put down for example the kind of adobe plasters that were used on the interior, and what’s so interesting is that when you go to a project like this you think it’s one community and they would have something that they use over and over again,” Wingert-Playdon said. “But what he showed is that there were many different mixes, many variations in the adobe washes and adobe plasters. I remember in 2001 reading to the Acoma people on the team that was working with Cornerstones what Marshall had written about materials, and they knew about all of that, including from making pottery, but also because they know on the land where to find the materials. I think that’s where the continuity lies.”

The work examined in the new book was begun in 1924 under the guidance of Burhnam Hoyt, architect for the CPRNMMC, with Meem assisting as coordinator of the work. From 1926 until the project’s completion in 1929, Meem led the restoration. The committee supervised the work and purchased roofing materials and lumber, while the Acoma people supplied labor and materials for adobe bricks and plasters. Work teams gathered clay, sand, and rock from the surrounding land and also mined adobe bricks, stone, shards, and dry adobe mix from the building itself. This latter source is sometimes controversial. “It depends on what type of preservationist you are,” the author said. “If you’re interested in the building as an object, you might see it as destructive. But if you look at it as a culturally based preservation practice, it’s completely logical, and it has been done for thousands of years.”

The first priority was the church roof, which is nearly 4,000 square feet inside the parapet walls. One of the interesting things about San Esteban del Rey is that it has no transverse clerestory — the row of windows set at the junction of lower and higher sections of the roof that bestows a magical-looking light on the altar. It was a pretty common feature in mission churches in New Mexico, and Acoma did have one, according to a 1692 account by Diego de Vargas. It no longer existed by the time Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez published The Missions of New Mexico, 1776: A Description.

“I think the plan has been to put that clerestory back; it’s a desire of both Cornerstones and the tribe. But it’s such a big project, and it’s so expensive to do anything today. The building was rebuilt after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. It’s hard to know what was damaged, but what’s remarkable is that it was rebuilt. Other churches were not. There was reportedly an amazing mission at San Marcos still standing after the revolt, and it was not rebuilt.”

The Meem-designed roof was a combination of old and new strategies, which the architect would become known for in his houses, churches, and institutional buildings in Santa Fe and Albuquerque through the next three decades. The San Esteban roof had latillas or boards on the old vigas, then over them roofing paper, a layer of puddled adobe, 2½ inches of reinforced concrete, more asphalt felt, and a layer of mud on top.

What a project on such a vast roof! At one point, possibly in the area where the clerestory had been, Lewis Riley encountered a section he described as “tough as leather,” as the bottom several inches of the adobe structure was mixed with yucca fiber, which workers could only remove by pulverizing it with hammers. Meem approved Riley’s proposal to leave some parts of that section of the roof intact, as they would be difficult to improve upon. “I think the real tragedy is that the roof wasn’t maintained,” Wingert-Playdon lamented. “Of all the things that were lost from that restoration, that would be the most remarkable to see today.” Instead, deficient maintenance resulted in the roof having to be replaced in the 1960s, and then again in 1980 using plywood and asphalt.

Reconstruction of the San Esteban towers brought in another emphasis to the restoration project: design aesthetics. “The north tower has large openings, and the south tower has smaller openings,” Wingert-Playdon said. “They completely disassembled and rebuilt them. The original plan for the towers was put forth by Meem and [Santa Fe artist and preservationist] Carlos Vierra, but B.A. Reuter was convinced that the openings in the original south tower either didn’t exist or were small. He finally talked with an Indian elder, and they relied on his description to do smaller openings on the south tower. That is an important part of this story, because they weren’t just relying on design expertise. Meem’s eye for lines and curves was really, really good, but oral history was also important to them.”

One issue: when you’re planning to recall the past in the appearance of the façade and towers, how far back do you relate? There are photographs from the late 19th century, but otherwise you only have the memory of living people. “I think the logic would have been that when they started this project it was a ruin. The towers had been changed. What you found in 1880 or 1890 would have been a ghost of what was there forever. In 1902, when they rebuilt them to those strange, square, boxy towers, there was still some of the old towers there, so they could guess the height and some of the other things.

Everything about the 1920s project at Acoma is presented in wonderful detail in John Gaw Meem at Acoma. One section focuses on Meem’s reconstruction of the north tower alternating with his work on an addition to Santa Fe’s La Fonda, the dominant feature of which was the tower at the hotel’s southwest corner. The author says it is not known for certain which final tower design came first.

“That tower got me very interested. My favorite chapter in this book, and the place where I learned the most, was trying to figure out the towers, and that led me to look at La Fonda.” Wingert-Playdon is now working on a book about La Fonda and the Fred Harvey Company. ◀

“John Gaw Meem at Acoma: The Restoration of San Esteban del Rey Mission” by Kate Wingert-Playdon is published by University of New Mexico Press.