Southwestern fantasy

John Gaw Meem, Frank Lloyd Wright and the emergence of Pueblo Revival architecture in New Mexico

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In August 1915, Vienna-born architect and Chicago resident Rudolf Schindler toured the Southwest, a trip that included stops in Santa Fe and Taos. Schindler, a protegé of Frank Lloyd Wright, was particularly taken with the Pueblo adobe-style architecture of New Mexico, taking more than 75 photographs of local buildings and their surrounding landscapes.

“While he only stayed one week in Taos, it was an experience that would have a lasting impact upon him and influence the course of his architectural design,” architectural historian Eric Lutz wrote in a 2005 journal article.

Later that fall, Schindler was commissioned to design a house for Dr. Thomas Paul Martin, or “Doc Martin” as he was commonly known, one of the first doctors in Taos County and the namesake of the famous Taos restaurant. Although the plan for Doc Martin’s “Country Home in Adobe Construction” was never built, its plan called for a modern re-envisioning of the Spanish-Pueblo vernacular architecture, featuring adobe walls, flying vigas, a low-rise structure, and a large courtyard. As planned, the house sought to achieve ‘harmony’ with the landscape.

“The horizontal stretch of the house, reminiscent of [Frank Lloyd] Wright’s description of the desert as linear, well-armed and abstract, emerges with an almost geological profile,” architectural historian Albert Narath wrote in a 2008 analysis of the project. “Like the nearby pueblo, it takes on the natural tectonics of the desert at large.” 

Schindler’s inspired design sought to evoke an architectural style that in the 1910s was just beginning to define Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico. The only problem? As conceived, the Pueblo Revival movement is a relatively recent invention, one that perpetuates a historical fantasy and ignores the greater history of New Mexico since the early 1600s.

Santa Fe’s ‘revival’

In Santa Fe, countless tourists take photos of the Palace of the Governors, perhaps with the the thrill of witnessing the same building which coincided with city’s 1610 founding. What visitors might not realize is that the famed facade of the structure, with its log pillars and adobe-style arcade, is not original to the building. In fact, the facade we see today was originally built in 1909. According to historian Paul Gleye in his 1994 analysis of Santa Fe architecture, the 1909 design was preceded by a fanciful Victorian arcade dating back to 1870. Before that, the facade was probably a more modest construction of wooden beams. 

Soon after its 1909 renovation, the Palace of the Governors became the nexus of the movement that popularized Pueblo style. In 1912, the palace hosted an exhibit promoting a “New-Old Santa Fe Style” of adobe walls, flying vigas, and flat roofs. Helping to formalize the Pueblo architectural look, the exhibit made a lasting impression on the city. 

We never considered Spanish homes or five-storied communal Indian buildings as architecture, and we were all much surprised, when gradually, by public opinion, the Spanish-Pueblo revival style of Architecture was being adopted by the entire state, as not only practical and fitting, but most of all, as [an] attractive drawing card to visitors,” Ernest L. Blumenschein said in 1953, a founder of the Taos Society of Artists, a group that had supported the widespread adoption of Spanish-Pueblo revival in the 1920s. 

In Taos, said local architect Bob Parker of Robert Parker Associates AIA, the principal examples of the Pueblo Revival style architecture are The Harwood Museum of Art, Hotel La Fonda de Taos, the Blumenschein House and Casa Benevides. The Harwood, built by Bert Harwood in 1926, he added, is considered the first town structure designed in the Pueblo Revival style.

Despite any internal skepticism, the design movement quickly caught fire. A 1930 contest challenged architects to develop plans to remodel the buildings of Santa Fe’s plaza to conform to the Pueblo Revival theme. 

The winner of that contest was John Gaw Meem, an architect who would eventually become the preeminent advocate of ‘Santa Fe style.’ Meem’s design for remodeling the Santa Fe plaza was implemented over the next 20 years, in the process replacing or renovating the existing plaza buildings that reflected other, less romanticized moments in Santa Fe’s past. 

Meem became a prolific architect in New Mexico, and particularly in Santa Fe. Among his many projects, he was involved with Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (a project funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.), the La Fonda Hotel and St. John’s College. As University Architect of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque from 1933 to 1959, he presided over the architectural planning of the campus to reflect Pueblo Revival styles. As many as 500 structures in and around Santa Fe were guided by Meem’s hand.

The design motif wasn’t for everyone. Even Frank Lloyd Wright, no stranger to hyperbolic remarks, expressed his distaste for the University of New Mexico’s architecture. 

“This is imitation and all imitation is base,” the legendary architect reportedly said during a visit to the campus, a comment recorded in historian Arthur DeVolder’s 1979 retrospective of Meem’s career. 

“If by imitation is meant the recalling or the reflection of the past,” Meem commented in response to Wright’s observations, “[Wright] would condemn the whole of the Renaissance.”

Despite these nagging critiques, Meem was hired to design the major library and auditorium additions to the Harwood Museum of Art in the early 1940s.

Pueblo Revival and tourism today

Around 30 million tourists visit New Mexico each year. One of the main draws to the region, besides the state’s natural splendor and hot air balloon events, is the state’s cultural appeal as projected through architectural design. That was the style that captured the imagination of Rudolf Schindler in 1915, and it continues to charm visitors to New Mexico today.

Many of these old plazas in New Mexico’s cities and towns, such as Taos, are tourist-centric — they tend to be mostly populated by boutiques, art galleries, jewelry stores and gift shops. 

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