New Mexico Regionalism
Churches for the Southwest: The Ecclesiastical Architecture of John Gaw Meem
by Stanford Lehmberg
2005 W.W. Norton, 128 pages
John Gaw Meem, while relatively unknown outside New Mexico, is regarded among New Mexicans as their most significant interpreter of regional forces in architecture. Lehmberg’s book, the first to focus on the architect’s ecclesiastical designs, provides a careful account of Meem’s engagement with church commissions from about 1920 until his last church design in 1949. Meem began his career not by designing, but by restoring churches, especially very venerable ones—such as the San Estevan del Rey Mission, the only surviving church built prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and Saint Francis Cathedral of Santa Fe, erected by Bishop Lamy in the 1860s. It is likely that this early involvement in restoration set Meem’s approach to both sacred and secular architecture throughout his career.
Born in Brazil, Meem came to the United States in pursuit of an education in engineering. When he was told he had tuberculosis and should find a sanatorium in the Southwest, he opted to travel to Santa Fe, inspired by a poster of its architecture he had seen in the window of a New York travel agency. He was encouraged to consider a career in architecture by a newfound friend, a Portuguese architect working in California. After study and apprenticeship, he began his practice by working on the restoration of churches.
Lehmberg’s book provides us with a step-by-step account of Meem’s ecclesiastical commissions and the development and refinement of his approach to the design of churches. It is illustrated with excellent recent color photographs throughout, accompanied by earlier black and white photographs and architectural drawings from the Meem Archives at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where Meem was campus architect during the critical formative years of the U.N.M. campus. Meem was architect of numerous university and commercial buildings as well as residences during his career, but it is likely that his early experience with the restoration of churches had a profound influence on his approach to architectural design. The humility Meem felt from working on those great and sacred buildings, I believe, instilled in him a sense of humility toward architecture in general, which may be responsible for his focus on traditional architecture and building methods across all his work.
Particularly informative in this book are the snippets of correspondence between Meem and building committees, bishops, ministers, and priests for whom he worked. These communications demonstrate the strong mutual respect Meem and his ecclesiastical clients had for one another. Further, Lehmberg points out evidence of the importance of religion to Meem. He often contributed his own funds to special features of the churches he designed or reduced his commissions as an expression of his regard for the parishes, congregations, and clergy he served. It is obvious that his church commissions were more than just projects of professional importance.
Implicit as one progresses through this book is Meem’s keen sensitivity to liturgical requirements and traditions, all the while carefully reflecting regional architectural attributes. His commissions included designs for Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Baptist churches, as well as the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches that are among his better-known works. Lehmberg touches upon, but does not elaborate, Meem’s especially sensitive attention to the differing liturgical requirements and specific historical settings of each church. Additionally, the author does not delve very far into Meem’s lifelong involvement with theories of regionalism in New Mexico architecture. In fact, it is Meem’s attention to regional precedents that led him to articulate an almost canonical clarification of “styles” considered to be uniquely New Mexican. Meem’s work reflects each of these styles, or architectural modalities, both for his churches and for his secular architecture—having defined the respective details, appropriate materials, and expressive qualities of each. Perhaps because Lehmberg is a historian but not an architectural historian, he shied away from more in-depth descriptions of Meem’s architectural theory and the way it manifested itself in his churches. To have done so might have taken the book to a more profound level, although at the same time it might have discouraged some readers who would find such discussions exclusive to the province of architects. But it is here that Meem’s significance as an architect beyond New Mexico resides. Many skilled architects who worked during the same period also designed works of significance and beauty, but the added dimension of thoughtful attention to regional and historical circumstances developed by Meem places him in the forefront of a particularly noteworthy intellectual tradition. Lehmberg does point out however that Meem “possessed an exceptional understanding of the relationship between liturgy and space, the intersection between religion, art, and history.”
I would recommend this book to church building committee members and clergy approaching the daunting task of selecting an architect and setting requirements for a new church or the renovation and restoration of existing ecclesiastical architecture in their charge. This book provides a vital overview of the experience and engagement of a conscientious and knowledgeable architect in the design and renovation of churches.
Norman Crowe is Professor Emeritus at the the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. He is the author of Nature and the Idea of a Man-Made World (MIT Press, 1995).