The San Esteban del Rey Mission is located in the pueblo of Acoma, known as “Sky City” for its position atop a spectacular 350-foot high mesa, which has been continuously occupied since the 1100s. According to historical records and local traditions, the church was built in the first half of the seventeenth century, by the forced labor of the Acoma people, under the direction of the Spanish colonizers, who had arrived in New Mexico from the south and brutally conquered Acoma at the end of the previous century. All building materials, including water, clay, and sand, had to be carried up to the rocky promontory by hand—a backbreaking labor. To build the roof of the church, Acoma men transported long timber beams, each weighing more than a ton, from Mount Taylor, 25 miles away, maneuvering them up the cliff, without letting them once touch the ground, which would have been considered a sacrilege. The simple building of massive, windowless earthen forms was the only mission church to survive the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. In the twentieth century, it became the site of one of the earliest restoration programs undertaken in the United States, led by pioneering New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem.
A Modern Recovery
The San Esteban del Rey Mission was included on the 2002 World Monuments Watch because of the need for a physical intervention to protect the earthen structure: erosion of the adobe walls at the ground level, caused by an inadequate system for roof drainage, and exacerbated by the addition of an impermeable veneer. The condition of the built fabric had declined due to a lapse in the traditional days of annual maintenance, engaged in by volunteers of all ages, as only a few families still live on the mesa year-round. The physical challenges were even greater in the adjacent convento building, where partial collapses had already taken place. In response to these threats, WMF collaborated with Cornerstones Community Partnerships and the Acoma Historic Preservation Office to carry out emergency repairs. The project led to interventions at the priest’s quarters, convento, and schoolroom. This campaign was also supported by a federal Save America’s Treasures grant.
2016 World Monuments Watch
In spite of previous campaigns, a comprehensive restoration program that will address the biggest needs of the San Esteban del Rey Mission church remains elusive. Inclusion on the 2016 World Monuments Watch will once again seek to draw attention to this pressing need. The main component of the program is an overdue repair of the traditional roof of the church—concrete that was added to the roof in the 1920s was removed during the 1960s, but no repairs have taken place since. Another goal is the reopening of windows at the clerestory level that are attested in historical sources, but have not been seen since the eighteenth century. The historic, architectural, cultural, and spiritual significance of the San Esteban del Rey Mission require additional investment into this major undertaking.