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Recent Work at Acoma: Partnerships for Preservation  

12-09-2015 17:35

Known as Sky City, the ancient Pueblo of Acoma is located 60 miles west of Albuquerque, N.M. The 70-acre village together with its famed San Esteban del Rey Mission is located on top of a high sandstone mesa and inhabited year-round by fewer than 50 of the approximately 3,000 people who occupy tribal lands. Most Acoma families maintain houses in the old village. The site is a National Historic Landmark and is owned by the Acoma people. The mission, unoccupied and used only on feast days for traditional dances and Masses, is owned by the tribe. As many as 500,000 people per year visit the site. A new Acoma Pueblo Cultural Center is currently being constructed at the base of the mesa to hold an archive of significant Acoma artifacts and documents. The center will also house cultural programs and a museum and provide information to visitors.

With support from Save America’s Treasures and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Acoma Historic Preservation Office and Cornerstones Community Partnerships have collaborated in an effort to restore the San Esteban del Rey mission. This year, in a singly important recognition of the success of this partnership, the New Mexico Office of Cultural Affairs awarded the individuals within the two groups a New Mexico Heritage Preservation Award.1 This award stems from the significant conservation work presently being carried out at the mission and, in the words of the award, the “continued attention to the maintenance of the structure by the Acoma people throughout its long life span.”

In 1999 the Acoma Historic Preservation Office was created by the Pueblo of Acoma Tribal Council in the interest of preserving the traditions and culture of the Acoma people. The office has three full-time staff members and is overseen by an official advisory board composed of tribal elders. The office has responsibility for the conservation and restoration of the San Esteban del Rey mission. Partly funded by tribal funds, grants, and most recently a National Endowment for the Arts grant to Cornerstones, the office is constructing a photographic and document archive dedicated to the maintenance and survival of the tribe’s ancient traditions. It has responsibility, under the NAGPRA laws of the United States, to repatriate objects of cultural importance to the tribe. The office also directs a San Esteban del Rey Restoration group, which is engaged as a full-time traditional building crew in the restoration efforts at the mission and other significant structures. Perhaps the most important responsibility of the office is to lead the community toward recapturing the traditions of building that have been ritualized for centuries.

For the past 17 years Cornerstones Community Partnerships has worked with more than 200 communities throughout New Mexico and the Southwest to plan, organize, and implement community-driven preservation projects. In doing so this nonprofit group has earned a national and international reputation. Now considered to be a foremost authority on earthen construction, Cornerstones has been recognized by Save America’s Treasures and the National Trust as a guardian of some of the region’s most fragile buildings. Cornerstones’ mission to partner with communities in their efforts to restore their historic buildings has led to a revitalization of traditional building practices within these communities, while developing skills and leadership among the younger generation. The importance of the Cornerstones mission lies in its recognition of the significance of cultural traditions for the future.


Their departures were orderly. Not all occurred at the very same instant, but all took place late in the thirteenth century and early in the fourteenth, and all gave evidence of having been agreed upon. Their houses were left standing…. The cities, one by one at the point of their highest development, were left to time and the amber preservative of dry sunlit air.

(Paul Horgan, Great River, Minerva Press, 1954, chapter 3.)

The Pueblo of Acoma in New Mexico is notably one of the oldest urban settlements in the United States. Continuously inhabited since at least the late 1300s, the “City of the Sky” (7,000 feet above sea level) retains an architecture that can be traced back to the early 17th century, built on a high mesa, isolated and defensible in its magnificent arid landscape. The ruins of the original village, destroyed in 1599 by Spanish soldiers, are known to exist beneath the present village and its mission of San Esteban del Rey. Archeological excavations have shown that Acoma was inhabited before the time of Christ.

The contiguously formed settlement was constructed of materials from the surrounding lands. The earliest European contact2 with Acoma in the 16th century provided descriptions of a rock called Acuco. The Europeans reported seeing “a village of about 200 houses, from two to four stories high: with cornfields and cisterns on the summit; with cotton, deerskin and buffalo hide garments; with domesticated turkeys, quantities of turquoise, etc.”3 The stepped houses were set in continuous rows facing slightly east of south. In 1599, in an act of vengeance following a clash between the Spanish soldiers and the Acomas, the Spanish razed the village using cannon fire.

The rebuilding of the village took place after 1640, guided by Fray Juan Ramirez of Oaxaca. The southern part of the original village was buried by the new mission, begun in 1629. The buried archeology is occasionally visible after heavy rains or wind. The exact location of the entire village has not been established. Within the present-day village can be discerned the 17th-century stepped houses incorporating also the kivas (ceremonial chambers), three stories high, facing east of south. These are remarkable examples of an “energy efficient” architecture. 4 Food crops of corn, squash, and beans were grown in the fields below. Water cisterns are located in the open on top of the mesa. No other source of water, or electrical power, exists here.

The history of Acoma is told by stories that are passed from grandfathers to children. These histories are known only to the people of Acoma and are cherished as intimate knowledge. The written histories of this settlement are always told by outsiders from the perspective of outsiders and usually begin with the arrival of the Spanish from the south in the 16th century. These histories and all those told of Acoma originate from a point of view not held by the Acoma people and are built on values that are frequently foreign to them. The conflict generated by the two viewpoints is similar to the conflicts that have arisen over time with the interest of the outside world in the Acoma settlement.

The magnificent San Esteban del Rey, one of the largest adobe structures in the United States and also one of the architecturally most significant, has attracted much needed restoration efforts, especially over the last century. Much of the work has been carried out from the outside, with outsiders’ knowledge and expertise applied. The Acoma people have an enduring commitment to this work, having had in place the Gaugashti, or men designated “church caretakers,” since the construction of the mission. Members of this highly respected group have lifetime appointments and have traditionally received little remuneration for the work. Little understood by the outside world, this “dedication” by the Acoma people to their church has less to do with a commitment to the institution of the church and more to do with a wholly different attitude about labor and place. For the Acoma people, labor is not separated from ceremony or ritual but is rather an integral part of a spiritual world. The conflict in modern tribal environments between the outside world and tradition arises, specifically, from this difference of world view.

San Esteban del Rey

As one of the first Pueblo churches of New Mexico, San Esteban remains one of the largest and, some would argue, the most architecturally perfect of the single-nave fortress churches. Considering its1629 beginning, the enormity of the task of construction can only amaze the modern builder. The 21,000- square-foot mission complex with church, convento (priest’s living quarters), and campo santo (graveyard in front of the church) was constructed over a period of about 14 years. All materials -- clays, stone, wood, nails, grasses, yucca, water, and selenite (a form of gypsum that is translucent) -- were manually carried to the top of the 350- foot-high mesa by the Acoma builders; some materials, such as the 35-foot-long vigas (log roof beams) were transported, without touching the ground, from Mount Taylor, 30 miles away.5 Legend has it that the sacred logs, if accidentally dropped, were replaced by fresh ones. These vigas were hand carved and pigmented. Only fragments of the vigas now exist, and they have been replaced by round vigas and a modern boarded ceiling. The original roof was insulated in the traditional manner by deep layers of clay. (In the 1920s the church received a reinforced concrete roof, now removed.)

San Esteban was built as a mission compound comprising a church building and adjoining convento. It was situated on the south side of the mesa, facing due east, separated in both position and orientation from the rows of stepped houses on the north side. Its architecture, now typical of the New Mexico region and Mexico, is clearly traceable to its European origins. The church itself is an adobe structure consisting, typically, of a single-nave space, choir and sanctuary, sacristy, and baptistery. In some places the walls were constructed more than 7 feet thick (now up to 10 feet thick due to the addition of the stone “veneer”), rising 34 feet vertically and diminishing to 4 feet thick under the corbels. Flanked by two adobe-and stone towers, rising another 15 feet above the parapets, the east facade belongs to a typology imported from Renaissance Rome. The raised altar, reredos (painted altar screen), and painted altar canopy were lit by a clerestory window. Two small windows on the south wall (glazed with selenite) lit the main interior. The adjoining convento was a cloister with a predominantly closed ambulatory, priests’ rooms, and later, a schoolroom/mirador (belvedere or lookout) on the second floor. Significantly, the interior of the courtyard was used for the planting of corn and fruit. Archeology in the 1970s6 revealed a children’s graveyard in the southeast corner.

Almost in contrast to the perceived imprecise character of the adobe buildings lies a highly precise mathematical system for their design. In the case of San Esteban, studies7 have shown a faithful application of harmonic proportional systems to the volumetric composition of the spaces and exterior forms. The seemingly perfect proportional equilibrium arising from these harmonic systems became the objective of all church design in the early Renaissance. That this architecture flourished in New Spain in the 17th century, while it was superseded in Europe by later architectural developments, highlights San Esteban as a highly significant building in the United States and the world.

The question of how the design of this structure was achieved is largely unanswered. It is clear that the Acoma people have always embraced this building as a natural part of their lives. The unparalleled beauty of Acoma pottery is evidence of a people with a highly developed spatial sense, ability to finely craft materials, and an unerring visual acuity. Perhaps little recognized today are the ancient building forms that predate European systems brought to Acoma, whose orderly architectural systems formed the basis for an easy assimilation of the mathematically perfect orthogonal architecture.8

Preservation Efforts at San Esteban del Rey

The mission achieved World Monument Watch listing for 2002. Monitored by the National Park Service and the New Mexico State Historic Preservation Division (HPD), the preservation work at the mission follows the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.

The restoration work has been carried out by the Acoma crew. The aim within the partnership has been to reinforce all preservation initiatives from within the tribe and to reduce the impact of “expert” opinion. (In the past, most preservation work has been designed and directed by outsiders.) The authentic- ity of the site is underscored by the centuries-old dedication to the integrity of the structure. The motives for this dedication lie in the people’s understanding of the living presence of their ancestors. The consequences of this reverence for place are such that the builders frequently cover up “sensitive” places that may be accidentally opened during any form of destructive investigation such as archeology. At these times, the tribal elders are consulted about whether or not to disturb the site further. The New Mexico HPD has actively encouraged the retention by the Acoma people of culturally sensitive information. Most material removed during construction is recycled back into the structure in the same way that it has been done for centuries.

Within the past three years, the main effort of the construction crew has been focused on stabilization. With the award of a Save America’s Treasures grant to the tribe, a preservation plan describing far-reaching work went into effect and has led to the start of a re-roofing effort for the cloister. Many changes from the original were made in the 1970s. This roof is now being returned to its original earthen condition. In the process, many historic changes within the priests’ room were found. In excavating for foundation inspection, several old plastered walls were discovered beneath the earthen floors. Our first analysis shows that these may be the original walls of the destroyed village. No further excavation or analysis will be done at this time due to the sensitive nature of the area.

During the process of stabilization, new information continually comes to light. For example, the north wall of the nave, monitored for cracks for more than a year, began to show signs of severe stress under the applied load of a stone veneer built on to the nave exterior walls in the 1970s and ’80s. Workers followed the cracks which revealed evidence of delaminating (vertical separation of wall materials) within the 8-foot-thick adobe wall at the sacristy door, to find evidence of other walls (with finish plaster) within what had been thought to be a single thick wall. These discoveries may verify descriptions of an older, smaller church having existed on the site and point to the value of pairing oral history with documented information.9


First efforts in training took place in 2000-2001 and centered on a complete restoration of the Meeting House, an important civic building at Old Acoma. The work done to restore this building, which was funded by grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the McCune Foundation, set the standards for the major work on the mission. It also cemented the relationships within the partnerships and clearly established a highly qualified team of traditional builders.

Efforts to widen the revival of traditional building at Acoma have taken the form of new training for young people (16-20 years). Funded by a grant from the Educational Foundation of America, Cornerstones is guiding a program that focuses on eventually forming a new crew of traditional builders. Central to the present effort is recognizing the relationship between traditional building and the Keres language. Acoma is known to the Acoma people through its naming of its places. Acoma’s identity is established through language, not written, but oral. A single most important aspect of the new endeavor is reinforcing the connection between the traditions of building, visual thinking, and language.

The Learning Process

Great learning has taken place among those who have worked at Acoma. While the young people of Acoma are rediscovering their tradition, all of us are exploring how the Acoma’s intertwined heritage of language, visual thinking, and spirituality infuse buildings, and the construction process, with deeper cultural meaning. Thus, “authentic” restoration is not just a matter of accurately applying traditional building forms, materials, and methods. It also means respecting why and how the Acoma themselves have val- ued and cared for these places over the centuries.

The settlement that took place almost a thousand years ago established a culture that can, if heard, teach many lessons. Acoma, indeed, offers lessons not to be forgotten by the modern world. Preservation efforts at Acoma are rooted in this belief.


1 William Sarracino, Mario Chavez, Chris Garcia, Edmond Sarracino, Cornell Torivio, Edward Valley of Acoma; Dennis Playdon of Cornerstones; and Kate Wingert-Playdon of Cornerstones and Temple University.

2 Captain Alvarado, dispatched from Zuni in 1540.

3 Leslie White, The Acoma Indians, Bureau of American Ethnology, Annual Report 47, 1929-30.

4 R. Knowles, Energy and Form (MIT Press, 1978).

5 Acoma oral history.

6 Michael Marshall, 1979.

7 D. G. Playdon: based on current proportional studies connecting the New Mexico missions with the mathematical ideals of the Italian Renaissance in architecture.

8 D. Crouch, “Santa Fe,” Spanish Borderlands Sourcebooks, D. Garr, ed. (Garland Publishing Inc., 1991) (ref. J. Kubler, 1972), p. 399: “At Santa Fe as elsewhere in Spanish America, Italian Renaissance ideas of city layout, expressed as early as 1554 in the rebuilt urban fabric of Mexico City, were imposed upon an ‘Indian Civic armature which was found to be highly suitable’ and in fact more easily acceptable to these ideals than contemporary European models.”

9 As an example of the convergence of knowledge from different sources, the discussion of the content of the white plasters found on the walls of the church and convento produced a clear idea not only of composition but also of the location of the materials and the method of combining and applying the material. It also allowed us to know who the participants had been in the making and application of the plasters.

Publication Date: Fall 2003


Author(s):Dennis Playdon