"In the Midst of a Loneliness":
The Architectural History of the Salinas Missions
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In 1626, Fray Alonso de Benavides, the new custodian of the missionary effort in New Mexico, decided to send a mission to the pueblo called Quarai in the Salinas basin. The missions at Chililí and Abó were doing well, and it seemed a good time to add another of the major Salinas pueblos to the list of mission-occupied villages. Fray Benavides had been in New Mexico only a short time, having just arrived from Mexico City on the supply train that reached New Mexico in December 1625. For the job of establishing the new mission, he selected another newcomer to New Mexico, Fray Juan Gutiérrez de la Chica, one of the missionaries who had travelled north on the supply train with Benavides. [1]

Gutiérrez rode into Quarai a few months later with his wagon load of starting tools, equipment, and supplies. The leaders of the pueblo apparently approved of his intent to convert the Indians of Quarai, because he encountered few of the problems of opposition or harassment so common to the first effort of conversion in a new pueblo. He purchased several rooms at the east end of house block G in the pueblo, and added to them to make a residence for himself, as storage space for the supplies, and as a temporary church. [2]

After an examination of the pueblo and the surrounding land, he selected a mound of ruins left near the northeast corner of the pueblo as the site of his church and convento. During the remainder of 1626 Gutiérrez designed the new church and convento of La Purísima Concepción de Quarai. Construction began in 1627. [3]


Because Quarai was built on a pueblo mound, Gutiérrez had to add several steps to the usual layout procedure described in Chapter 3. The presence of the mound prevented the layout, excavation, and construction of the entire ground plan of the church and convento as a single unit. The site had to be levelled first. Gutiérrez accomplished this by building retaining walls on the outline of the plan of the church and convento, and then levelling the area within the retaining walls.

Gutiérrez de la Chica directed the Indian work crews as they marked out the massive retaining walls around the mound. The crew carefully pegged the outline of the north, east, and south exterior walls of the friary, or first courtyard, on the ground, aligned 4.5 degrees west of north. The orientation of these walls determined the orientation of the rest of the construction, including the axis of the church. Then they marked out the retaining walls forming terraces down the mound to the east that would form the upper levels of the second courtyard, and the main north and south walls of this courtyard. The crews excavated trenches along the inside of these lines, digging until compacted rubble, firm earth, or bedrock was reached. At this point they began building of the foundations of the retaining walls. Once grade was reached, they built up the retaining walls until the top of the highest section was level with the ground surface along the west side of the mound. The sections east of this stepped down the slope of the mound to the eastern wall of the second courtyard. The crews filled the spaces between the retaining wall and the mound surface with packed earth, rubble, and sand removed from the high points of the mound or hauled from elsewhere in the area. [4]

When the platforms were completed, Gutiérrez laid out the foundations for the friary and church on the highest platform. The outer faces of these buildings were built directly on the retaining walls. Interior walls required additional foundations built into trenches excavated into the new fill and old pueblo rubble of the platform. Once again, the construction crew excavated the foundation trenches and filled them with stone and clay mortar to the grade of the surface of the platform. Construction then began on the above-grade walls of the church and convento. During the several stages of the layout procedure, however, the crew made several slight adjustments in marking the location of the church walls on the ground. The errors resulted in the church having an orientation 2 degrees west of north, about 2.5 degrees east of the alignment of the convento. This divergence would have been virtually unnoticeable to the friar or construction crew without careful remeasuring of the plan on the ground. It made no significant difference during the construction, but significantly improved the orientation of the church toward due south.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006