Our Historic Building

“I should like to speak of God, not on the boundaries, but at the center, not in weakness, but in strength … God is in the midst of our life … The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the center of the village. “

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

In April 2006, First Presbyterian Church dedicated its newly refurbished sanctuary and new education and administration building—with the above words on the event program. It represented something new, but also something old—the continuation of years of commitment on the part of a community of faith to recognizing and celebrating the presence of God in our midst, while at the same time, trying to live as part of a larger community in ways which make that recognition and celebration real beyond our church doors.

Since 1867, the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe has been on this corner of Grant Avenue and Griffin Street. It is the oldest continuing Protestant congregation in the New Mexico Territory. The Church’s buildings have come and gone, but the Congregation has remained “in the center  of the village,” committed  to ministry in, with, and beyond the city boundaries.

A Brief History

The congregation that became First Presbyterian Church held its first worship service in the Palace of the Governors in the year 1866. Within the month, the founding missionary pastor, David McFarland, had established the first day school for the education of the children of Santa Fe.

By early 1867, the church had been chartered and re-situated in a crumbling adobe building on the corner of Grant Avenue and Griffin Street, which had been an abandoned Baptist mission. In 1882, the growing congregation graduated to a brick Victorian building on the same site. Then in 1939, still on the same site, the congregation constructed the handsome Pueblo Revival building designed by John Gaw Meem, which is still in use for worship today. Two manses were constructed on the property over the years, both were demolished to make way for subsequent church buildings.

Archaeological  Findings from the Church Property

In preparation for building on the church property in 2004, and to meet the requirements of the Archaeological Review District Ordinance (Code 14-75), Southwest Archaeological Consultants conducted an examination of several strata of undisturbed soil during the 2004 demolition of church buildings and during excavations for the foundations of the parking garage.

After collecting nearly 5,000 artifacts consisting of ceramics, metal, glass, faunal material, and building material, the archaeologists issued an extensive report which was summarized as follows:

Based on archival sources, stratigraphic definitions, and artifact analyses, we believe the project property was on the north edge of an early Coalition (A.D.1 220 to 1350) to Classic period (A.D.1300 to 1610) occupation beginning around the U.S. Court House to the northeast and extending to at least the Awakening Gallery to the southwest. During Santa Fe’ s earliest European occupation, the project property probably served as an agricultural area on the west side of town. Spanish Colonial and Mexican period midden deposits accumulating from neighboring houses on the west and north eventually were replaced by those from the late 18th century presidio and late 19th century Fort Marcy Complex on the east. The project property became church lands just before the Civil War, continuing as such ever since, hosting three church buildings and two Presbyterian manses up to the 1930s.

2004-2005 Building Project

Over the years, as the city of Santa Fe grew and became a popular tourist and retirement destination, several obstacles developed to continuing ministry and mission in the previous church buildings in their existing location. The “topsy-like” growth of the building (previous buildings demolished; new ones added; and the incorporation of older buildings, former portales, and new additions) resulted in a facility which, though the congregation found it charming, was difficult to maintain, to make fully accessible, or to make user friendly. Updates were needed to the electrical, heating, and plumbing systems and to address safety issues in the spaces used for preschool programs.

In 1996, a Task Force of the congregation began to investigate possible solutions to building challenges and limitations. A series of congregational meetings was held over a period of eight years, during which several decisions were made. The church considered moving out of the downtown area, but decided to stay in its current location, where the congregation understood its mission to be. After a successful capital campaign, the final congregational meeting was held in April of 2004, and the congregation confirmed its earlier decision to go forward with the project.

Recycled Architectural Elements and Fittings from the Old Buildings

Wherever possible,  important artifacts from the old buildings were carried over into the new. When it was determined that the only logical place for the new organ was the back wall of the chancel, the ten foot wood and metal cross designed in 1982 by Federico Armijo was placed in a two story space created for it in the lobby/gathering space. This cross, a focus of worship for more than two decades, was particularly meaningful to many members of the congregation. A new sanctuary cross designed and made by sculptor Jack Miller has been suspended on the congregation side of the proscenium beam and includes silver donated by members of the congregation.

The exterior window grills were stripped of their lead paint, reconfigured where necessary, repainted, re­installed over the original  sanctuary windows, and installed over the new chapel and sacristy windows.

Corbels from the Griffin Street portal (designed by John Gaw Meem) were reused as supports for the third floor “balcony” on the north of the building close to Grant Avenue and the one on the Griffin Street side.

Also reused were certain light fixtures, decorative iron crosses, salvaged bricks and flagstones, and some of the old doors and door hardware. Certain doors themselves are careful copies of the original John Gaw Meem doors, which were beyond repair.

The Named Rooms

The Session of First Presbyterian Church decided in early 2005 which rooms in the new building would carry the names of persons historically significant to the congregation. Some names from the old buildings were reused, others retired and one new name was added. There are six named rooms.

  • The Allison Library, is named after the founder (Matilda L. Allison) of the Allison (Presbyterian) Mission School for Girls in Santa Fe. The school was originally adjacent to and north of the Church, where the current Judicial Complex  is now.
  • The Rendon Room, the “church parlor,” is named after Gabino Rendon (1864-1964), the first Hispanic pastor ordained by the Presbytery of Santa Fe and four times Moderator pro tem of First Presbyterian Church when the pulpit was vacant.
  • The McFarland Chapel is named after the founding pastor (1867 to 1874) of First Presbyterian Church, David McFarland, and his wife, Amanda Reed McFarland.
  • Pope Hall, is named after a prominent elder of First Presbyterian Church at the end of the nineteenth century, Judge William Pope. Judge Pope was a former U.S. Attorney General and a Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, but was best loved for teaching a large Sunday School Class for boys. Pope Hall is one of the rooms which had considerable significance in the old building as a room with important memories  and associations.
  • The Amy Biehl Room is named after the 26 year old former member of First Presbyterian Church who gave her life in South Africa in 1993, while working for the elimination of unjust apartheid laws. Amy’s killers were later granted amnesty by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the full support of Amy’s parents. While in the Youth Group at First Presbyterian Church, Amy played  hand bells.
  • The William Hayes Moore Conference Room is named for a distinguished former pastor of the church, during whose six year  pastorate (at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s), the church changed its status from a mission-receiving church to a self-sustaining congregation.

Buildings as Instruments of Education, Mission, and Social Responsibility

The congregation was concerned from the beginning that the existing sanctuary be restored with sensitivity to  its “contributing status” as part of the historic fabric of Santa Fe, that the new building be created to be responsible to the environment, and that the new facility be available to the people of Santa Fe as a community meeting space and as a center for mission.

Refurbishment of the 1939 John Gaw Meem Sanctuary

The Building Committee took seriously the concern of the congregation (as well as of the Historical Design Review Board of the City of Santa Fe) to preserve the historicity of the 1939 sanctuary by restoring the fabric of the building whenever possible, rather than changing or reproducing it. 

However, there were several obvious problems with the sanctuary building as it was: no insulation or reflective sound board between the latilla ceiling and roof; exposed wiring on the roof; leaks; inadequate heat, cooling, lighting, and sound system; and no accommodation for wheelchairs. As work began, more problems emerged: sanctuary woodwork covered with lead paint; balcony railing too low and balusters too far apart for safety; and the back wall of the chancel resting on a loose stone wall with neither footings nor cement foundations.

The goal of the Building Committee was to find solutions to the problems which would leave the newly refurbished sanctuary functioning well for worship and for the comfort and convenience of the congregation, while looking as if very little had been done to change what had been there before. The following improvements were made as unobtrusively as possible:

  • The roof was completely removed from above the latillas; a sound board installed; four inches of sand added for resonance; wires pulled through for lighting, sound, heating and cooling; a new insulated roof installed.
  • The existing ceiling lights were rewired and new ones installed.
  • Lead paint was stripped from the existing windows and the wood mutins restored.
  • New glass was installed for sound proofing and insulation.
  • Tempered glass was placed behind the balcony railing to preserve the original John Gaw Meem design while meeting safety codes.
  • The walls of the nave were re-plastered and painted; the side walls and roof of the chancel were slightly reconfigured to promote the projection of sound into the nave; and the walls in the chancel and sanctuary were re-plastered in a burnished diamond point finish to enhance reverberation and create a more pleasing appearance.
  • Cuts were made in several pews to provide wheelchair spaces, and a lift was added to provide wheelchair access to the chancel.
  • A new space was created behind the temporary wall at the back of the chancel to accommodate the new organ expected in 2008, and a new beam and new corbels were installed over the space for the organ.
  • The doors at the front of the nave were remade to the same lines as the original John Gaw Meem doors (which were beyond repair).
  • The hardwood floor in the chancel was extended to the back wall, new (movable) risers created for the choir, and the whole sanctuary floor refinished.
  • A new foundation and wall was built from the footings up to the second floor to replace the north chancel wall, which was sitting on loose stacked stone.
  • A new sound  system was installed.
  • New pew cushions (designed to be sensitive to acoustical concerns) were installed.
  • New oversized (for quiet operation) heating and cooling ducts and vents were installed under and through the floor of the side aisles, so that the sanctuary could be served by furnace and central air-conditioning units in the basement of the new facility.

A “Green” Building

The Building Committee took seriously the congregation’s desire to build an environmentally responsible building and sought out “green” alternatives for construction materials and systems. Finishes, wherever possible, were chosen for their environmentally friendly qualities.

  • The predominant building material of the education and administration building is Rastra, a block made from recycled plastics, filled with rebar and concrete. The R-value of this type of construction is more than 40.
  • Windows are clad aluminum on the exterior and wood on the interior, double glazed and with a low E glass.
  • Heating and cooling systems were state of the art for low energy use.
  • The underground parking garage ceiling has been sprayed with K-3 to insulate against heat loss on the first floor.
  • Hot water continually circulates throughout the building, avoiding the waste water wastefully waiting for hot water to reach faucets.
  • Roofing membranes and playground pavers are made of recycled materials.
  • A water harvesting system directs rain water from the roof into cisterns for the irrigation of landscaping.
  • The main floor of the new building uses of cork tile, which is harvested from living trees, and other hard surface floors are ceramic or linoleum (made from linseed oil and corn flour, sustainable commodities).
  • Most carpeting in the building has a recycled backing and is designed to be cleaned without chemicals.
  • Brick and flagstone pavers used in the exterior hardscape have been salvaged from the old building and grounds.
  • The sanctuary roof has been insulated for the first time since the building was built.

Mission and Community Uses for the Building

The Building Committee took seriously the concern of the congregation to plan and build a building that would add positive aesthetic, social, and mission value not only to the congregation itself, but also to the community of Santa Fe, to the State of New Mexico, and beyond.  To that end, every part of the building has been envisioned as having multiple-use capabilities. The building offers an historic sanctuary open most days of the week; gathering places for receptions and congregational social activities; an inviting, educational space for children and youth; meeting and rehearsal spaces; a venue for concerts and events for the community; and space to plan or provide outreach programs to those in need.

The Sanctuary Cross

With the movement to the lobby wall of the 10 foot cross that had been on the back wall of the chancel, a new cross was needed for the sanctuary. It was agreed that this would be a rugged, rather than a “pretty” cross; speak both of our Presbyterian tradition and our New Mexico setting; be six feet high; hang suspended forward of the proscenium beam of the chancel; and serve as a foreground for the organ placed behind it.

Sculptor Jack Miller was selected to design and craft the cross. Made of dark brown distressed steel, the Celtic style cross carries a circle of a transparent mineral found in the arroyos of New Mexico, banded in steel and, on both front and back, traceries of silver in Celtic knots.

Silver clavos mark the places where the nails pierced the hands and feet of Jesus, and at the head is a larger clavo marked with a small silver cross.  The silver represents the purity of the life of Christ against the distressed and utilitarian background of the steel.

Members of the congregation contributed silver mementos, coins, jewelry, flatware, and serving pieces in honor of and in memory of loved ones. That silver was melted down to create the Celtic tracery on the front and back of the cross. The new cross was installed in the sanctuary on April 8, 2006.

The Fisk Organ

In 1987 First Presbyterian Church received the first donation for an new pipe organ, and through the years over 100 people contributed to the organ fund. By October of 2005, funds were sent to C.B. Fisk as a partial payment for the new pipe organ, and the organ was delivered and installed.

With Dr. Larry Palmer, Professor of Organ Performance from Southern Methodist University, as consultant, the Organ Committee traveled to Texas, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Indiana to hear organs by various builders. C.B. Fisk of Glouster, Massachusetts, was chosen for the beauty of the sound of Fisk instruments and for their architectural sensitivity, durability, and consistency of quality. A contract was signed in June of 2004 for an organ to be delivered in 2008.

Early in 2004 Charles Nazarian, the Fisk case designer, spent several days in the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church sketching possible designs for casework which would contain the workings and pipes of the instrument and enhance the simple pueblo revival design of the chancel. Taking into consideration the Spanish influence upon Santa Fe architecture and the extensive work of ]ohn Gaw Meem in the area, Mr. Nazarian incorporated lines typical of Northern New Mexican reredos screens, along with their trompe l’oeil moldings and turned spindles, into a design which also echoes the bell nichos on the exterior front facade of the sanctuary.

The organ has mechanical action keys and the capacity for multi-level electric stop action, with over 1600 pipes to provide solid support for congregational singing and allow performance of musical compositions from the 1600s to modern day. This instrument allowed the church to expand its music ministry to both the congregation and community by enriching worship music, providing the possibility for creative solo and ensemble recitals, and anchoring educational workshops in organ for children and adults.

The Congregation Behind (and Within) the  Building

Only once or twice in a lifetime do congregations have the opportunity to design their own spaces and, when they do, their buildings have a lot to say about the people behind the plans: how they worship God, how they intend to live out their faith, and what they care about. In the case of the Congregation of First Presbyterian Church, years of experience worshiping, educating, doing mission and sharing fellowship in downtown Santa Fe, on a small site without parking, went into shaping the new building design.

As a result, the building which has emerged has attempted to embody in its very structure those congregational commitments to being accessible for all; treating the environment gently; embracing the community as well as the congregation; welcoming children and keeping them safe; being inviting, light-filled, spacious, and attractive, as well as functional and efficient; and offering a temporary refuge, practically as well as emotionally and spiritually.


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