I Rebuilt the Palace of the Governors at My Own Expense

Four Hundred Years of Remaking An Adobe Marvel

Construction of new portal, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1913. Photograph by Jesse Nusbaum. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 013027.
By Cordelia T. Snow and Stephen S. Post

“I rebuilt the Palace of the Governors at my own expense.” Versions of those same words have been spoken by Spanish, Mexican, and American governors—and several museum directors—for more than 400 years. Several centuries of remodeling and maintenance culminated in the Palace’s transformation into the centerpiece of the nascent Museum of New Mexico in 1909. A long line of museum directors sought to balance preservation of a treasured historic building with the need to portray New Mexico’s rich history.

Now the Palace is changing again. In 2018, all exhibits were removed so the HVAC and fire suppression systems could be modernized. While the upgrades were completed, an empty Palace afforded current museum staff and consultants the opportunity to rethink, reprogram, and reorient the narratives about the Palace and its people. As a result, the New Mexico History Museum has planned many new exhibits, including Palace Seen and Unseen. The exhibition is co-curated by the authors and Dr. Alicia Romero, curator of Spanish Colonial, Mexican, and Chicano/a history, and will open on April 19, 2020.

Patio, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico, ca. 1912. Photograph by Jesse Nusbaum. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 61541.

A review of the interrelationships between the Palace’s appearance and its use as well as the people who lived and visited there yields an anecdotal puzzle missing a lot of pieces. At the turn of the twentieth century, solving the puzzle was temporarily derailed by the well-intentioned writings of Palace enthusiasts such as LeBaron Bradford Prince, Edgar Lee Hewett, Sylvanus Morley, and Jesse Nusbaum. They portrayed it as a long and low adobe building; the flagship of the newly conceived Spanish Pueblo Revival or Santa Fe Style. This exercise in identity construction inadvertently de-emphasized the building’s rich and complex past. With the Palace entering a new phase, now is a good time to look back at its changing appearance and uses.

Seventeenth-century diagonal adobe brick floor found in Room 5. Uncovered during C.T. Snow’s 1974–1975 Palace of the Governors excavation. Photograph courtesy Cordelia T. Snow.

The Palace in the Seventeenth Century
A centerpiece of the casas reales, or royal buildings, the first Palace took cues from the architectural styles popular elsewhere in the Spanish empire. However, given the distance from the nearest large urban centers in New Spain, the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe was not nearly so ornate as contemporary buildings in Mexico City or Spain. In fact, the earliest Spanish buildings in Santa Fe were almost certainly plain, simple, and possibly even crude by the most generous of modern standards. When the cabildo, or town council, complained that the buildings in the villa were still unfinished in 1619, the viceroy sent needed tools and supplies to hasten construction the following year. Using local materials, even basic construction took time—time to make and dry adobe bricks, time to cut and cure wood for vigas and corbels, doors, and window frames, time to excavate and fill foundations with river cobbles. Embellishments such as carved or painted detail on beams, corbels, and doors had to wait until Pueblo workers could be trained by master carpenters to do that work.

The use and layout of the seventeenth-century Palace comes from detailed Inquisition documents translated and interpreted by historian and genealogist José Antonio Esquibel. In addition to major restoration and construction work between 1659 and 1661, Esquibel’s research reveals the elaborate and fully functional Palace compound of Governor Bernardo López de Mendizábal and provides a unique look at the life of the governor and his wife. Esquibel’s list of eighteen rooms and/or apartments includes a receiving hall (sala de recibimiento), a new hall where Pueblo dancers changed into their catzina dancing clothing, a kitchen and a dining hall, an apartment (aposento) that served as chambers for the governor, a drawing room (sala de estrado) where Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche received guests and which had an altar with a canopy and a crucifix, Doña Teresa’s dressing room, a chapel (capilla), the governor’s office, a room that served as an archive where documents were stored, four living rooms along the east side of the building “by the orchard,” servant quarters, a carriage house, a tack room, storerooms, and a jail.

Storage pits denoting Pueblo Revolt pueblo plaza in south half of Room 7. Uncovered during C.T. Snow’s 1974–1975 Palace of the Governors excavation. Photograph courtesy Cordelia T. Snow.

We know the structure was whitewashed during López de Mendizábal’s term of office in the Palace because the local Puebloan laborers responsible for the work brought suit against López for non-payment of their wages. Juan Chamizo, or Chamiso, was apparently in charge of both the remodeling and new construction at the Palace and much of Santa Fe in the years leading up to the Pueblo Revolt in August 1680. Chamiso was a guild-trained master mason (albañil maestro), a native of the Valley of Mexico, and the supervisor that represented the laborers’ claims. During the Inquisition hearing, Chamiso testified to building a corredor grande de patio, or arcade, around an interior patio or plaza of the Palace, but reported no architectural embellishment for the south side of the building, such as is present today. Chamiso also repaired or replaced a torreón, or tower, at the Palace, which had fallen to the ground on October 21, 1661, along with the battlements or parapets around the structure.

Fortuitously, in early August 1680, Governor Antonio de Otermín reported that he rebuilt and fortified the Palace and the other royal buildings surrounding the Plaza; work probably supervised by Chamiso. By August 13, 1680, the Pueblo Revolt was underway, and the same compound described by Mendizábal provided 1,000 fleeing colonists, including Chamiso, and their 400 head of livestock, a defensible refuge from attacking Pueblo warriors. After a nine-day siege, 2,500 victorious Pueblo warriors and their allies let the colonists peaceably leave.

Radical renovations followed expulsion of the Spanish. Tanogeh (southern Tewa from Galisteo Basin villages), Tewa, and Keres families built and lived for ten to twelve years in a pueblo that enveloped the Palace. The account of the resettlement of Santa Fe and New Mexico by Diego de Vargas Zapata y Luján Ponce de León y Contreras in 1692 and 1693 provides sketchy, but important, details about the pueblo. His journal and subsequent accounts indicate the pueblo had four main buildings, each three to four stories high, encircling two plazas with estufas (kivas). Form and layout were similar to other contemporary villages built on the mesas above modern-day Cochiti and Jemez Pueblos. Reflecting Pueblo architectural sensibilities, its layout suggests a return to traditional ways and the resurrection of a world suppressed by Spanish presence and prohibitions.

Locating and reconstructing the Pueblo Revolt-era pueblo is tricky. Spanish military terms describing Pueblo architecture are ambiguous. Measurement and location rely on relational, rather than precise measurements—the structure is described in terms of arquebus shots and relative location to natural features, such as the cienega or swamp that arced around the eastern part of the villa’s core.

From the accounts and our calculations, we surmise Vargas encountered a building 360 to 400 feet long with a defensible, four-story-high south wall forming a dual-plaza adobe pueblo oriented north-south, with the south roomblock overlaying the south half of the modern-day Palace and extending to the south curb of Palace Avenue. It roughly fit within the space defined by Palace, Lincoln, and Washington Avenues and extended 100 feet north of the present-day New Mexico History Museum.

Archaeologist Cordelia (Dedie) Snow’s 1974–75 excavation uncovered four Pueblo-style rooms within a larger Spanish room. Fronted on the north by nine deep storage pits filled with debris from the Pueblo and earlier Spanish occupations, the ground floor rooms were the southern limit of the south plaza. This hypothetical layout may have contained 1,100 rooms and would have comfortably housed Vargas’ rough estimate of 1,000 Puebloan residents—and definitely the 500 residents he captured or killed there on December 29, 1693.

Following the military capture of the village, execution of the male combatants, and temporary enslavement of the women, children, and elderly, Vargas moved the settlers and troops into the Pueblo Revolt pueblo. Ironically, from this pueblo he staged his military campaign against the other villages, advanced resettlement, and sought refuge from Navajo and Apache raids.

1869, Ground plans of the Palace, Palace of the Governors Building Plans. Courtesy Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, NMHM, AC591-OV.

The Palace in the Eighteenth Century
During the first twenty years following the return of the Spanish government and settlers, there was a lot of activity at the Palace. In 1697, Governor Pedro Rodriguez de Cubero succeeded, arrested, imprisoned, and sent Vargas to trial for malfeasance of duty in Mexico City. Cubero also criticized Vargas for not building a proper government or military compound. He promptly built a replacement that incorporated intact remnants of the pre-1680 compound, while leaving in ruin elements of the Revolt-period pueblo.

Upon his exoneration and return in 1703, Vargas observed that Cubero’s replacement casas reales, composed of “six lower and six upper rooms,” were woefully inadequate to serve the purposes of the government and military. Only four years later, Governor José Chacón Medina Salazar y Villaseñor wanted to demolish the “presidial castle” and build anew. We don’t know if he completed all or just some of the task, because in 1715 Governor Félix Martínez described a Palace in serious disrepair.

From this account, we learn that the Palace walls were buttressed and only two rooms, including a military chapel, were functional. Zaguánes, or passageways, allowed wagons, horses, and people to pass from the Plaza into the interior plaza or courtyard, which was bounded on the north by two-story buildings. Remnants of these buildings, which housed soldiers, a mill, storerooms, wagons, and coaches, were found during Steve Post’s archaeological excavations for the New Mexico History Museum between 2002 and 2007. Rooms outlined by cobble foundations remained north of and beneath the Palace Print Shop. We believe the Palace rooms described by Félix Martínez were those left from Otermín’s Palace modified by Cubero in 1697, and maybe added to by Salazar y Villaseñor in 1708.

A big question for us is, what happened to the second story? The last mention of a second story in translated documents is Ysidro Sánchez’ testimony in 1720 pertaining to his theft of goods by gaining entrance to the Palace through a second-floor balcony window. Once inside the building, Sánchez stated he walked downstairs to the storeroom he robbed. Subsequent residencias reporting repair or construction and the renovations that likely accompanied the construction of the presidio from 1789–91 do not mention a second story. Inspection visits by priests mention the overall poor condition of the villa and the casas reales, but do not specifically describe the Palace. We know that two-story houses were present throughout the period and continued in use into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

An intriguing clue is found in the building instructions issued in 1781, which specify that governmental buildings should be five varas tall, or about 15 feet. A two-story building would then be 30 feet tall. Was the early eighteenth-century Palace first story less than five varas high, and if so, are there viga beam sockets left in the current Palace walls left from the first-floor ceiling and second-story floor? Could they have survived the late nineteenth century and Nusbaum’s 1909 –1913 renovation?

Until eighteenth-century walls are completely defined and their upper elevations investigated, we will continue to be left in the dark, except for mute testimony of the three-foot-wide cobble foundations found throughout the Palace by archaeologists.

The Palace and New Mexico in Transition
At some point during the last half of the eighteenth century, the second story of the Palace disappears. That is not to say the building no longer had two stories, but all references to the structure mention the ground floor only. That was certainly the case when brigadier general and explorer Zebulon Pike described the Palace in 1807. In fact, Pike’s description of the building was noteworthy primarily for its brevity, for he mentions nothing aside from entering the governor’s office after going through several rooms where the floors were covered with the skins of bear, deer, and other animals. By 1821, when Mexico declared independence from Spain and William Becknell’s risky trading venture to New Mexico presaged the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, the fact that the Palace once had a second story, even if only in parts of the building, disappeared completely from both oral and written history.

Throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, in addition to being the seat of Spanish government on the northern frontier, the Palace was used as an embassy. It was there that Pueblo leaders, as well as important representatives of the Comanches, Apaches, and later the Utes, among other Native groups, were heard. When Pike was captured on New Mexican soil in 1807, he was questioned by the governor in the Palace before he and his men were sent south to Mexico. William Becknell met with Governor Facundo Melgares when he first entered Santa Fe to open trade with the United States in 1821. And on August 18, 1846, acting Governor Juan Bautista Vigil y Alarid met U.S. General Stephen Watts Kearny and his army of occupation in front of the Palace.

Several years later, W.W.H. Davis, the newly appointed United States attorney for the Territory of New Mexico, described Santa Fe and the Palace in less than glowing terms: “The public edifices in Santa Fe are few in number and of rude construction. The government Palace, a long, low mud building, extends the entire north side of the Plaza and is occupied by the officers of the territorial government and is also made use for the purposes of legislation.”

During the last half of the nineteenth century, after New Mexico became a territory of the United States, the appearance and use of the Palace continued to evolve. It soon included a post office and the U.S. Depository, private law offices, and a library, in addition to containing legislative offices and chambers for the territorial government. Other rooms in the building were used by the Historical Society of New Mexico and at one point housed Governor Bradford Prince’s rock collection, some examples of which were said to have been artfully arranged around walkways in the patio.

With the exception of those years when the Palace was a pueblo during the Revolt, the greatest changes to take place in both the building and its uses undoubtedly occurred during the twentieth century after legislation was passed which turned the Palace into the Museum of New Mexico in 1909. Edgar Lee Hewett became the first director of the new museum and, aided by his right- and left-hand men Jesse Nusbaum and Kenneth Chapman, went to work “restoring the Palace to its former appearance as a monument to Spanish civilization in New Mexico.”

Exactly who devised plans to design the new portal is unknown, but it’s entirely possible that Hewett and Nusbaum worked hand-in-glove with Sylvanus Morley and other originators of the new Santa Fe Style. There is no question that all changes that took place were dictated by how the Palace “should look,” as opposed to changes based on historic research or ideas of preservation. At the same time, former storerooms along the north side of the Palace patio were renovated to provide studio and office space for staff and visiting scholars.

Wagons loaded with wood in front of Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico, ca. 1912. Photograph by Jesse Nusbaum. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 61543.

Beginning with Nusbaum’s restoration of the building between 1909 and 1913, rooms used as the governor’s quarters by Lew Wallace, Bradford Prince and others were turned into exhibit spaces, with murals of the Pajarito Plateau and other picturesque areas painted over the walls. In Room 5, the large room at the west end of the building, the site of the former depository was used as a meeting hall and exhibit space. When a large portion of the north wall in Room 5 collapsed in the 1950s as the result of a leaky canale that allowed water to melt the adobe bricks, the wall was rebuilt with a huge picture window installed where no such windows had existed before. In other rooms, large spaces were carved into interior walls for shelves and other exhibit cases.

Workers looking down during excavation and restoration of old well, patio, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1956. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 006825.

By 1974, the Palace was in dire need of renovation once again. Wood floors that had been laid more than fifty years before required replacement, as did the electrical wiring and heating system. Upon completion of a historic structures survey of the standing building by John Conron of Conron and Woods Architects, as well as archaeological investigations in the west end of the building and subsequently in the main entry, the Palace was restored as the flagship of the Museum with period rooms and changing exhibitions.

With the completion of the New Mexico History Museum, the Palace was no longer the museum. Instead, it became part of a larger campus where visitors could learn about and interact with New Mexico history through exhibits, docent tours, education staff activities, and their own explorations. As the future plans for the Palace take shape, its roles as landmark and storied place will continue to change. This will start with the April 19, 2020 opening of Palace Seen and Unseen, where visitors will learn of the evolution of Palace buildings and grounds through its architecture, history, and archaeology.

Stephen S. Post is an archaeologist and research associate and former deputy director for the Office of Archaeological Studies, Department of Cultural Affairs. He first experienced the intrigues of Palace archaeology in 1978.

Cordelia T. Snow has worn many hats since she started her career as a historic sites archaeologist at the Laboratory of Anthropology in 1970, and currently works for the Archaeological Records Management Section of the Historic Preservation Division.

Post and Snow are co-curators, along with Alicia Romero, of Palace Seen and Unseen, scheduled to open on April 19 at the Palace of the Governors.