John Gaw Meem

John Gaw Meem

John Gaw Meem IV (November 17, 1894August 4, 1983) was an American architect based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is best known for his instrumental role in the development and popularization of the Pueblo Revival style. Meem is regarded as one of the most important and influential architects to have worked in New Mexico.ref|bunting-1


Early life

Meem was born in 1894 in Pelotas, Brazil, the eldest child of parents who were missionaries of the Episcopal Church. In 1910 he traveled to the United States to attend Virginia Military Institute, where he obtained a degree in civil engineering. After graduating, he worked briefly for his uncle's engineering firm in New York before being called up for military service. Having spent the duration of World War I at a training camp in Iowa, Meem was hired by the National City Bank of New York and sent to Rio de Janeiro. Soon after arriving in Brazil, however, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Like many other tuberculosis patients of his time, Meem decided to seek the cure in the dry desert climate of New Mexico. He arrived at the Sun Mount Sanatorium in Santa Fe in the spring of 1920.

Architectural career

While at Sunmount, Meem gradually developed an interest in architecture. In 1922, having recovered sufficiently to spend time away from the sanatorium, he spent fifteen months working for the firm of Fisher & Fisher in Denver. In the evenings he attended the Atelier Denver, a studio affiliated with the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York. This constituted Meem's only formal training in architecture.ref|bunting-2

Upon Meem's return to Sunmount in 1924, he and fellow patient Cassius McCormick opened their own architecture practice, using one of the sanatorium's spare buildings as a studio. Meem handled the design work, while McCormick managed the business side of the enterprise. Their first commission was the renovation and expansion of a house belonging to Hubert Galt, yet another fellow patient. Another of his earliest commissions was the home of Tex Austin at the Forked Lightning Ranch. The home is now part of the Pecos National Historic Park.

McCormick returned to his home state of Indiana in 1928, dissolving the partnership. Meem's most significant work during this period was his remodeling of the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, which demonstrated his ability to handle a complex project.

Between 1928 and the beginning of World War II Meem's office remained small, employing only a handful of drafters, though his reputation was growing. In 1930 he entered and won a national competition to select a design for the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe. Among his competitors was the firm of Fisher & Fisher, where he had been apprenticed just a few years earlier. Then in 1933 he was selected as the official architect of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, a position he would hold until his retirement. His best-known work at the University was the iconic Zimmerman Library, completed in 1938. Later that year Meem achieved international recognition for the monumental Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which is generally regarded as his masterpiece.ref|bunting-7 It was while working on this project that he met his wife Faith, whom he married in 1933.

The war kept Meem's firm occupied with a large number of military and government commissions, and his staff at one point reached 35 employees. Hugo Zehner, who had been with Meem since 1930, was promoted to partner in 1940. Another partner, Edward O. Holien, joined in 1944, making the firm Meem, Zehner, Holien and Associates. During this period Holien became the firm's primary designer, with Meem mainly handling public relations work. The post-war years were the firm's most productive period, with a number of buildings designed for the University of New Mexico, Santa Fe Public Schools, Southern Union Gas Company, and many other clients.


Following a gradual transfer of power to Holien, Meem retired in 1956. He remained associated with the successor firm of Holien and Buckley, serving as an architectural consultant. Meem continued to accept scattered commissions through the 1960s, and in later life published occasional articles in architecture journals. He was a benefactor and supporter of Santa Fe Preparatory School, where a campus building is named for him. He died in 1983 at the age of 88.


Meem was most closely associated with the Pueblo Revival style, though he also employed the Territorial Revival and occasionally Modern and Gothic styles. He gained an extensive knowledge of Pueblo and Spanish Colonial building techniques through his volunteer work with the Committee for the Preservation and Restoration of New Mexico Mission Churches (CPRNMMC) during the 1920s and 1930s.ref|bunting-3 Unlike many previous Pueblo Revival architects, however, Meem used architectural forms such as battered walls, vigas, and stepped parapets in combination with modern building techniques and materials to evoke the past without imitating it directly. He explained in a 1966 article that he used symbolic forms to "evoke a mood without attempting to produce an archaeological imitation."ref|meem

Meem was also known for his attention to detail, and his seemingly simple forms were actually the product of meticulous calculation. His plans for Zimmerman Library included no fewer than 41 vertical wall sections and 21 parapet drawings illustrating exactly how he wanted the finished walls to appear. He also personally supervised their construction, ordering their reworking on more than one occasion. However, as his firm grew larger Meem no longer had time for such details, and his later buildings took on a more rigid quality.ref|bunting-4


Meem's influence on the city of Santa Fe was immense. In addition completing a large number of built works there, he also headed the committee which authored the 1957 Historical Zoning Ordinance, which ensured that all future buildings in central Santa Fe would adhere to the Pueblo or Territorial styles.ref|harris-1 Allowable design specifications were spelled out in considerable detail, meaning Meem's design sensibilities continue to influence new construction in Santa Fe.

Meem also left a significant mark on the University of New Mexico campus, where his firm designed a total of 25 buildings between 1933 and 1959. He also served as a consultant on two later projects by Holien and Buckley.ref|bunting-5 Two of the university buildings, Scholes Hall and Zimmerman Library, are regarded as some of Meem's most important works, and the library in particular is considered to be a masterpiece of southwestern architecture.ref|bunting-6


Frank Lloyd Wright derided Meem's architecture as imitative.ref|hooker Meem's Santa Fe work, along with the "Santa Fe style" in general, has also found criticism for its perceived homogeneity and artificiality. Critics allege that the Santa Fe style, which Meem helped to define, is only loosely derived from authentic historical stylesref|huddy and that its forced adoption has damaged the city's architectural heritage. Despite Meem's enthusiasm for preservation, most of Santa Fe's historic structures were converted to the uniform Santa Fe Style in the 1950s and 1960s,ref|harris-2 with Meem personally redesigning the facades of eight historic buildings on the Plaza.ref|bunting-8


Meem's office completed a total of 654 commissions, though some of these were not built and others, such as the commission for UNM, included dozens of individual buildings. Following is a list of some of Meem's most important works, which are located in Santa Fe unless otherwise noted.

*La Fonda Hotel, remodeling/expanded (1929)
*Laboratory of Anthropology (1930)
*La Quinta, Albuquerque (1934)
*Scholes Hall, UNM, Albuquerque (1934)
*Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado Springs (1936)
*Student Union (now Anthropology Building), UNM, Albuquerque (1936)
*Sandia School, Albuquerque (1938)
*Santa Fe County Courthouse (1938)
*Zimmerman Library, UNM, Albuquerque (1938)
*Cristo Rey Church (1939)
*Kuaua Museum, Coronado Monument, Bernalillo (1939)
*Taylor Memorial Chapel, La Foret Conference Center, Black Forest Colorado (1929)


# Bunting (1983), preface
# Bunting (1983), p. 14
# Bunting (1983), pp. 145-154
# Bunting (1983), pp. 14-21
# Meem, John Gaw (September 1966). "Development of Spanish Pueblo Architecture in the Southwest." "Mountain States Architecture", pp. 19-21
# Bunting (1983), pp. 86-106
# Harris (1997), pp. 18-21
# Bunting (1983), p. 86
# Bunting (1983), pp. 91-94
# Hooker (2000)
# Huddy, John T. (July 25, 2004). "Architect: SF Needs New Look." "Albuquerque Journal".
# Harris (1997), pp. 3-6
# Bunting (1983), p. 20


*Hooker, Van Dorn (2000). "Only in New Mexico: An Architectural History of the University of New Mexico, the First Century 1889-1989". Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-2135-6
*Harris, Richard (1997). "National Trust Guide: Santa Fe". New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-17443-2
*Wilson, Chris (2002). "Facing Southwest: The Life and Houses of John Gaw Meem". New York: W. W. Norton.

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