"In the Midst of a Loneliness":
The Architectural History of the Salinas Missions
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The determination of whether a building had been completed can be a very difficult process, depending on the amount of structure left and the amount of early documentation available. Several kinds of evidence can be used, but each item of data must be evaluated carefully to be sure that it says what the researcher thinks it says.

In the case of San Buenaventura, physical evidence can demonstrate only that the building reached a height of about nineteen feet above its present floor surface. Only logical deduction from archeological, architectural, documentary, and pictorial evidence can raise the building any higher than that. The policy of the Park, in the case of the pueblo buildings, has been never to assume that a building was higher than necessary without clear evidence. Such an approach should be taken with the larger church: rather than trying to find some way to prove it was finished, the evaluation should just lay out the evidence and make the determination requiring the simplest assumptions. The author did not set out to prove that the church was never finished. Instead, he set out to find the best description of the construction of the building supported by the evidence.

The kinds of evidence that would demonstrate that the building had probably been finished are as follows:

1. Photographs or drawings showing roof beam sockets, or walls standing to a height equivalent to the bases of the roof viga sockets, and displaying the proper contours of completed walls, i.e., V-shaped gaps opening from the tops of the door and window openings.

2. Historical documents stating that the writer had seen the roof in place, or indicating that the building had actually seen use appropriate for a completed church.

3. Archeological or documentary evidence that the church had been completed, such as some indications of a full set of altars and painted wall plaster, or finished floors of adobe or flagstone, or indications of a wooden floor. A completed church that has seen some use would also have a number of burials beneath the floor. A church that had been consecrated for burial before completion (this happened fairly often) would have at least a few burials.

4. Architectural evidence that the walls had once stood to the full height of the standard church (where the distance to the underside of the vigas was equal to the width of the nave), or that the church had been roofed at a lower level.

If even one of these can be demonstrated without reasonable doubt, it would be justifiable to analyze the structural history of the building beginning with the assumption that the church was finished. Even then, if the analysis began to indicate problems with the beginning assumption, it should be subject to review and reevaluation. No assumption is sacred; all are open to reappraisal at any time. Absolute truths are very rare in research--only reasonable assumptions usually tie isolated events together.

Applying the above possible categories of evidence for completion to San Buenaventura:

1. The graphic evidence clearly records the decay of the walls of the church, and a careful examination of the photographs indicates that the walls did decrease in height. The measurements, however, indicate a decrease of less than 2 1/2 feet. The wall tops and window openings are fairly sharp and straight in the earliest photographs, those taken by Bandelier in 1882 and Lummis in 1890. The projected walls, however, based on the present profiles of the wall tops and the increase in structural detail as the profiles are examined at earlier and earlier dates, indicates that the walls were never more than perhaps one to two feet higher than they are today. Even in the earliest drawings made in 1877, the profiles never display the shapes associated with a collapsing church. The walls are almost square at the tops of the window openings, which are never more than about five feet deep. It is difficult to imagine a physical process that would remove the upper ten feet of wall so cleanly and evenly around the entire circumference of the church, other than the intentional demolition of the walls by human hands. In the location of Las Humanas, this is very unlikely, and such a proposition would have to be considered special pleading (i. e., if the church had been finished this had to have happened later; therefore, in order to prove that the church was finished, we must assume that it happened). The unbiased choice here is to avoid this whole series of assumptions and take the simplest explanation: the walls never went any higher than about twenty or twenty-one feet, partway up the side and front windows.

2. All known contemporary records refer to the church as being under construction. None indicate that it was finished. The closest thing to a reference to the church being completed, functioning building is the statement that in September, 1670, the Apaches attacked Las Humanas, profaned and laid waste to the church, smashed the santos, and destroyed the vestments.1 Since, however, some church was in operation at Las Humanas while San Buenaventura was being built, the interim church (probably "San Isidro") could just as well have been the one attacked. This is the assumption made in this Historic Structure Report.

Later visitors to Las Humanas refer to the completed choir loft still in place in San Buenaventura, but usually not to a roof. Only the surveyor Robert Willison refers to a roof. He visited the ruins while laying out baselines in the area in 1872. Among other details, he says "The carved timbers in the church are still in a good state of preservation. A portion of the roof still remains." Willison, however, does not mention the choir loft, which was still more or less in place. It must be assumed that he mistook the choir loft for a roof-section. Major James Carleton, in 1853, described the church and choir loft in detail, but never mentioned a roof on the building. Carleton, in fact, even referred to the smaller church as "apparently in a better state of preservation than the cathedral, but yet none of the former woodwork remains in it." Again, this implies that when the two buildings were in better states of preservation, it was obvious that the smaller appeared more finished, even without any surviving woodwork. There is, then, only one piece of documentary evidence that a roof ever covered the building, and that statement is apparently a mistake on the part of the recorder.2

3. There are no indications in the photographs, sketches, or historical documents of a completed interior. Various visitors did occasionally remark on something that could be construed as such indications, but in each case the remark can be shown to be an error or a misreading of the visitor's statement. In 1853 Major James Carleton visited the ruins. He stated that "the altar was in the western end." Later, in talking about the choir loft, he said "the remains of two of the pillars that stood along under the end of it which was nearest to the altar, are still here." The context indicates that Carleton recognized the apse, and knew that the altar would have been in the apse. His use of the past tense, however, and the reference to the pillars being "still here," indicates that he could not actually see the altar, but inferred that it had once been in the apse. His remarks, then, cannot be used as proof that altars stood in the apse in 1853; they could even be used as proof that altars did not stand in the apse at that time.

In 1878, Captain Charles C. Morrison visited the ruin and prepared a measured drawing, a perspective sketch, and a detail drawing of the beams of the choir loft. He stated that "the interior had formerly been plastered, the woodwork painted." But the interior of what? The statement is in the middle of a long paragraph and its context is important. "In the vicinity of the larger church, the buildings were better built, the rooms being much larger. The cathedral faced the east. The walls are of a limestone shale, the exterior edges chipped square, the interior being rubble. They vary from two feet in thickness for the interior walls to from four to six feet for exterior ones. The interior had formerly been plastered, the woodwork painted. Over the entrance had been a gallery." The statement is badly organized, and wanders back and forth between the church and "the buildings in the vicinity of the larger church," i.e., the convento. The remark, however, that the "interior walls" were two feet in thickness can refer only to the convento walls, because there are no interior walls in the church. Other statements by visitors and the photographs taken during the excavations of the 1920s show that rooms of the convento were plastered. It should be assumed, therefore, that the "interior walls" and the interior plaster Morrison refers to are probably both in the convento. They cannot be assigned to the church without reasonable doubt.

Bandelier was convinced that the church had never been finished when he visited the building, although later he apparently backed off from that position. He saw the church when the wall tops were much more sharp-edged than in later years. The impression conveyed was so strong that he even suggested that the convento, too, had never been completed. This assumption has been shown to be wrong by the finding of wall plaster and used fireplaces in the convento, and roof beams and beam sockets in the wall tops of several rooms. The impression of incompleteness must have been very strong for Bandelier, an astute observer, to have ignored the evidence of the beam sockets.

John Virgin visited the ruins in 1894, and later stated that the floor of the church "was laid in neatly-jointed limestone flags." However, several photographs of the interior of the church taken by Bandelier and Lummis before Virgin ever visited the church show the floor to be covered in rubble. Virgin's statement must be discounted. Virgin described Abó, for example, as having walls forty-two feet apart, twelve feet thick at the base, and sixty feet high, and then said that Quarai was "a still larger edifice." At San Buenaventura, he said the walls were six feet thick and still stood twenty-five feet high, that the church was thirty-five feet wide at the choir loft beam, 140 feet long, and had a single pillar holding up the choir loft beam and six windows, three on each side. Of these statements, only the length of the church, actually 138 feet, is approximately correct. Virgin's statements should be trusted only where they can be confirmed by other observations.

Archeological work inside the church, sacristy and baptistry have consistently failed to find any evidence, unequivocal or otherwise, for completed floors, plastered and painted walls, or altar structures.3 The excavations of Charlie Voll, in fact, found clear surfaces with the usual litter and structures to be expected during construction of a church. Only the ongoing controversy over whether the church was completed obscured this evidence. Had there been no controversy, Voll's research would have been taken for what it was: the uncovering of important information about Franciscan construction methods.

Compare San Buenaventura with San Isidro, Awatovi, or Hawikuh. In each of these cases, although only a few feet of wall height survive, there is no doubt that these were completed, and used structures. The evidence for this exists in the form of finished floors, painted wall plaster, and finished altars and their associated features. San Isidro is the best demonstration of this because it was in the worst condition. Its walls had collapsed to only a few feet high, so that no architectural evidence of its completion could be found. No visitor descriptions, sketches, or photographs gave any additional evidence. The colonial documents do not make it clear which church is being referred to when a functioning church is mentioned. Treasure hunters dug huge pits throughout the interior of the building, destroying most of the interior structures. However, in spite of all these adverse conditions, Gordon Vivian easily demonstrated that the church had been finished and used. He found clear, unquestionable evidence for finished floors, wall paintings, a choir loft, and a complete set of altars, platforms, steps, and associated features. Later archeology found the base of a baptismal font with red, black and white decorative paint still in place on the fount base and the surrounding floor. Bad as was the damage, perhaps comparatively worse than anything that was done to San Buenaventura, some portions of each of these features was left. The absence of any of these features in the big church must be taken to show that the features were never there. Only the creation of an event that carried out an impossibly thorough removal of everything within San Buenaventura could explain the total lack of any surviving evidence. Such an event, based only on the desire for it to have happened, is hardly a reasonable assumption. Essentially, the assumption would be: "The church was finished. Because no physical evidence that the church was finished survives within it, something must have destroyed all this evidence. This something must have been . . ." etc. This is the sort of argument that has been used for years. The fault is not in the argument, but in the initial assumption. When such an assumption is true, a great deal can then be deduced. If it is false, the researcher is creating fantasy.

Finally, there has never been any evidence of any sort demonstrating even the possibility of burials in the church. No trace of burial pits from which the bodies had been removed have been seen. Such a circumstance indicates that the building was never even consecrated for burial, although it could have been--consecration for burial could happen when the walls were only ten or twelve feet high. Burials apparently continued inside and in front of San Isidro during the seventeenth century.

4. Tom Carroll once suggested that perhaps the building never reached such a height that a clerestory was built or the vigas put in place about 30 feet above the floor. Instead, he proposed that the building was roofed at about the present height or perhaps a little higher. This is an ingenious idea, and would certainly have been a possible step for the Franciscan builder. Unfortunately, there is, again, no evidence for viga sockets at any level above the choir loft, nor evidence for the structures within an operating church. This suggestion, like the others, begins with the desire to see San Buenaventura as a working church, and assumes whatever necessary to reach that end. In reality, no such desperate move was necessary, since San Isidro was in full use until its destruction by Apaches in September, 1670. Besides, the Franciscans didn't know in advance that they were going to be forced out of the Salinas area. They would never have accepted a cutback in construction; it would have been an admission of uncertainty. They would always act as if they were going to complete the building.

Carleton remarked in his journal that the walls of San Buenaventura "are now about thirty feet in height. It was estimated, from the great quantity of stones which have fallen down, forming a sort of talus both within the walls and outside of them, that, originally, this building was all of fifty feet in height."4 However, an analysis of the surviving fabric of the church using volumetric calculations indicates that the walls of the building could never have reached much higher than about 20 feet. This analysis (summarized in Chapter 6, pages 192-98, especially note 79) assumes that half the volume of the fill inside the church was from the walls (probably doubling or tripling the actual stone in the fill) and then assumes that twice that much rock had fallen outside the church (resulting in an estimate probably six times the actual volume of stone in and around the church). Using this volume, the author worked out how high such a quantity of stone would have carried the walls. This wildly optimistic process only raised the walls to a height of about twenty feet. Even assuming all the fill inside the church was stone from the wall, with no blown dirt at all, and that twice that amount was outside (even though the usual distribution would be 50% in, 50% out), the walls only reach about twenty-three feet. To have had a complete church requires the assumption that people carried off perhaps twice the volume of stone actually found within the church and lying around outside of it, sometime before 1882. Considering the amount of stone available in the convento and the ruins of the pueblo (neither of which seem to have been stone-robbed) and the total absence of any other evidence to suggest this, such an assumption would be unjustified. Carleton must have estimated the wall heights while standing on the ground west of the apse. Here the wall is presently twenty feet high, and would have been about twenty-two feet high in 1853.

In each of the varieties of evidence discussed above, it is possible that the structural or archeological traces have been destroyed by time or treasure hunters, or that the pertinent document, drawing, or photograph has been lost--but when in every case the evidence is either absent or, at best, ambiguous, then an unbiased evaluation must conclude that the preponderance of evidence indicates that the Franciscans never built San Buenaventura higher than about twenty feet, and never put it into use in any form.

1 France Scholes, "Documentary Evidence Relating to the Jumano Indians," in France Scholes and H. P. Mera, "Some Aspects of the Jumanos Problem," Contributions to American Anthropology and History, volume 6, no. 34 (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1940), p. 283.

2 George Kubler questioned Willison's statement about a roof and suggested he was referring to the choir loft. See George Kubler, The Religious Architecture of New Mexico in the Colonial Period and Since the American Occupation (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1940), p. 91.

3 Even finding some of these indicators will not prove that a church was completed. Plastered and painted interiors have been found in churches that were not finished; see, for example, Mardith Schuetz, The History and Archeology of Mission San Juan Capistrano, San Antonio, Texas; Volume I: Historical Documentation and Description of the Structures, Archeological Program Report no. 10 (Austin: Texas State Building Commission, 1968), p. 215-17. Schuetz was convinced at the time that the church had been completed, but no indications were found of altars in the sanctuary, and all available documents refer to the building as incomplete throughout its history. The accepted position is that the building had never been finished and put into use as a church, even though it was consecrated for and used as a burial area.

4 Major James H. Carleton, "Diary of an excursion to the ruins of Abo, Quarra, and Gran Quivira, in New Mexico, under the command of Major James Henry Carleton, U.S.A.," Ninth Annual Report of the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D. C.: Beverley Tucker, Senate Printer, 1855), p. 308.

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006