December 26, 2023

Turning to Solar at Santa Fe's San Miguel Chapel

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

Encyclical letter laudato si’ of the Holy Father Francis

The questions facing anyone interested in retro-fitting a historic property with energy-saving installations is compounded when the property is an important historic monument and a Catholic institution. In 2018, Cornerstones Community Partnerships (Cornerstones), a nonprofit corporation based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, faced these challenges when it considered an installation of solar panels at one of the oldest and most famous historic monuments in Santa Fe, New Mexico—San Miguel Chapel.

View of the Chapel within the Analco and surrounding Santa Fe

photo by: Zach Lucero, Windswept Media

View of San Miguel Chapel within the Analco and surrounding Santa Fe.

A Chapel with Many Lives

The San Miguel Chapel, considered to be the oldest church in the United States, was built soon after settlement of the Spanish Capital of Santa Fe in 1610, in the Barrio de Analco, a National Landmark District that is one of the oldest residential neighborhoods of European origin in the United States. Tlaxcalan Natives of Mexico, who allied with Spanish conquistadores to defeat the Aztecs, originally settled the Analco during the colonization and used the church.

Misfortune struck many times. Internal political division between Franciscan friars and the Spanish military led to demolition of the chapel in 1640 to reduce the influence of the church. The church was repaired, only to be destroyed during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. As a result of the revolt, colonization of New Mexico was abruptly halted until colonizers returned in 1692.

Reconstruction was completed by 1710, establishing the footprint that remains today. The bell tower collapsed in 1872 and was rebuilt in the California Mission style. In the 1950's, while undergoing major repairs and investigations, the facade was altered to reflect the Spanish Pueblo Revival style. Surrounding buildings of the Analco are in the Territorial Revival style which came in when New Mexico became a territory of the United States in 1848. A prominent feature is brick coping on the top of flat roof parapets.

A sepia toned image of San Miguel in Sante Fe after collapse of Bell Tower in 1870s.

photo by: San Miguel Chapel Archive

San Miguel after collapse of Bell Tower in 1870s.

Building a Partnership for the San Miguel Chapel

Cornerstones has been assisting communities through heritage preservation since 1986. The organization works in partnership with communities to restore historic structures, preserve cultural landscapes, encourage traditional building practices, and conserve natural resources.

In 2004 Cornerstones began partnering with St Michael's High School, owner of the San Miguel Chapel, to preserve and restore this iconic adobe structure.

St Michael's High School was established in 1859 and constructed adjacent to the Chapel under the direction of then Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy of the Santa Fe Catholic Diocese. He invited De La Salle Christian Brothers to run the school.

In 1968 the school moved from its downtown campus but retained chapel ownership. The chapel has continued to be used for religious purposes while the surrounding property was sold to the State of New Mexico.

By 2004 cement stucco on the Chapel was failing, and visible deterioration became a concern for the school The school reached out to Cornerstones for assistance which led to an assessment and preservation plan in 2007 funded by a grant from the Getty Foundation. Other preservation challenges were addressed starting in 2010 with a Save Americas Treasures Grant. A subsequent series of interventions were completed in 2014, including returning the render of the chapel to traditional mud plaster. Some of these unamended plasters dating from 2010 remain in good condition today.

An interior view of the Chapel.

photo by: Zach Lucero, Windswept Media

An interior view of the San Miguel Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Turning to Solar

In 2018, Remy's Good Day Fund, a nonprofit foundation devoted to community sustainability, approached Cornerstones about broadening its vision to include solar in making local communities more sustainable.

Cornerstones embraced the concept and launched a solar initiative in partnering villages and native communities. The idea of solarizing the historically significant San Miguel Chapel emerged. A feasibility study was launched with seed funding from the Remy Foundation, the Moe Family Fund through the National Trust for Historic Preservation and St. Michael's High School.

After realizing the potential, a major first step was gaining the approval of St. Michael's Board of Directors, including the Christian Brothers. Another important challenge was meeting the requirements of Santa Fe's historic ordinance. The ordinance prohibits any visible additions to any building in its purview that might impact its original architectural design. Buildings in Santa Fe downtown and the historic Eastside, including those in the Analco District, are predominantly flat roof construction. Fortunately, San Miguel Chapel has a parapet high enough to conceal the solar panels making it a possible to meet the Secretary of Interiors Standards—a condition of the grant agreement and referred to in order to maintain compliance and to keep the landmark designation—and the City Preservation Ordinance.

A Model for Solar at Sacred Places

Once these initial steps were achieved, Cornerstones launched the solar project with the added plan of informing the public and other preservation advocates how solarizing could be accomplished within a context such as San Miguel. Support came from Thornburg Investment Management, an anonymous gift through the Catholic Foundation, Remy’s Good Day Fund, and the Moe Family Fund for Statewide and Local Partners (as part of the Preservation Priorities Task Force). The High School paid for a new roof and electrical upgrades to support the solar equipment. Cornerstones marshalled the process through the city and state, working with engineers and contractors. Dave Blackman, the Chapel’s preservation director representing the High School was Cornerstones’ counterpart throughout the program.

Procedural issues were addressed by procuring a legal survey, securing an easement with the State, finding a contractor, getting multiple permits, and adhering to the electrical utility requirements. Also, a new roof membrane was installed. Getting conduits and other features concealed within the thick adobe walls required ingenuity. This required an extra effort. Solar wiring was concealed by running conduit into the bell tower, through the access space to the roof substrate, down into the choir loft (closed to the public), through 5 ft of adobe wall down in the roof space of the old sacristy and gift shop and along the entire length of the Chapel to the rear wall in the utility area and out to the rack behind the church.

San Miguel Chapel in Santa Fe which is made of traditional mud plaster on adobe.

photo by: San Miguel Chapel Archive

Exterior of San Miguel Church which is made of traditional mud plaster on adobe.

View of the Voltaic panels being installed on the San Miguel Chapel in August 2023.

photo by: Jake Barrow

Voltaic panels being installed on San Miguel roof on August 28, 2023.

The Enphase system installed has an online app providing an energy report on a monthly basis. The November 2023 report indicated an average grid dependence of 50% with a CO2 reduction of 1,062 lbs. The design of the system recognizes that a significant reduction will occur in late fall through early spring while during late Spring and through early fall the solar gain will compensate for the deficiency.

On September 25, 2023, the solar installation began generating current back to the grid (which is owned by the Public Service Company of New Mexico). Cornerstones is now focusing on telling the story including video documents, public presentations, a portable traveling panel exhibit, newspaper articles and social media. Historic properties across America can take note of how we are successfully generating solar power on one the most important historic adobe buildings in the country.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Jake Barrow is the program director of Cornerstones Community Partnerships.

Announcing the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

See the List