Spanish Colonial Architecture in New Mexico

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Above: 1780 Spanish Colonial home moved from Michoacán, Mexico, to Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe.

By Stephanie M. Chambers

To understand the influence of Spanish Colonial architecture on the residential history of Northern New Mexico, it’s important to start with its churches. Missions provide the most evidence of continuity in architectural history, and demonstrate the period when New Mexico was under Spanish rule. Spanish settlers were cut off from trade with others in North America. Supplies, as well as technology and ideas, had to come from Spain. During their years of isolation, settlers lived a subsistence lifestyle with little money or energy for innovation, so local materials and details were employed: flat roofs, earthen floors sealed with animal blood, mud plaster, wooden bars on windows, vigas and latillas for the ceiling. Glass, nails, and hardware were not available. Communities formed around a plaza for defense. The New Mexican church confirms the conflation of indigenous American building practices with those of the Iberian Peninsula.  The single-naved church with its thick adobe walls, crude structural beams, and transverse clerestory benefited as much from the building traditions of the Pueblo Indians as from Spanish construction and decoration.

Spain focused its efforts and money on missionary activities, and mission churches were the most significant architecture during this period. They have been painted and photographed by hundreds of artists over the years. Churches were built within Spanish communities in northern mountains like at Rancho de Taos, Trampas and Chimayo, and in all of the Pueblos. Friars were in charge of Pueblo church design and construction, and the Pueblo people provided the labor. Pueblo mission churches are distinguished by a simple beauty that provided inspiration for the most important developments in New Mexico architecture.

Identifying Features of Pueblo Architecture:

*Local building materials, usually adobe and timber, but also stone

*Single-story with flat roofs and parapets, influenced by the Native American Pueblo community design

*Residential buildings, sometimes called placitas (courtyard houses), were added to over a period of decades, with the intention of fully enclosing an interior courtyard. These courtyard houses were popular in the Mediterranean region at the time. The style dates back to the time of Christ. Many placitas in the colonies never attained that growth and remain rectangular or L-shaped to this day.

*Vigas (protruding wooden beams) are usually visible extending out from the roofline, and any portales (porches) would be supported with thick wooden columns and zapata capitals (carved, wooden capitals atop the columns).

Identifying Features of Mission Churches:

*Churches were typically more elaborate than homes with Baroque elements, but simpler and smaller the farther one moved northward from Mexico.

*Simplified Baroque-style features: elaborate facades with round arches, domes, and niches for statuary

*Prominent belfries or bell towers, curved parapets extending above the entryway, and typically symmetrical facades (if twin bell towers.)

*Churrigueresque, named after architect and sculptor, José Benito de Churriguera, is a Spanish Baroque style of elaborate sculptural architectural ornament, which emerged as a manner of stucco decoration in Spain in the late 17th century. It was marked by extreme, expressive and florid decorative detailing, normally found above the entrance on the main facade of a building. Baroque style’s likely ancestry is from Moorish architecture or Mudéjar architecture that still remained through south and central Spain.

Color photography credits: Stephen and Stephanie Chambers

Santa Fe Missions demonstrate how building practices of Indigenous Americans were integrated with those of Spain.

Santa Fe homes, hotels, and public spaces mix Spanish Colonial and native Pueblo construction and details

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