John Gaw Meem was the architect largely responsible for what people think of as Southwestern or Santa Fe style. Spend time in the American Southwest and you will probably see one or two Meem buildings and many examples of what became known as Pueblo Revival style. This is not a post about John Gaw Meem — there is plenty of information out there on his career and accomplishments. This post is about just one of his public buildings now in its 76th year.
Coronado Historic Site
About fifteen miles north of Albuquerque, in the town of Bernalillo, you will find the Coronado Historic Site on the west side of the Rio Grande. The preserved Kuaua pueblo ruin is often incorrectly cited as the location of the Conquistador Coronado’s base of operations and winter camp during his expedition of 1540-42. He certainly knew of the place but we know now that he set up his camp at a different site. The visitor center opened in 1940 was designed by John Gaw Meem. It remains almost totally unchanged from the way Meem left it over seven decades ago…with a few exceptions.
Through a very odd, convoluted and litigious process, the Coronado visitors center actually sits on land owned by the University of New Mexico…with a long term lease. The historic site grounds were reduced over the years from 800 acres to the current 124. The neighboring Santa Ana Pueblo regained ownership of some of the land, now part of a golf course. The University was also engaged with the building’s design and construction from the start. There is correspondence between Meem and James F. Zimmerman, UNM President, discussing the design of the building.
The Coronado Historic Site sits on top of the Kuaua Pueblo, dating back to the 1300s. The extensive and originally multi-storied pueblo was excavated in the 1930s and then reburied for preservation. The crumbling adobe walls that visitors see are a modern reconstruction on top of the original pueblo walls lying below the surface. The pueblo site is unique because it is one of only a few places where original Puebloan murals survived on the walls of a religious kiva. The murals, painted in layers on adobe plaster, were painstakingly removed and preserved. The adobe-constructed visitor center was designed to be the place where the original murals were to be displayed. The detail work on the building is all Meem.
The main hall of the building, now used as a museum, was originally intended to display the murals. The windows, now positioned in the western wall, were first planned to face east to catch morning light. The murals were to be displayed on the western wall.
The design changed. The windows were moved to the west side and the ancient murals are now preserved and displayed in a more protected space in the north wing of the building.
Very little renovation or remodeling has taken place and the building exists much as it did in 1940. The building now has a modern roof. The original roof was packed earth over a layer of brush on top of the latillas and vigas. Over time the roof leaked like a sieve and the site superintendent recalls having 50-gallon trash containers collecting rainwater in the main hall. The wiring has been modernized and the building is now air conditioned. On the exterior, most of the canales have been fitted with down-spouts to help carry rainwater away from the adobe walls.
The lintels, beams, vigas and corbels are mostly facing east and are showing some weathering with age but are in good shape.
If you are visiting to see the ruins or the preserved murals you should take a little time to check out the museum exhibits and enjoy the building.
The old pueblo was right on the Rio Grande
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