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SAN ESTEBAN DEL REY MISSION
Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico, United States
Built in 1629, San Esteban del Rey Mission at Acoma Pueblo combines traditional materials and building technology with European Renaissance architectural ideals. The mission is distinguished from others by its size and dominant setting on the edge of a 350-foot-high mesa. The seven-foot-thick walls of the church are constructed of adobe and stone, making it among the largest adobe buildings in the United States. The long timbers necessary for the construction of the roof were transported by the Acoma people from the sacred Mount Taylor, 30 miles to the north.
Although many missions were destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, San Esteban survived and remains an important cultural site today. Throughout the 20th century, San Esteban del Rey was adapted and modified according to contemporary needs and prevailing views at the time regarding use of non-traditional materials. In the 1990s, there was a growing awareness that much of the work had been done with materials such as cement that over the long term were not appropriate and sustainable solutions. Further, local cultural agencies became concerned about the lack of documentation for many of these interventions. More recently, more traditional methods and materials have been employed to ensure more sympathetic and sustainable approaches to repairs, conservation, and ongoing maintenance. Further, all work undertaken through these efforts has been thoroughly documented so that the stewards of San Esteban del Rey and any future work at the site can be guided by these records.
HOW WE HELPED
In 2003, WMF received funding from American Express to assist Cornerstones Community Partnerships and the Acoma Historic Preservation Office to preserve the massive roof system of the complex. This restoration included the repair of the 17th-century clerestory window designed to illuminate the altar, which had been blocked in the early 19th century.
Additionally, the instability of walls, caused by leaks and delaminating stone, was addressed immediately. The conservation work revealed remarkable decorative murals found under layers of whitewash and plaster.
Steps were taken to reverse wind-blown sand erosion and reroute surface drainage to reduce the wall’s moisture content, which had been threatening the stability of the adobe structure. Local crews were trained so that ongoing maintenance and conservation work would continue at the site.
WHY IT MATTERS
The complex is among the first of such missions built in what is now New Mexico. It served as a prototype for many of the 55 New Mexican Spanish missions that were erected in later decades of the 17th century. Many of the original builders are buried within the confines of the church and adjacent convent. Because of this ancestral significance to the Acoma people, the mission was spared total destruction during the Pueblo Revolt. Conservation of San Esteban del Rey at Acoma Pueblo serves as a reminder of the complex history of the region and its enduring beauty is a testament to the quality of craftsmanship that created the structure and its decorative elements.