The art of design, the influence of a place: 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 only 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.

Taos’ ‘revival’

“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 Benavides. The Harwood, built by Bert Harwood in 1926, he added, is considered the first town structure designed in the Pueblo-Revival style.

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. Architect John Gaw Meem won the challenge. He would eventually become the preeminent advocate of “Santa Fe style.” Meem became a prolific architect in New Mexico, and particularly in Santa Fe.

The design motif wasn’t for everyone. Even Frank Lloyd Wright, no stranger to hyperbolic remarks, expressed his distaste for the style.

“This is imitation and all imitation is base,” the legendary architect reportedly said during a visit to the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque, 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, “[Wright] would condemn the whole of the Renaissance.”

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

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