A Glimpse into Santa Fe’s Historic Architecture

The impact of Santa Fe and the larger northern New Mexico area on the development of American modernism, which has thus far been the focus of my blog entries, is unmistakable, as it significantly influenced the work of artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley.  The post-colonial history of the region certainly is fascinating, but any visitor to the area should not neglect to explore   New Mexico’s many other historically significant periods.

New Mexico possesses a rich heritage that dates back centuries, with its earliest incarnations evidenced through art objects, artifacts, and dwellings left by ancient indigenous peoples (these will be examined in a later post).  A more recent event that perhaps had the most far-reaching and permanent consequences for the New Mexico region was the European conquest and occupation of the Southwest.  The Spanish occupiers were motivated by a lust for the riches that were believed to be hidden in the New World, but also by what they believed to be a divine calling to spread Catholicism across the Atlantic by converting the non-Christian indigenous peoples living on the American continent.  Their perceived mission lead to the establishment of a strong, pervasive, and often brutally oppressive Catholic  tradition in New Mexico, and especially in Santa Fe, which served as the capital of the new Spanish territory.

This tradition is strongly evidenced in the historic architecture of Santa Fe, some examples of which I recently visited.  The first is the San Miguel Mission (pictured in the feature image), which is located on Old Santa Fe Trail.  Claimed to be the oldest Church in the United States, it was constructed circa 1610. A visit to the small mission is well worth the three dollar entry fee, as the building presents a striking contrast between its traditional adobe construction and the European religious motifs that adorn its interior.  Religious paintings and wood reliefs grace the interior adobe walls, which support a traditionally designed wooden ceiling.  A notable inclusion among the works of religious art is a wooden sculpture of Saint Michael which dates to around 1709.

At the front of the main room, the minimal adobe design contrasts but also places emphasis on an ornately carved and painted altarpiece.  Added to the Mission in 1798, it extends from the floor of the sanctuary to the ceiling and echoes the design of the intricate and extravagant altars of Europe.

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The sanctuary at San Miguel Mission.  

A final feature of the San Miguel Mission is the church bell housed within the structure.  Supposedly made in Spain in 1356, the bell may be rung by visitors using a small hammer kept next to it.  I admit that after working with museum registrars and conservators for the past two months, I internally cringed at the idea of striking a centuries-old bell with a hammer, but at our guide’s assurance, I swung the hammer into the side of the bell.  I still felt uneasy about the act, but it did make an impressive sound.

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The San Miguel Mission’s church bell.  

Just a block away from the San Miguel Mission is the more recent but equally impressive Loretto Chapel. Unlike the adobe facade of the San Miguel Mission, the Loretto Chapel’s exterior boasts a distinctly European gothic aesthetic.  Commissioned in 1872, the Chapel was maintained by the Sisters of Loretto until its closing, after which it has been maintained as a museum by a private company.

All of the interior features of the Loretto Chapel share the stylistic grandeur of the structure’s gothic revival exterior, but the best known feature of the Chapel is the famed “Miracle Staircase.”  Added to the Chapel to provide access to its choir loft by an unknown carpenter, the elegantly carved, helix shaped staircase stands with no external support.  The spiral stairs extend upward toward the loft only through the staircase’s own structural integrity.  Due to its unusual construction and the mysterious nature of its origins, the staircase is considered to be a miraculous work of carpentry.  Whether the legends surrounding the staircase are to be believed or not, its aesthetic intricacy and historic setting warrant a visit to the Loretto Chapel for any visitor to Santa Fe.

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The “Miracle Staircase” at Loretto Chapel.  

Both the San Miguel Mission and the Loretto Chapel exemplify the historical importance of New Mexico, a region that has served as a setting for highly significant historical events for centuries.  Few other places, especially in the United States, allow for the viewing of some of the oldest precolonial and colonial structures, as well as the work of some of the most revered modernists of the twentieth century, in such a small area.  It is one of the most unique aspects of Santa Fe that truly distinguishes it as the capital of the “Land of Enchantment.”

Patrick Gora, Curatorial Intern

San Miguel Church Bell and Altar Images Copyright Travis K. Witt

Miracle Staircase image credit to Yarden Elias