By Greg Allegretti
By the later half of the 1930’s, growth in the town of Santa Fe, New Mexico had begun to extend eastward into the river watershed. The population center was drifting further from the center of town. Homeowners and farmers who settled in this area faced a very long walk to the downtown cathedral for Sunday mass. These good newcomers to the Santa Fe community decided to petition the archdiocese in Albuquerque for a new church of their own. Little did the archbishop at the time know what kind of grand place of worship would result from this request. With the approval of the archdiocese, the petitioners hired New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem to design the new Cristo Rey (Christ King) Church. Meem would eventually become regarded as the originator of the now celebrated Santa Fe Pueblo Revival style of architecture.
Meem’s church commands a grand presence indeed. This is because the parish had requested that a glorious carved stone retablo (altar screen) be accommodated in the new design. This architectural accessory measured some twenty feet wide and forty feet in height. At the time, the altar piece lay in storage at the cathedral down town. Although magnificent, it was simply collecting dust. The substantial size of this splendid furnishing demanded a home of commensurate scale.
The implementation of this major undertaking required the dedicated participation of the parishioners. The good people of the east side of Santa Fe made by hand more than one hundred thousand adobe bricks. They went into the nearby mountains to cut vigas for the roof structure. With the hard work of the community, the first mass was held in 1040, fourteen months after breaking ground. The archbishop was aghast at first sight of the enormity of the new hall, but soon came to appreciate its subtle beauty.
The Cristo Rey Church is said to be the largest single adobe construction in the United States. The building extends more than 350 feet in length and its mud walls measure two feet to nearly nine feet in thickness. The front façade features a tower and a buttress which recall the design of the nearby Saint Jerome Mission at Taos Pueblo which was built nearly 100 years prior. The massive size of the Cristo Rey Church is lightened by the exquisite form and proportion which architect Meem employed in his thoughtful design. The Cristo Rey Church is a timeless example of authentic Santa Fe adobe architecture applied to an institutional building.
By Greg Allegretti, AI
For more information on this and other related topics, visit Allegretti Architects, Santa Fe, NM.