Using what John Gaw Meem termed the “fundamental form of the time,” the Hollenback House was a modern home created out of materials and forms of Southwestern antiquity. These forms of the natives of the American Southwest developed as a distinct architectural style that grew out of the earth and conformed to the needs from these tillers of the land. This Southwestern architectural style preserved itself but was given a new flair through the influx of the Spanish and was once again carried on through the proliferation of the “Santa Fe Style,” of which Meem played an integral part. Because the architectural style of the Southwestern antiquity fit so well with the modern concepts of architecture, Meem created a home for Ms. Amelia Hollenback that harkened on the distant culture of the Southwest but was also wholly modern.
The Commission from Amelia Hollenback
First commissioned in 1932, the Hollenback House began as the idea of a wealthy New Yorker. Amelia Hollenback came to Meem with a very specific idea of what she wanted her house to be while Meem was to integrate Hollenback’s extensive collection of architectural items of intricately carved beams of historic Spanish descent and doors of many different styles. Combining the needs of Ms. Hollenback and maintaining the modern simplicity that Meem desired did not prove as an easy task for Meem as created a number of different design concepts, which he did not like. Despite these initial design difficulties, Meem designed and built what is considered to be his best residential work and also the finest example of the Santa Fe Style of the American Southwest.
The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center - One of Meem's most famous and monumental works. The southwestern character seen in this building was translated into the adobe Hollenback residence.
The Hollenback House: A Modern Structure Rooted in the Past
As is so common with modern architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, the Hollenback house seems to grow out of the hillside rather than be placed on top of it. Meem made this architectural move not simply out of his desire to be modern but also to mimic the adobe homes of the area. To accomplish this stepping, Meem raised the guest’s quarters from the rest of the house and lowered the floor heights as the building descended from the living room. To further refer to the style developed by the people of the ancient Southwest, the massing of the Hollenback residence was created asymmetrically but still maintained the balance of the historical New Mexican dwelling. The resulting building seemed to grow out of the hillside of the Jemez Mountains and created a wonderful balance between the built environment and nature.
Meem stepped the Hollenback residence and laid it out asymmetrically directly connecting his structure to antiquity, but his plan was entirely modern in form and function. The ancient pueblo homes of the Southwest were composed of separate rooms stacked upon each other all of which lacked doors and windows. Trap doors were placed on top of the structure for entrance and for a smoke escape. Instead of making these outdated moves, Meem opened up the plan and connected the inside to the outside with deliberately placed windows to keep the harsh New Mexican sun from overcoming the interior. The plan itself was adapted to the requirements of Ms. Hollenback who stated, “I do not want to carry out old ideas with too strict fidelity—for instance I’d like an inside passage, not merely rooms opening outdoors. Probably the ‘roughness’ would show most in details.” Meem did just this as he created a hall that connected the bedrooms to the service wing of the home and opened to views of the beautiful Jemez Mountains. The plans also included a terrace and patio with covered walkways that adapted the Spanish colonial style of the Southwest. Through Meem’s floor plans, the specific needs of Amelia Hollenback were met with a modern solution that still referred to the historic architectural style of New Mexico.
Modern or an Historic Rip-off?
Despite all of the elements of modern architecture infused into the Hollenback residence, it does not seem to be a “modern” building in the sense of most modern buildings. Meem’s building relies almost entirely on historic architecture and may seem like a regurgitation of ancient methods to the modern architect. This is not the case and no one makes a better case for the Hollenback residence being a modern building than Meem himself as he defines modern architecture as the “fundamental form of the time.” This form is to be derived from the social and physical needs of the culture. In a speech at the American Institute of Architects convention in 1931, Meem spoke of modern architecture in Santa Fe:
"In this machine age, and buildings are typified by the use of steel and glass. But our city has no industries, it does not produce machines… Every modern demand can be met within the traditional forms, and still be true to the demands of function and the expression of simple materials."
The architecture of the historic Southwest was reflective of its geographical area and was thus fully modern.
While reflecting the form of the time, ancient pueblo buildings were also without ornament and were formed out of the desired function of the space—concepts closely held by many modernist architects. The exterior of the ancient pueblo structure and Meem’s Hollenback house were clean and simple with a modern feel. Yet, specifically on Meem's house, there was still a rustic quality seen on the exterior, which was accomplished by using “native methods” consistent with good construction. Meem even called for dimensions on the plans only to be used as guidelines. Despite using this rough method of construction, the Hollenback House still resembled much of the contemporary architecture and design of the 1930’s. The stepping of the Hollenback house appears much like the setbacks of the Art Deco skyscraper and the rounded corners and tapered lines are reminiscent of the streamlined shapes seen in cars from the thirties. The resulting structure was one that becomes surprisingly and wholly modern.
Thus, it was Meem who sought to redefine what modern architecture was by unexpectedly bringing modern architecture to the past. The fundamental form of the Southwest remained unchanged for thousands of years reflecting strong cultural ties to the ancient and indeed to the land. At the same time, Meem’s forms became reminiscent of the modern with clean lines and no ornamentation. The plans responded to modern needs and forms grew out of the desired function of each space. And thus Meem’s use of an architectural language native to his land can be best expressed as wholly modern by Meem himself when he said “These ancient shapes are modern!”