dancing with architecture: Mountainair, New Mexico (with a side of Socorro, Luis Lopez, and San Antonio)

We were in Nuevo Mexico a couple weeks ago to close on the bride's parents' house and, enjoying back roads, we stopped in to gawk at the Salt Missions and various sites along the way.

The Salt Missions, scattered in the highlands about Mountainair, are so named because of their proximity to the Las Salinas salt flats 10 miles to the east. The natives mined the salt for trade with the Pueblan Indians to the west and the High Plains Apaches to the east. Living on geographic and demographic thresholds gave the pueblos a transitional cultural and architectural heritage. In all, about 10,000 Native Americans lived in the area when the Spaniards first arrived.

Architecturally, the natives first built pithouses: circular structures half buried, half exposed with access through the roof. These wicker-slathered-with-mud structures started appearing in the area 900 years ago. Above-ground structures called jacals made of adobe or adobe-cemented stone began showing up in the 1300s, probably inspired by the Anasazis to the northwest. More sophisticated pithouses with ventilator shafts remained in the architectural oeuvre but as religious spaces, perhaps an unconscious architectural touchstone to earlier times.

The Spaniards arrived about 400 years ago and built church complexes near the pueblos to assimilate the natives into Christianity and the Spanish Empire. A major drought compounded with Spanish mistreatment of the natives and deteriorating relations with the Apaches due to Spanish slave raids (assisted by the locals) led to the sudden abandonment of the three pueblos, leaving the remains to the ravages of the elements and later Anglo settlers. Nonetheless, impressive echoes of these pueblos and missions remain.

A small church in Tajique on the way to the Salt Missions

Our first stop was at Quarai, a pueblo of 400 to 600 Tiwas. After the Spaniards arrived, they built a church, the most intact of the three, called Nuestra Señora de la Purisma Concepción de Cuarac (the photo at the very top of this post is of this church).

In all cases, it was the assigned Franciscan priest that designed and oversaw construction of the churches and associated support structures. Each of the churches was similar, but each had its own features and reacted to the local environment and available materials. This particular church has a large front door on a pivot hinge (the rage on upscale Modern houses these days), roof-top terraces, and deep clerestory windows for ventilation and light. The roof on this particular church was still intact in 1853.

Water was sourced from local springs and acequia until the drought dried them up leading to starvation. The people for this pueblo were the Tiwas from the north, a group of Indians that still exist (Isleta Pueblo is Tiwan) and speak Tiwa.

At this site, the mission is on view with the pueblo hidden beneath mounds.

A small spring at the bottom center.

mmmm: blocky architecture: I love you.

Buckets of solitude...

Someone still lives here...

We next stopped in at Abo, which means water bowl, probably because of small water-filled depressions and dams in the nearby spring-fed creek (all the springs on this trip were dry due to a current multi-decade drought). At its peak, 1,500 Tompiro Indians lived at Abo. Similar to Quarai, the pueblo ruins lay beneath mounds with only church remains to be seen.

Frey Acevedo, an accomplished designer and builder, designed the church. Here he greatly expanded a previously built church into a grander building with transverse clerestory windows unique to New Mexico. The church also appears to have had windows glazed with selenite crystals.

Interestingly, the church complex contains a kiva. The thought is that when the missionaries first arrived, they gently assimilated themselves into the local culture—tolerating the kivas and associated ceremonies—before later banning the local religion (and driving it underground).

This church, as well as the others, would be more intact if not for late settlers that arrived in the 1800s. These folks often harvested building materials from the churches, especially the large wooden support posts fpr the flat roofs.

Indoor restrooms!

The kiva on the church grounds.

Our next (and last) stop was to Gran Quivera. Gran Quivera is unique in several ways: You can see pueblo ruins, the grand church was not completed, the source rock is not red, and there are no local springs or streams. Although a glorius place to visit, it's ironically difficult to capture its gradure in photographs.

Perhaps due to the building materials used or the topography, part of this pueblo is excavated and available for perusing. Interestingly, what can be seen today is built on top of a previous, circular pueblo built in 1300 and abandoned in 1400, probably due to drought. The newer pueblo±built on top of the older pueblo—continued to use the original kiva.

The largest of the three pueblos, 1,500 to 2,000 Tompiros called the Humanas—the "striped people"—lived here. Gran Quivera was known to traders for its Tabira black on white pottery. The area was first settled 1,200 years ago with the currently visible pueblo structures dating back to 800 years ago. There are no local springs or rivers, so inhabitants collected rainwater into cisterns, built rain gardens to capture rainfall for crops, and had a field of 32 water wells 20 to 50 feet deep less than a mile west.

Spanish missionaries built the first church in 1630. In 1659, the missionaries started construction on a larger church; however, construction paused after the priest suffered an injury. In the 1660s, severe drought plagued the area. In a single winter, 480 locals died from starvation. In 1670, the inhabitants moved to Abo and, then, shortly thereafter, moved to pueblos in the Rio Grande Valley.

After the Pueblo Revolt in 1680—essentially a tax revolt against the King of Spain—indians friendly to the Spaniards—including the Tompiros—moved to the El Paso region. The Tompiro culture and language couldn't withstand the multiple moves. They assimilated into existing population, their culture and language dying by 1880.

The original church

The square receptor holes for the roof beams still exist here because they were never installed. At the other churches, those beams were mined out by Anglo settlers in the 1800s.

A drainage flume.

The visitor center had a Schindleresque-Gillish vibe about it (in a southwestern kinda way).

Black on white pottery.

A mountain lion effigy (and one of the cutest damn things I've ever seen!)

We also stopped at the Tijeras Pueblo ruins on the way out of Albuquerque; sadly, my camera mostly malfunctioned there, so few photos (mostly mounds anyway because they built with adobe). 

Love the term "adobe melt" for eroded adobe walls.


Church in Punta de Aqua

Mountainair. The swastika was used by Native Americans long before Hitler got ahold of it.

Socorro's drive-in movie theater at sunset.

Silhouette of M Mountain in Socorro

Cemetary in Luis Lopez

On the way to Abo

On the way to Abo




Between Mountainair and I-25

Apricots harvested from the bride's brother's tree in Socorro

San Antonio

San Antonio

San Antonio

chow in Albuquerque

chow in Albuquerque

chow in Socorro

chow in Socorro

chow in Socorro

chow in Isleta Pueblo

chow in Isleta Pueblo

Another silhouette of M Mountain in Socorro

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