"In the Midst of a Loneliness":
The Architectural History of the Salinas Missions
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The methods of construction used by Hispanic builders in the New World remained the same from the conquest of Mexico in 1521 through the end of the Spanish colonial period in 1821. In fact, builders still use many of the same techniques, materials, and organization of work crews today and these derive from traditional building methods of the Mediterranean Basin of Medieval Europe, North Africa, and the Near East.

Construction of houses with clay or stone walls and flat, beam supported, earth-covered roofs, referred to as "wall and beam" construction in this report, began in Turkey and Israel as early as 10,000 BC. By 8,000 BC builders in Jericho, Israel, had invented the method of molding clay bricks in square wooden forms, sun-drying them, and using them for construction. About 7,000 BC the practice of coating walls with gypsum plaster began. About the same time, rectangular adobe buildings with shared walls formed much of the city of Catal Huyuck, Turkey. Horizontal beams supported a flat roof made up of a layer of smaller logs or sticks covered by grass and sealed with a layer of puddled clay. The inhabitants entered the buildings by means of square hatches through the roofs. The populations of the arid regions of the American southwest and Mexico arrived at almost identical construction methods several thousand years later, in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD, excluding adobe bricks molded in wooden forms. [1]

In the Old World, the wall and beam method of construction spread rapidly throughout the arid regions of the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East. The consolidation of most of the Mediterranean basin and adjoining areas under Islam from 632 to 738 AD eventually carried the construction method to places as far apart as Pakistan and Spain. The arid regions that once comprised the Islamic Empire still use this method. [2]

Spain, once a thriving colonial territory of the Roman Empire, already possessed a wide range of building traditions including wall and beam construction when, in the years from 711 to 715, it was overrun by Islam. The conquest began a long period of Islamic control and cultural influence, especially from the area of Morocco, North Africa, just across the Straits of Gibraltar. Spain was reconquered by its remaining Christian kings in a long series of campaigns from 1212 to 1492. [3]

As Spain began the exploration of the New World in 1492, colonists sent to the new territories brought with them the traditions of the Iberian peninsula. They usually built stone and adobe buildings with gabled tile roofs in places with moderate rain and snowfall. In the dryer areas from Peru to New Mexico, with wider temperature ranges and lower rain and snowfall, they built wall and beam houses.

In most of the arid regions of the Spanish New World, the more advanced Indian cultures had begun the use of wall-and-beam construction by 1000 AD. Throughout the New World Spanish settlers found the local Indian artisans already skilled in the methods of construction needed for building the houses, offices, and churches that befitted Spanish culture. The Indians of New Mexico had five hundred years of experience with "Spanish" construction methods and materials. [4]

The design and construction of the mission churches and conventos of New Mexico were a combination of the Spanish architectural tradition of wall and beam construction and the influence of local Indian cultures skilled in the same methods. The differences between the two architectures lay not in the method, but in the design. The Pueblo Indians constructed a house incorporating their own standards of room size and proportions, squareness, wall thickness, overall height, the relationship between rooms, and the size, shape, location, and design of doors and windows. All of these differed from the standards a Spaniard would have employed in building a house. Spanish and Pueblo Indian builders in New Mexico used the same methods to roof a room or make a beam over a doorway, but these methods had to serve different cultural needs, and, therefore, differed in many details. A completed structure usually had a clear imprint of the culture for which it was built.

The churches and conventos of seventeenth century New Mexico bore the clear imprint of Spanish construction. The Indians worked on the construction crews with considerable skill because they knew, in general, how the new buildings would go together, but the completed buildings were thoroughly Spanish.

The resident friar of a new mission probably designed and directed the building of his own church and convento. Each friar generally worked out the plans for his new church on his own, though the less experienced probably sought the assistance of other Franciscans in nearby missions. Higher authorities in the Franciscan administration of New Mexico undoubtedly examined the buildings at various stages in their construction and made their own suggestions for structural details and design changes.

The basic elements of the plan and elevation of the mission buildings would have been common knowledge to a Franciscan, who usually had spent much of his life in a mission. To this basic design the individual friar would have added details that were popular at the time, that were derived from other churches and conventos he had seen and admired, or that were innovations of his own. Friars varied in their creativity, sense of balance and proportion, and even in their understanding of the technical aspects of constructing a sound, attractive building.

Few seventeenth century missions have been examined in any detail, so variations in personal taste among the Franciscans who constructed them cannot yet be determined. Enough information is available, however, to see some change in the popularity of various plan elements. These will be discussed in the chapters on the individual Salinas missions.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006