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John Gaw Meem at Acoma

The Restoration of San Esteban del Rey Mission

Kate Wingert-Playdon

Publication Year: 2012

Built by Spanish Franciscan missionaries in the seventeenth century, the magnificent mission church at Acoma Pueblo in west-central New Mexico is the oldest and largest intact adobe structure in North America. But in the 1920s, in danger of becoming a ruin, the building was restored in a cooperative effort among Acoma Pueblo, which owned the structure, and other interested parties. Kate Wingert-Playdon’s narrative of the restoration and the process behind it is the only detailed account of this milestone example of historic preservation, in which New Mexico’s most famous architect, John Gaw Meem, played a major role.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. vii-x

My first memorable encounter with Acoma was in the early spring of 1999 when ten-year-old Pat Playdon and I accompanied Beth Johnson, then executive director of Cornerstones Community Partnerships, and Dennis Playdon, Cornerstones program manager...

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Introduction: Active Reading, Authenticity, Memory

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pp. 1-14

San Esteban del Rey Mission at Acoma is a structure that, on the one hand, is thought to have a large percentage of the original building intact and, on the other, is thought to have been substantially rebuilt. These two views are best presented through...

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1: Background: A Work of Architecture and Its Contexts

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pp. 15-28

The Keres-speaking people of Acoma built the San Esteban del Rey Mission within their high mesa settlement, now known as Old Acoma or Sky City, between the years 1629 and 1644 in a geographically remote valley. Tightly integrated with the village...

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2: Building to Last: Church Roof, 1924

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pp. 29-66

At 3:18 pm on August 30, 1924, approval to undertake work at the San Esteban del Rey Mission at Acoma was given to John Gaw Meem by telegram. In order to begin the preservation process on the mission, Meem was about to embark on his first visit...

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3: Claiming Authorship: South Wall and South Tower, 1926

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pp. 67-104

Dear Miss Anne:...I have no doubt that we can induce Lewis Riley to finish up Acoma. He undoubtedly is the best man we can get for our field work. However we have to know some time in advance so that he can make his plans accordingly. As you probably know, he is in the fruit business and there are certain periods...

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4: Culture and Tourism: East Façade and North Tower, 1927

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pp. 105-143

A copy of a letter dated March 10, 1927, from James Miller, the Acoma tribal interpreter in 1927, to B. A. Reuter is in John Gaw Meem’s files. It begins, “Mr. B. A. Reuter or Ghankin: My dear Friend...

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5: Patronage and Questioning of Intentions: Hiatus, 1928

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pp. 144-160

The 1927 season had ended in early September, and Reuter went on to work on the roof of the church at Santa Ana. But financial accounts for the work at Acoma were still being settled in November of that year. On November 17 Anne Evans sent two telegrams to John...

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6: Aesthetics as a Form of Preservation: Tower Completion, 1929

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pp. 161-194

The aim to complete work on the San Esteban del Rey Mission was hoped for but still elusive in the early part of 1929. The mission was standing on the mesa substantially complete but missing an important architectural component, the south tower...

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7: The Long Term at Acoma: Initiatives and Results of the Work in the 1920s

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pp. 195-216

There were six major foci for the work that was accomplished on the San Esteban Mission between 1924 and 1929. Planning: The work of preservation and restoration owes its success in part to a planning process that provided the multiple parties with the ability to envision the mission as a relevant and important...

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8: An American Monument: Two Ways of Seeing the Mission

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pp. 217-234

The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) was a program begun in 1933 under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a form of work relief for out-of-work architects and draftsmen across the United States. HABS was first proposed by Charles E. Peterson...

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Afterword: A Part of the Environment

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pp. 235-240

Figure 94 depicts the Acoma mesa in 1846 from the viewpoint of the U.S. Army camp situated in the plain below the mesa during military reconnaissance by Lieutenant J. W. Abert and the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers...

Appendix: Participants in the 1920s Preservation Project at Acoma

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pp. 241-246


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pp. 247-263


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pp. 264-271


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pp. 272-276

Back Cover

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p. 277-277

E-ISBN-13: 9780826352118
E-ISBN-10: 0826352111
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826352095
Print-ISBN-10: 082635209X

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 21 drawings, 71 halftones, 2 maps, 1 charts
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • San Estevan del Rey Mission Church (Acoma, N.M.).
  • Adobe churches -- Conservation and restoration -- New Mexico -- Acoma Pueblo.
  • Spanish mission buildings -- Conservation and restoration -- New Mexico -- Acoma Pueblo.
  • Meem, John Gaw, 1894-1983.
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