Santa Fe Treasures: Architect John Gaw Meem and the Pueblo Revival

This is the first in a series of posts on Santa Fe treasures.

Santa Fe is known for its distinctive look. You can find “Santa Fe style” in the city’s architecture, home décor, clothing and jewelry. This distinctive look is an amalgamation of the influences of the three primary cultures that meet here, Native American, Spanish Colonial and Anglo. The distinctive Pueblo Revival architectural style, popularized in the early 20th century, pays homage to the architectural impact of the Pueblos and Spanish cultures on traditional Santa Fe buildings. This retro look was popularized, to a large extent, by architect, John Gaw Meem. He and his work are Santa Fe Treasures.


Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

John Gaw Meem designed the home that is now the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, photo/Steve Collins

As with many outsiders who settled in Santa Fe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Meem, who lived between 1894 and 1983, first came for a tuberculosis cure. He arrived at Sunmount Sanitarium in1920. The altitude, dry clean air and sunshine in New Mexico were considered optimal resources to fight this life-threatening disease.

While at the sanitarium, Meem, who had an engineering degree, developed an interest in the architecture and the traditional local buildings. After 18 months, doctors felt his health was sufficiently recovered for him to leave Sunmount. He became an apprentice at Fisher & Fisher, a Denver architectural firm. Long days at the drafting table brought a recurrence of TB and Meem returned to Sunmount in 1924. According to architectural historian, Chris Wilson, the J. B. Jackson Professor of Cultural Landscape Studies at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning, Meem opened his first office on the grounds there at that time. Wilson’s book Facing Southwest is probably the definitive book on Meem.

Meem’s first houses were built of adobe bricks, a style that came to the area with the Spanish in 1598. Adobe is a high maintenance building material prone to deterioration. Meem’s later projects favored Pen Tile, a ceramic brick made by inmates of the New Mexico Penitentiary. This long-lasting material required less maintenance. Mud or stucco coatings were an integral part of the distinctive Santa Fe look. Meem also did Territorial revival designs, based on the building style popular after New Mexico became a United States territory following in 1848.

Chimney at Forked Lightning Ranch

The steer head at Forked Lightning Ranch, Pecos, NM was commissioned by Tex Austin photo/Steve Collins

Because many of the homes Meem designed for his mostly wealthy clientele are up long drives or hidden behind adobe walls they can’t be easily viewed. There are a few homes, now public buildings that are open to the public. The home that became the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art on Museum Hill is the easiest to access. Forked Lightening Ranch, part of the Pecos National Historical Park, is accessible by appointment only. Designed as a dude ranch for Rodeo entrepreneur Tex Austin, it was later home to actress Greer Garson and her husband, oilman Buddy Fogelson. The home can be toured on Sundays. Tour size is limited and advanced reservations are required.


Santa Fe Library, formerly the Bernardinelli Building, photo Steve Collins

The main branch of the Santa Fe Public Library, formerly the Bernardinelli Building, photo/Steve Collins

Meem also designed public buildings in and around downtown Santa Fe. He was awarded the commission for the 1927 redesign of the historic La Fonda Hotel collaborating with designer Mary Jane Colter. The hotel was acquired by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1926 and leased to the Fred Harvey Company. Stop into the hotel and view Meem’s distinctive architectural details.

The 1936 Berardinelli Building, originally used as administrative offices for the City of Santa Fe, is now the Main Branch of the Santa Fe Public Library. There are more of Meem’s hallmark details on view in the Southwest Reading Room, previously the City Council Chamber.

Cristo Rey Church

Cristo Rey Church at the top of historic Canyon Road, Santa Fe, photo/Steve Collins

Cristo Rey Church on Canyon Road, designed by Meem in 1939, uses what is, according to Wilson, the traditional Cruciform pattern found in Roman churches. He says it was designed so that the morning light coming from the traditional clerestory windows highlights the large 1760s alter screen that came from and gives it “properly historic setting”. When the parishioners commissioned Meem, they requested that the church be large enough to accommodate the large hand-carved alter screen (reredos) that was originally in The Church of Our Lady of Light, (La Castrense Chapel) which sat on the south side of the Santa Fe Plaza from 1760 to 1859.

In 1967, Meem and fellow architect, Kenneth Clark designed the portals surrounding three sides of the historic Santa Fe Plaza. Meem believed that these overhangs, echoing the portal on the Palace of the Governors at the north end of the Plaza, would make the area more attractive to tourists.

Portal on San Francisco Street

The portal on San Francisco Street on the south side of the Santa Fe Plaza, photo/Steve Collins

The distinctive Santa Fe style that draws many people to The City Different owes a big debt of gratitude to John Gaw Meem. He was a true Santa Fe Treasure.

Glossary of architectural details and terms found in Pueblo Revival buildings:

Adobe – a building material made from clay, sand water and straw or dung. This mixture is poured into molds and allowed to dry in the sun. It’s a building technique brought to Santa Fe by the Spanish.
Bancos are plaster benches found along walls and often adjacent to Kiva fireplaces (see below)
are rectangular wooden water spouts that draw water off the traditional flat roofs found in Santa Fe.
Corbels are decorative supports made from stone or wood. The ones used in Pueblo Revival buildings are used to support the vigas (see below). They are both decorative and functional..
straight, slender saplings with the bark removed that serve as ceiling support. They are supported by the vigas (see below).  They are usually laid perpendicularly to the vigas, but are sometimes done in a more ornate herringbone pattern.
Kiva fireplaces are small fireplaces built into a corner, named for the round ceremonial chambers used by the Pueblo peoples. A well-built kiva fireplace draws well.
Nichos are niches in the walls, originally made to display bultos (religious carvings).
Placita is a central, enclosed courtyard.
a covered porch attached to buildings.

Forked Lightning front porch

The front porch at Forked Lightning Ranch photo/Steve Collins

beams made from peeled round logs that usually extend to the outside of the home. These are found in dwellings at ancestral Pueblo sites. While at one time they were structural, in Pueblo Revival style they are often more decorative than necessary.
Zapatas the upright posts that hold up portals.


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3 Responses to “Santa Fe Treasures: Architect John Gaw Meem and the Pueblo Revival”

  1. Charles Higgins
    January 22, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    Interesting historical review about a man who contributed so much to the local look.Very good read…

  2. Nick
    July 12, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    This is my first time to stumble to your blog and I like it. It’s nice to read a post like this. Featuring designers that contributed to the society.

    Nick recently posted..Recent ProjectsMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      July 12, 2012 at 10:29 am #

      Meem certainly left his mark on Santa Fe.

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