A Gift for Sketching Buildings

John Gaw Meem was one of New Mexico’s most important architects—and his work stands tall at Coronado Historic Site

John Gaw Meem with model of Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, ca. 1938. Photograph by Tyler Dingee. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), neg. no. 019646. 
By Rachel Preston

In the 1930s, the Great Depression had wiped out economies and careers. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal would offer up programs in craft, design, construction, and art that would eventually put more than half of New Mexico’s population—more than 200,000 people—back to work.

One New Mexican architect would rise to the occasion, finding ways to empower communities across the state, right as he hit his stride in a career that would come to define mid-century New Mexico design. John Gaw Meem IV was enabled to this task by a cadre of New Mexico believers, particularly Edgar Lee Hewett, with whom he had worked since the mid-1920s rehabilitating historic missions with the Society of the Preservation and Restoration of New Mexico Mission Churches.

While I had heard of Meem during the early years of my career in New Mexico preservation, I was working in and around Taos, so I wasn’t often coming into contact with his work. I knew that he had worked on Taos’s Harwood Museum, and designed the First Presbyterian Church of Taos—one of my favorite modern churches. Before I moved to Santa Fe, Meem was a mythical bespectacled character that I kept coming across as I learned that he designed or rehabilitated the buildings I felt especially drawn to—Santa Fe’s Cristo Rey Church, Delgado House, the former County Courthouse, and Los Poblanos in Albuquerque’s North Valley. His buildings offered a tantalizing taste of good design that just stuck with me. It was something about the lines and the way he landmarked many of his buildings with towers, as if he were putting a pin in a grand walkable map of the city that said, “Here is where you want to go,” much as his father, John Gaw Meem III, had in Meem IV’s childhood home of Pelotas, Brazil.

The elder Meem, an Episcopal missionary, built his congregation a church that landmarked itself as “HERE” through the use of a white color palette and sky-reaching tower, cast against the sea of low-slung pastel-colored Renaissance and Baroque Revival buildings that defined the southern Brazilian port city, located near Uruguay. The younger Meem borrowed his father’s landmarking ideas and built upon them, weaving Indigenous and Hispano art, and modern architectural forms and materials into his original New Mexican creations.

It wasn’t until I started working around his buildings that I started to understand Meem’s hand as a designer. Then, as my peers and I started considering how we might redefine our styles in Santa Fe so we could find ways to make them more sustainable, I realized we were carrying on the same work Meem was trying to get done almost a hundred years ago. So I added all his buildings to the list of 350 or so churches and historic sites I was going to visit for a book I am writing about New Mexico’s sacred spaces. After seeing more of his buildings and learning more about the man himself, I started to realize his extraordinary impact—not only on our styles and standards of design, but on the way we saw ourselves culturally, and our ability to build a better future economically. His work empowered the lives of ordinary New Mexicans in ways it couldn’t have at any other time, which made his work all the more captivating.

Kuaua/ Coronado Historic Site

It was 1939. Archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett, then director of the New Mexico Museum and the Society for American Archaeology, wanted to create New Mexico’s first official historic site—and the country’s first archaeological tourist attraction—on land in Bernalillo owned by the University of New Mexico. Located on a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande, just a few miles from Route 66 and El Camino Real, the site boasts a breathtaking view of the riparian landscape, centered on the sacred Sandias in the east, and two ancestral pueblos located between and shared culturally by both Sandia and Tamaya (Santa Ana) pueblos. There was an abandoned Spanish- and Mexican-period hacienda just a few hundred yards away. For Hewett, it was a perfect place to tell the story of the pueblos, the Hispanic period, the modern period, and how archaeology had brought them all together.

An early sketch of the Coronado visitor’s center. Elevation, John Gaw Meem, architect. Courtesy the SWA John Gaw Meem Drawings and Plans, John Gaw Meem Archives of Southwestern Architecture, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico.

To draw bigger crowds, Hewett wanted to tie one of the two ancestral pueblos, Kuaua, to Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s 1540 expedition, just in time for its four-hundredth anniversary. He had been leading excavations there for several years, and hoped that the site would prove to have been the explorer’s winter base camp. Kuaua was known to date from the 1300s to the 1600s, though more recent archaeology suggests occupation may actually go back more than a thousand years, and be as recent as the 1700s. While it has most often been associated with Tiwa-speaking people like those at Sandia, neighboring Tamaya, a Keres-speaking people, also claim a relationship.

In 1540, Coronado designated the area Tiguex, the local name of the area, as well as that of its largest village. Earlier, in 1582, Antonio de Espejo visited and documented the name of the then-intact ancestral Puebloan village as Guagua. The modern Tiwa name, according to neighbors at Sandia, is Kuaua, the “evergreen village,” which scholars suggest came from its peoples’ use of fir greens in ceremonies. According to Keres-speaking neighbors at Tamaya, the pueblo is called Kua, which simply means “southern village.”

Looking from an excavated kiva at Kuaua towards the Coronado visitor’s center, with the Sandias beyond. Photograph by Beau Sniderman.
Aerial view of Kuaua ruins, Coronado State Monument, New Mexico, ca. 1946. Photograph by Sargent Fullerton. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), neg. no. 045345.

Adolf Bandelier visited the site in 1882 with Juan Trujillo of Sandia Pueblo, but no significant exploration occurred until the large rectangular multi-storied ancestral pueblo was excavated by Hewett as part of the New Deal’s Work Projects Administration programs between 1934 and 1939. Interestingly, those excavations didn’t actually support the idea that Coronado used the pueblo as his base camp, though metal detecting on the site in the past few years has unearthed clues that suggest that, in fact, there may have been a battle or skirmish there between the Puebloans and the Spaniards around that time.

While the excavated ancestral pueblo and its ambitious connection to Coronado is interesting, what makes the site truly unique is that an unburned religious structure—or kiva—with intact mural fragments was discovered in the dig. Ultimately the panels (covered in more than eighty layers of paint, of which fifteen had painted figures) were painstakingly removed, and each layer was separated, documented, and stabilized at the University of New Mexico. Fourteen of those fragments are displayed at the site. The murals are considered some of the finest, if not the finest pre-contact mural art in the United States. What really astounded me in experiencing them was realizing that this sacred Puebloan religious, seasonal, and hunting art was being painted about the same time that Michelangelo was painting the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel with the religious stories of his people. And, unlike Michelangelo and his contemporaries’ plentiful works, Coronado Historic Site’s Kuaua Pueblo is the only place where you can see original Puebloan kiva art in person.

Hewett had both an enormous personality as well as ambition for creating big monuments that drew big crowds. He and architect Isaac Rapp had done this quite successfully with the New Mexico Building for the 1915 Panama California Exposition in San Diego. They would then morph that building into an even bolder statement in what we now know as the 1917 New Mexico Museum of Art. Both structures were popular with tourists from around the world, which they hoped to court again at Coronado.

Meem leaned into a type of historic house that twentieth-century planners celebrated as ideal, with its long portal flanked by a symmetrical room block on each end. An early example of that house, known as the Roque Lobato house, just across Bishops Lodge Road from the Scottish Rite Temple, was visible to all from its perch on a hill above Santa Fe. Morley home on Washington Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1920. Photograph by Wesley Bradfield. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), neg. no. 010547.
Meem also revered houses that modeled the Beaux Arts ideal of symmetry; it became one of the most-used building forms in twentieth-century New Mexico, probably because most of our early architects were Beaux Arts-trained. Old house with portal, Mexican settlement below Sunmount, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1912. Photograph by Jesse Nusbaum. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), neg. no. 061507.

Hewett wanted to fully reconstruct the excavated pueblo to “make it more visible.” However, due to budget shortfalls, the few partial walls we see now are but a hint of the reconstruction, which since 1940 has mostly melted back into the earth from which it came, and only implies the form of the excavated 1,200-room pueblo and its three plazas. Adjacent to the reconstituted historic village, Hewett envisioned a grand architectural monument in honor of Coronado, featuring a large museum that would look out over a pedestrian bridge across the river that was to be topped by a 40-foot equestrian statue of the explorer. Visitors would climb a formal staircase to an observation deck off the bridge where they could look out over the ancestral pueblo.

However, Hewett’s dreams outpaced the available recovery funds, and time was short. Knowing he needed someone who could materialize his vision, and do so quickly, he hired Meem, his friend and collaborator of nearly two decades. He then informed the architect that he had until May 1940—about six months—to design the center and get it built. And, because they designed and built the entire site out in just a few months, the right combination of functions to include was only revealed as they were building.

While most of Meem’s buildings are special because of his elevation of historic architectural forms into a more monumental scale, what would ultimately be built for the visitor’s center at Coronado was, architecturally, an exercise in humility. It is a masterwork of one of Meem’s ideals; he called it “a functional architecture.”

So, what is “a functional architecture”?

It’s architecture that works for you, rather than just looks a certain way. Meem was tapping into ancient vernacular design techniques, including capturing the winter sun to keep warm, seen in the south- and west-facing cliffhouses at Chaco, the terraces at Acoma, and the south-facing resolanas in historic Hispanic villages.

This technique was harnessed by Meem at the Coronado visitor’s center through the use of an east-facing portal, which would naturally store heat on winter mornings. Combined with the room at the south, the two rooms would effectively shade the courtyard from the brunt of the summer heat.

The relevance of the Kuaua/Coronado site in history challenged Meem to find an architectural style that worked for both a pre-colonial time period and his own. He leaned into vernacular precedents: what architectural historians may call Pueblo Revival today, but which Meem would have likely defined as “Old Santa Fe Style.” It was a simple construction of earth-toned adobe with wooden details defining a whitewashed porch. It was a style made popular by the early-twentieth-century remodel of the Palace of the Governors, which he would eventually renovate; a monumental variation of a type of historic house that twentieth-century planners celebrated as ideal, with its long portal flanked by a symmetrical room block on each end.

Meem used massing—terracing the building’s “blocks”—to create visual interest and make the building look more like a pueblo. Photograph by Beau Sniderman.

An early example of that house, known as the Roque Lobato house, just across Bishops Lodge Road from the Scottish Rite Temple, was visible to all from its perch on a hill above Santa Fe. That home was rehabilitated by Sylvanus Morley, one of the advocates of Santa Fe’s City Different movement, and photographed by fellow promoter Jesse Nusbaum for the 1912 New/Old Santa Fe Exhibition at the Museum of New Mexico, which was put together for the purpose of defining Santa Fe Style. Another dozen or so versions from Isleta, Santa Clara, Jemez, Pojoaque, Santa Fe, Peña Blanca, Ranchos de Taos, and San Ildefonso were featured in a series of six photo albums presented to Meem by Carlos Vierra as a type of architectural pattern book, which Meem would refer to throughout his career.

Another of these simple symmetrical houses was on the way to Sunmount Sanitorium, where Meem sought tuberculosis treatment when he arrived in New Mexico in 1924. Meem likely passed by that house on the long walks that were part of his healing, and it was sure that he knew Morley, as they were both members of the Scottish Rite and its neighboring Masonic Lodge, which Meem would go on to design.

That house type documented and exhibited in the early twentieth century was transformative, because it modeled the Beaux Arts ideal of symmetry, even though the majority of New Mexico’s historic buildings did not. It became one of the most-used building forms in twentieth-century New Mexico, probably because most of our early architects, including Meem himself, were Beaux Arts-trained. Beaux Arts was a subset of Greek Revival architecture that was popular in the U.S. from approximately 1885 to 1925. Most often used in public buildings, the style is characterized by symmetry, order, formal design, grandiosity, and elaborate ornamentation. New Mexico’s most beloved example is Isaac Rapp’s hyper-regional 1917 New Mexico Museum of Art, though his 1911 Chavez County Courthouse in Roswell would be more recognizable to the style’s more traditional fans.

In October 1939, Meem visited Kuaua with Reginald Fisher, Hewett’s deputy director of the Museum. While on site, they determined that the visitor’s center would be located “east of the exterior pueblo walls.” The building would be “in the shape of a U, with the legs facing so the patio was facing the river and the east.” There would be a keeper’s quarters on the north, a central “lounge” portal, and a museum on the south. The building was to be adobe and “very native in character.”

One of Meem’s earliest sketches, included in his project files donated to the Center for Southwest Research at UNM, indicates that he envisioned a parallel and separate relationship between the Monument and the ancestral village. In one of several iterations he was developing simultaneously, he offers a classical Beaux Arts-inspired design, drawing a shallow portal in front of an enclosed sunroom gallery, with ample French doors with transoms, similar to his New Deal La Quinta event center at Los Poblanos, commissioned in 1932. Between the windows, a painted dado—a darker painted lower wall section that would hide scratches and stains better than whitewashed sections—featured a favorite decorative detail: the stepped cloud, a traditional Puebloan symbol for rain.

One of the first formal plans Meem developed for Coronado featured a shallow portal in front of an enclosed sunroom gallery, and French doors with transoms. Floor plan, John Gaw Meem, architect. Courtesy SWA John Gaw Meem Drawings and Plans, John Gaw Meem Archives of Southwestern Architecture, Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico.

One of the first formal plans he developed was also traditional Beaux Arts in style, but without the expensive window wall and its enclosed gallery beyond. It featured a long open portal flanked by a room block on each side. Large sculptures, with Coronado in the center, flanked by a “Priest” at the right and an “Indian” at left, decorate the space. A set of “Coronado Murals” painted by Gerald Cassidy, which may have been reused from the New Mexico Museum of Art or the Panama Expo, would be installed on the back wall. The keeper’s quarters are integrated into the building on the north, to the right of the portal.

The second plan, produced over Thanksgiving in 1939, has the same symmetrical form, but instead of sculptures featured an inscribed tablet between the murals, with bancos at each end of the open portal—one of Meem’s signature designs used throughout his career, including at UNM’s Zimmerman Library. This shift was prescient, as Hewett officially eliminated the sculptures in December 1939 because they were going to be too expensive. Hewett declared that a stone tablet depicting a Pueblo Indian, a conquistador, and a priest should be placed “inside the museum,” implying that the western room was going to be added back in. This plan also marks a major shift—making the keeper’s quarters a separate structure—and replacing it with more museum space on the north, which had the benefit of keeping fireplace smoke as well as kitchen grease out of the exhibition space.

In these early iterations, a small, tucked-away entry on the southwest towards the parking lot was intended to be the main entrance. The large portal that is the primary entrance now was intended to be something of a reward after visiting the museum, with a beautiful view of the river and the Sandia Mountains beyond, and what would have been Hewett’s dream bridge and monument.

Meem’s elevations, which show us how he intended each side of the building to look once built, indicate he intended to use the Puebloan technique of an exposed stone foundation with earth plaster on the exterior. This would protect the bottom of the wall from canale splashback, as well as rising damp from snow. A set of “Coronado Murals” painted by Gerald Cassidy, which may have been reused from the Museum of Fine Arts or the Panama-California Expo, would be installed on the back wall. The keeper’s quarters are integrated into the building north of the portal.

Construction of the visitor’s center likely started with the open-portal plan. The southwest entrance was abandoned in favor of the portal as main entrance. Works Progress Administration, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and National Youth Administration funds were procured, while crews made adobes, detailed wood, and prepared the site. The idea of a western gallery behind the portal was revisited. A sketch in the job files notes the Coronado mural and exhibits moved into the new room, and a space for archaeological interpretation added. This would explain how the western gallery building ended up being inside the archaeological site; that room wasn’t originally going to be there, and they were already building. The window wall returned, this time on the west and using doors ordered for the original plan, capturing the view of the sunset over the ancestral village.

The building was constructed of a smaller, older form of adobe called terrones, cut from clay at the riverbank on-site, rather than the more common frame-formed adobes made of a mix of sand, clay, straw, and water. Floors were earthen, and coated in blood as they would have been historically. The rooms were simple and unadorned, outside of the ceilings and a few painted wall decorations, so they were easier to maintain. Small windows were placed up high, to minimize light impact on the fragile mural fragments and exhibits, as well as to secure them. Security grilles were simple turned wood; they could be easily made and replaced when they needed to be. The original building used true earth plaster and lime whitewash, and was capped with a shallow dirt-insulated roof with built-up roofing.

The Coronado Historic Site and visitor’s center’s grand opening was on May 29, 1940. The opening festivities were to launch the Cuarto Centennial—a year-long celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Coronado’s expedition. That evening after the dedication was to be the first of thirty pageants scheduled in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The pageant, written by Thomas Wood Stevens, premiered at UNM’s stadium. The elaborate reenactment of the Coronado entrada had eighteen acts, each depicting a place on the conquistador’s journey, depicted by a cast of more than 20,000 players on a 300-foot portable stage. Other planned events included folklife festivals, rodeos, frontier days, old trail days, fiestas, local fairs, and cavalcades.

While the monument was successful in fulfilling Hewett’s dream of being the first American archaeological site to open to the public, the effort to elevate New Mexico archaeology to the level of “legend” was not as successful as he had hoped.

Archaeologist Erik Reed described the building as “splendid” but the exhibits “mediocre,” and lamented the placement of the museum and the keeper’s house within the context of the ancestral pueblo itself as “unfortunate.”

He was not alone in his disappointment—and trouble was brewing. Neither the pageant nor the folk festivals drew the expected crowds, and the impact was immediate. Two days after the opening, it was announced that no additional funds would be made available to complete the aspirational work of the monument, nor would any more of the celebratory events go on as planned.

A view of reconstructed village walls, with the visitor’s center beyond.
Photograph by Beau Sniderman.

Coronado Historic Site in Context

What also intrigued me about the Coronado project was where it landed in Meem’s career, and how exploring what was happening alongside it reveals just how significant Meem’s impact was.

Meem was 30 years old in 1924 when he happened upon his new architectural vocation. After dealing with debilitating illnesses from Spanish flu that eventually became tuberculosis, Meem was told he should take respite at a sanitorium. Shortly after seeing a pamphlet from the Santa Fe Railroad that featured the New Mexico Museum of Art (then the Museum of Fine Arts), he hopped on a train out west, arriving in Santa Fe to rest and recover at Sunmount Sanitorium. It was there that he discovered he had a gift for sketching buildings.

In just a few months, he was activated into the world of architecture by Sunmount’s director Frank E. Mera, fellow Portuguese speaker Carlos Vierra, and other friends he met there who were inclined to save New Mexico’s historic buildings. Architecture was not a great leap from the structural engineering degree he had obtained from Virginia Military Institute (from which he, his engineer father, architect grandfather, engineer great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather had matriculated). After finishing college, Meem had worked for two years for his uncle in New York City building a portion of the subway system under Canal Street, before he was called up to train reserve recruits in World War I.

Once in New Mexico, he started his new career rehabilitating historic missions, eventually including the influential San Esteban at Acoma. Once he was strong enough to, Meem left New Mexico to study architecture in Colorado. He worked for the firm Fisher and Fisher while studying for a year at Atelier Denver, a Beaux Arts architecture school, and won national awards in design before his TB flared and he had to return to Santa Fe. It wasn’t long before he was designing homes for friends, then schools, commercial, and religious projects. After only three years, Meem was considered so accomplished in the field that the American Institute of Architects elevated him to “Architect” by vote, despite his not being degreed or fully apprenticed in architecture.

Meem became known as the go-to architect for doing expedient designs that could be swiftly built, especially to stabilize historic buildings, and most especially in planning for projects that were to be built by volunteers. He would co-found the Old Santa Fe Association, design Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos, and help save Chimayó’s sanctuario by helping to arrange for it to be procured by the Catholic Church. He would do renovations of Isaac Rapp’s works at the Museum of New Mexico, Sunmount, and the New Mexico School for the Deaf. He was also hired by the Harvey Company’s Mary Colter to complete a renovation and addition to the south side of La Fonda on the Santa Fe Plaza, which had quickly become a hub of regional tourism just a few years after Rapp’s inaugural design.

Beginning in 1930, Meem won a competition for the redesign of the Santa Fe Plaza, and expanded the Santa Fe Indian School. He also realized that brick parapets (previously cast aside when Santa Fe’s City Different proponents decided to abandon the Territorial style in favor of romanticized versions of our local vernacular architectures) were actually quite good at protecting the top of the wall, thus minimizing maintenance. He revived the practice, giving birth to the popular Territorial Revival style.

In 1933, the American Institute of Architects named Meem to a national commission to plan and direct the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), one of the New Deal programs which would provide employment for American architects. He would also facilitate the Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration to find and employ artists throughout the state. He designed the first iteration of the Museum of International Folk Art in a fusion of New Mexico design with the modern International style, and stabilized the St. Francis Cathedral, whose interior columns were built without foundations, rendering the building in danger of collapse.

Meem also married his wife, Faith Bemis, that year. They had met through her two-year apprenticeship in the design and drawing of Meem’s renowned Art Deco-meets-Southwest-style Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center—one of several projects in Colorado Meem did for her aunt, Alice Bemis Taylor. Taylor asked Meem to give her niece the opportunity. It was an almost miraculous gift, as while Faith had inherited her father’s talent and love for construction, attended art school in Europe, and matriculated from the MIT/Harvard’s Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscaping Design (for women) in 1928, women were rarely “allowed” to work in architecture at the time. Thanks to that open door, Faith Meem was one of the first women to follow Mary Colter’s lead and work in architecture in New Mexico.

In archaeology, art, linguistics, business, botany, and other fields, the West had long been a place where women could flourish. Meem was supportive of that tradition. Another woman whose work he championed was Eugenie Shonnard, a sculptor who Meem considered one of the finest not only in the state, but in the country. He offered her multiple commissions, including one of the sculptures for the original Beaux Arts version of the visitor’s center.

Meem was also an advocate for racial equality, and implored with the people of Santa Fe, pointing out their “reputation for tolerance,” to recognize the rights of African Americans to be able to attend the local theater and hotel.

Meem would design or amend dozens of buildings for the University of New Mexico’s campus from 1933 through 1959, which he considered one of his crowning achievements, owing to its being featured in Time magazine as a fine regional example of Contemporary design. Meem was also recognized for his efforts by UNM’s College of Fine Arts, which gave him an honorary doctorate in 1960. The bulk of the historic campus, including the fifty or so buildings he designed or modified, is its own historic district now. Several, including Zimmerman Library, Scholes Hall, the Student Union (now part of the Anthropology complex), and the demoed Engineering Annex, were New Deal projects.

Meem worked on early New Deal projects in Santa Fe as well, including a John D. Rockefeller Jr.-backed, national competition-winning entry for the Laboratory of Anthropology that was featured in the New York Times. Other projects included what is now the New Mexico Military Museum, the Villagra Building on Palace Avenue, the old Santa Fe City Hall (now the Santa Fe Public Library), and the recently rehabilitated County Building and Courthouse. Other New Deal projects included work at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, Western New Mexico University in Silver City, and the Harwood Museum in Taos. He was also named the regional director of HABS, which has documented numerous important ancestral Puebloan sites, historic homes, and mission churches in New Mexico, and continues to document important historic buildings and structures throughout the country to this day. Meem’s New Deal work employed thousands, and the program enabled a new generation of designers and preservationists to do what they do. To be sure they did it well, Meem also set up a system of architectural licensing for the state.

In 1939, while he was working on the Coronado visitor’s center, Meem was also working on a remodel of First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, while concurrently leading HABS as it documented Ceremonial Cave (now known as Alcove House) and the Large Kiva at Bandelier, as well as Kin Kilzhin at Chaco. Meem was working on the design of the Church of Saint Anne at Acoma, several residences, as well as Maisel’s Indian Trading Post in Albuquerque (which sadly closed permanently in 2020).

He also worked on the design of Cristo Rey Church on Canyon Road, which was to become home of the famous altarpiece, or reredos, rescued from the demolition in the 1860s of La Castrense, a historic church formerly on the south side of Santa Fe Plaza, which had been stored behind the cathedral’s chancellery until there was a place for them to go. Like the visitor’s center, Cristo Rey was also a memorial to the Coronado expedition’s four-hundredth anniversary, and had to be built in record time. At a dinner on April 6, 1939, Archbishop Gerken announced the project: “We shall build a memorial to the Coronado Centennial in the form of the most beautiful church in the Southwest. This memorial will become a new parish.” The church, the construction of which required 120 workmen and more than 180,000 hand-made abobe bricks, opened in 1940.

Shortly after completing these projects, Meem was recognized for his efforts in the New Deal and beyond with an honorary fellowship in the Society of American Archaeology, which Hewett led.

By 1941, Meem had teamed up with Hugo Zehner, who had worked for him since 1930 as a draftsman and then head draftsman, and the pair grew the firm to a staff of over thirty. They would rehabilitate Bishop’s Lodge, beginning its transformation from residence to resort; designed Santa Fe’s Sanbusco Center (portions of which are now the New Mexico School for the Arts); and worked on St. Michael’s College (now Santa Fe’s Midtown Campus).

The painted kiva reconstruction, the above-ground portion of which stands at right, shows the relationship between the site and the sacred Sandia Mountains beyond.
Photograph by Beau Sniderman.

After World War II, Meem focused on leading, and let associates do most of the designing. He brought on another partner, William Holien, who had worked for him since 1944. The firm worked on the Montezuma Hotel (now the Hotel St. Francis) in Santa Fe, the St. Francis Cathedral School, renovations at the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe’s Temple Beth Shalom and First Baptist Church, the Santa Fe downtown post office, numerous buildings for the Southern Union gas company, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Gallup, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John in Albuquerque, expansions to New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, and the Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance, Arizona, in addition to a long list of other projects throughout New Mexico.

While his team handled the day-to-day operations, Meem watched over production to ensure that the designs met his standards, and started working on building a legacy that would lead New Mexico into the twenty-first century. He was named Planning Commission chair for the City of Santa Fe in 1945, helped found the New Mexico chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1946, and worked towards creating both a city masterplan as well as a new architectural ordinance for The City Different, finally achieving the latter in 1957. Meem helped deal with a major addition to his Museum of International Folk Art with Alexander Girard, who had donated his folk art collection, and architect Harvey Hoshauer, who was leading that project. He also procured the expansion of St. John’s College to Santa Fe, donating the land for the facility, helping plan and implement the campus design, and bringing his new friend Alexander Girard on to help decorate the interior spaces of the Administration Building (now the Peterson Student Center).

Meem was respected-—and generous. He said that he “retired in 1959,” owing to his simply wearing his body out; though he wasn’t one to not help when he was needed, so he didn’t truly retire until 1975. He passed away in 1983. John Gaw Meem still permeates preservation and design throughout the state, and his legacy endures nearly a century after he arrived.

In a 1959 letter to New Mexico Architect magazine editor Jim Philips, who was preparing an article about Meem’s life after another of his numerous awards, Meem wrote, “I am forever indebted to the State of New Mexico, which not only gave me back my health, but presented me with opportunities for service and happiness. … Perhaps that is one reason I can take such pleasure in trying to recall our history and landscape in the regional architecture of New Mexico; not as imitations of the past, but as symbols of a rich heritage which spiritually enhances our solutions to modern problems.”

I think he was onto something there. 

Rachel Preston, director of The Ministry of Architecture in Santa Fe, has documented historic buildings across New Mexico, and produced documentaries about architecture at Acoma and Bandelier. She writes, teaches, and speaks about New Mexico’s thousand-year tradition of sustainable design.