"In the Midst of a Loneliness":
The Architectural History of the Salinas Missions
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Fray Francisco Fonte arrived in New Mexico in the autumn of 1621. It was probably at the chapter meeting in October of that year that the new custodian, Fray Miguel de Chavarria, assigned him to the pueblo of Abó. [1]

Fonte entered into the standard negotiations with the authorities in the pueblo. He arranged for several rooms at the east end of room block I as his first convento, and for the area just east of the room block as the site for the permanent church and convento. In 1622 and 1623 Fonte altered the rooms given to him by the pueblo and built several new rooms along their east side. [2] The people of Abó accepted his presence and some groups aided him in the construction of the new rooms of the temporary convento. This success with the people of Abó encouraged him to begin planning a permanent church and convento in 1623.

The Church

Fonte worked out a simple plan for a rather small church and convento, somewhat like those later built at Hawikuh and Halona. The room arrangements, however, resembled those of Pecos, being built by Fray Andres Suares about the same time. [3]

Because of the gentle slope of the site, Fonte based his plan on a low artificial platform somewhat like those later used at Quarai and Las Humanas. Fonte directed the mayordomo and construction crews as they marked out the lines of the retaining walls and began excavation on the foundation trenches (see figure 2 for a plan of the first church and convento of Abó). When the construction crews had completed the platform, the floors of the first patio convento rooms were only about three feet above the natural ground surface along the south and east edges of the building. The second courtyard rooms, stables, and sheds on the east side of the convento sat on the original ground level rather than being raised.

Plan of the pueblo and mission of Abó
Figure 2. Plan of the pueblo and mission of Abó in the period from 1622 to 1673. The church and convento are shown at their greatest extent, after 1660. At the north side of mound I are the corrals and other structures of the Spanish compound built here between 1622 and 1645. The north wall of this compound lines up with the north wall of the apse of San Gregorio I. Some wall lines appear to have extended all the way to the church. The Spanish compound may have been used for the storage of supplies and trade goods belonging to the civil government, and possibly similar goods belonging to the mission.
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At about this time, a kiva-like structure was built on the platform centered in the patio. It was a round structure about seventeen feet across and seven feet high on the inside, with the same interior arrangement and roofing as a kiva. Since it appears to have been built during the major construction effort on the church, Fonte must have approved of it. It may have served as the temporary church during the construction of the full-sized church, helping the Indians in the transition from their kivas to the above-ground churches typical of Catholicism. [4]

The construction crew began laying stone and building scaffolding for the above-grade walls of the church and convento. The church faced almost exactly south. It was twenty-five feet wide and 83 1/2 feet long on the interior, without transepts. The masons built the walls with an average thickness of about three feet along the sides of the nave, and 2.8 feet along the front and apse ends of the church. They stood about twenty-five feet high to the undersides of the roof vigas, and twenty-eight feet to the tops of the parapets along the nave. The roof was probably supported on square beams resting on corbels, with a spacing of about two feet between vigas, the usual method. Fonte built a doorway from the choir loft to the choir balcony at the front of the church, a window centered on each nave wall, eighteen feet north of the choir loft and about nine feet above the floor. Fonte probably built a clerestory window on the church, perhaps about sixty feet from the front of the church. If the clerestory was about four feet high, then the walls of the sanctuary and apse probably stood about ten feet higher than those of the nave, to about thirty-eight feet. [5]

The apse measured twelve feet across its mouth and twelve feet deep from south to north. It tapered only slightly, so that the width of the north end was 11.5 feet on the interior. To help support the apse walls, with a height of almost forty feet and a thickness of only 2.8 feet, Fonte had the masons build a large buttress five feet across and 2.8 feet thick centered against its north or exterior side.

On the interior, the carpenters built the customary arrangement of woodwork. They constructed a choir loft at the south end of the nave over the main entrance, extending twenty feet north from the front wall. The construction crews laid the floor vigas of the loft with their south ends set into the front wall of the church and their north ends resting on a main viga supported by two wooden columns. The bases of the columns rested on circular stone foundations set into the puddled adobe floor of the church. The choir loft was probably reached by a wooden or stone staircase within the church, like that used under the loft at Awatovi. In accord with the practice of the time, Fonte placed the baptismal font within the nave under the west side of the choir loft, rather than building a separate room for the baptistry. [6]

At the front of the church, Fonte designed a simple porch and choir balcony. A main cross viga extended across the front of the church, held up by four equally spaced columns. The main viga supported the floor vigas of the porch, which may have been the choir loft vigas extending through the front wall, as Fray Gutiérrez de la Chica did in constructing the porch at Quarai five years later.

At the head, or north end, of the church, Fonte designed a simple complex of altars. He built a platform in the apse supporting the main altar, with several steps along the front. The side altars also stood on low platforms. Painted patterns or a wooden structure formed retablos for the three altars. [7]

Fonte's plan included an awkward relationship between the church and its sacristy. When leaving the church for the sacristy, the priest walked through a door in the east wall of the nave near the northeast corner, into the west corridor of the ambulatorio. He then turned left and passed through a door into the sacristy. In transepted churches, the friar usually had direct access into the sacristy rather than having to pass through the ambulatory on the way. [8]

The Convento

Convento rooms ran along the north and east sides of the ambulatorio around the patio. Their floors were about three inches higher than the present floor surface of the convento. Only the walkway itself ran along most of the south side of the convento complex. Fonte probably had the carpenters built a covered porch, or portería, in the corner made by the east wall of the church and the south corridor of the ambulatorio. The portería had no enclosing walls, but only a roof supported by wooden pillars. [9]

A second row of rooms surrounded the first along the north and east sides of the patio. On the east side, the floors of this second row of rooms were fourteen inches lower than the floors of the first row along the ambulatorio. A stairway gave access from Room 8 eastward down into the second courtyard, to the east. It had five stone steps, each with a rise of eight inches and a tread of thirteen inches.

Two rooms along this side of the convento (Rooms 3 and 4) each had a doorway or window opening onto the second courtyard. Room 4, on the south, had a fire-baked area covered with ash and charcoal in its southwest corner. The area marked as Room 2 may have been a raised stone hearth along the south side of room 4.

Plan of the mission of Abó
Figure 3. The plan of the mission of Abó about 1630, as it was originally built. Construction on the building probably began about 1623, and was completed about 1628. The patio kiva had to have been built between 1622 and 1645 and later was only partially refilled. The front porch and portería are conjectural, but assume that the present plan derives from the first plan of these areas. The portería was changed at least twice, the final change resulting in the structure presently visible at the mission.
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Little is known about the plan of the second courtyard itself. A large formal gateway may have faced east, and a smaller gate or doorway opened to the north. Some of the adobe rooms along the north side of the later courtyard may have been in use during the period of the first convento. [10]

The Campo Santo and Front Platform

At the front of the church, along its south side, Fonte built the campo santo, or cemetery and a front porch platform with stairs to allow traffic from the pueblo into the church. The campo santo was about 110 feet across and ran south perhaps 100 feet. The platform in front of the church was about seventy-seven feet across, east to west, and extended south from the facade of the church about eighteen feet. It had a stairway with three steps centered on the church. To the east of the facade of the church, the platform gave access to the portería and another higher platform along the south wall of the convento. [11]

Fonte probably finished the church and convento of San Gregorio I about 1627. Its plan and small size very likely resembled the churches built earlier at Tajique and Chililí. The lower volume of stone and smaller roof area allowed Fonte to complete the construction a year sooner than would have been possible with larger churches such as those at Quarai or Pecos.

The Civil Compound West of the Church

A group of corrals and buildings grew up west of the church, which seems to have been associated with trade and the civil government more than with the Franciscans. It consisted of several large enclosures with stone walls built along the north side of mound I, with two rows of buildings forming an L-shaped block up the center and along the north side. The old convento rooms on the east end of mound I were probably converted to offices associated with the civil compound after Fonte moved into the new convento buildings east of the church. The row of buildings along the north side extended eastward and joined the west wall of the church, so that the north side of the compound and the north side of the apse of the church formed a straight, continuous wall. Apparently the road from Quarai ran between the civil compound and the church, perhaps through a large gateway at the northwest corner of the church. The road continued south between the campo santo wall and the east side of mound I. Then it passed along the east side of mound J and on south out of the pueblo area, heading for Abó Pass and the Rio Grande valley.

The civil compound probably contained stables, feed sheds, sheep pens, storerooms, and offices. Here would have been kept the salt hauled from the Salinas Lakes thirty miles to the east, [12] pinon nuts collected by the Indians, hides, and perhaps blankets and other woven goods made in the pueblo or the convento workshops. Some rooms may have been the casa real, the house maintained by the pueblo and the mission as a lodging for visitors and travellers. [13]

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006