Sunday, November 23, 2014

Twelve Hours in a Dark Room: The Spanish Colonial Revival Decorative Arts Symposium

My wife, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel was asked to speak by the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico (UNM) at the symposium on Spanish Colonial Decorative Arts.  She had written about the historic furniture made for the New Mexico Museum of Art.

The symposium took place in the Zimmerman Library built by John Gaw Meem (1894-1983).  He was an architect living in Santa Fe who was best known for his popularization of the Pueblo Revival Style, which has become a staple of New Mexico.  Its benchmarks are adobe buildings constructed of mud bricks (later simply clay coloring of stucco) and flat roofs supported by vigas (heavy wood beams).  Although it has the appearance of adobe the Zimmerman was constructed in 1938 of brick, steel and concrete with walls 5 feet thick, which keep the library cool in summer and warm in winter…. Wish I had had them in my non air-conditioned schools.

Location of the Symposium with furniture and tin work

There were probably two main reasons for the symposium one being political and the other scholarly.  Audra Bellmore, Curator of the John Gaw Meem Archive and Lillian Makeda, graduate fellow, are on a quest to preserve some of the original buildings and furniture made during the years since 1901 during the presidency of William George Tight (1901-1909) who wanted to make the school uniquely New Mexican by using the the traditional architectural style of the region.  The regents were not happy with this concept, however.  New Mexico did not become a state until 1912 and the Regents felt that in order to gather the favor of the politicians back east they would have to have brick buildings with pitched roofs like we find in the suburbs back East and in the Mid-west.  There was no progress in architecture in the school until the presidency of James F. Zimmerman in 1927.  In 1933 he appointed John Gaw Meem as official architect of the University of New Mexico.  He built a number of buildings there but his greatest achievement was the Zimmerman Library, which opened in 1938.

As in any business or scholarly endeavor we all have to prove to our bosses that what we are doing is worthwhile.  In this case, Audra came up with the valid proposition that her research of the buildings and cataloging of the important works of art including the furniture were valuable to the administration as a cataloged inventory on which values could be placed for insurance purposes. 

Her interest in having the symposium , however, was to further knowledge of the revival style promoted by John Gaw Meem whose archive is housed at UNM, and to learn more about their inventory.  Therefore, a virtual who’s who of those who have studied the subject were present.  Of course, it will not hurt Audra’s cause that it was a sell out even needing additional seats with audio visual for those who could not fit in the large research room where the symposium took place.  My only disappointment in the effort was that none of the professors gave their students the assignment of attending.  Without this it is difficult to bring the knowledge in that room to the next generation or to kindle its interest.

In the short amount of space I allow myself there is no way I can list all the speakers and their precise subjects but here are a few highlights.  The introductory speaker was Dr. Thomas Chavez, an eminent scholar and museum person.  He was director of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe and built (by cajoling the powers that be and raising the funds) the new History Museum.  He pointed out that decorative arts, the object we live with i.e. tables, chairs, lamps and carpets were relatively new in New Mexico.  In the Spanish Colonial period most homes had only built-in adobe bancos and a few stools and storage chests.  Easterners prefer to hang their clothes the Hispanic folded theirs. The governor of the territory came with his own accouterments, but only when the Santa Fe Trail was completed did the Easterners come with there wagon loads of furniture. The Hispanics had worked iron for generations but in the mid 19th century recycling tin cans, that came with U.S. army provisions, were and used to make lighting fixtures, developing a decorative tin work tradition that still survives today.

Jan Brooks was the √©minence grise behind the symposium.  Jan is, in her own words, “I have a decade of university teaching; three decades as a producing artist and designer and have been actively involved in the nonprofit sector.”  She also runs a gallery, Coulter Brooks Art & Antiques with her husband Lane Coulter who has written in this field and is known for his book written with Maurice Dixon, “New Mexico Tin Work 1840-1940.  Jan helped organize this event and, I believe, it was originally her idea.  She brought along several people who you might not expect to see at such a scholarly event.  They included, Murdoch Finlaysin, a legend in the field, who Jan described as a “picker” par excellence.  He started in the New York theater world and then came west and has gone out as a trader finding early objects and saving them for posterity either in his own collection or passed on to others.

Karl Hom was probably the greatest surprise.  He is a noted ear surgeon who has become the expert on William Penhallow Henderson (1877-1943) and his Pueblo Building Company.  Henderson was a well known artist in Chicago who moved to New Mexico and continued painting but got involved in architecture and furniture making.  His paintings today can bring tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Thomas Chavez, Karl Hom, Will Wroth, Lonn Taylor

Another member of Jan’s tribe was Chris Sandoval.  He followed in his father George’s footsteps and became a master woodworker.  George learned from his grandfather and worked in the style of the old Spanish Furniture makers.  George passed away a few years ago but Chris keeps up the tradition, though he beaks with it once in a while for a more modern style.  Fifteen years ago we commissioned from him a bedroom set in a novel design that incorporates Spanish colonial carving motifs.

Chris Sandoval and his wife

The final person in this group was Ed Garcia whose family has been in New Mexico for the past two centuries. He is a collector who is a friend and client of several participants and attendees of the symposium and he spoke of his collection.  In order to continue interest in the field there must be those who invest in their subject both intellectually and monetarily.  They will be the ones to light the spark in the younger generation.

There were so many more who spoke from deep knowledge in the field such as Lonn Taylor, a curator at the Smithsonian History Museum for a couple of decades, who wrote THE book on New Mexico furniture.  If you are into the field you will also recognize the names Will Wroth, and Frank Turley who both spoke.  In the audience that was listening attentively were numerous other experts whose knowledge was called upon several times during the day.

Jan Brooks, Lonn Taylor, Will Wroth

Coming full circle we ended our 12 hour day at Los Poblanos, an historic ranch house in the Rio Grande valley north of Albuquerque whose architect was John Gaw Meem.  Unfortunately for us, the Bed & Breakfast was fully occupied as far as accommodations were concerned, but the reception hosted by the Remby family who are the current owners, and the spread they put out for us, made us want to return soon.

The Library at Los Pablanos

Note:  with many thanks to Jan Brooks and Lillian Makeda for their photographic contributions. 


  1. Thank you for this excellent, lively, and informative post. Keep it up. Love this blog.

  2. Thanks, Nick. Always appreciate your kind comments.