At the annual Santa Fe Fiesta Lecture, archaeologist Cordelia “Dedie” Thomas Snow discusses a topic that’s dear to her: the Palace of the Governors. But because the old structure is also dear to everyone else in Santa Fe, she’s a little worried that some of her revelations will jostle some cherished notions. “I may get run out of town,” she told Pasatiempo. Especially jarring to some is her evidence that the Old Palace was once a two-story building, not the long, low Santa Fe-style profile it seems to typify.
First, some history. Construction of the building — which was first known as the Casa Real (Government House) — is believed to have coincided with the founding of Santa Fe in 1610, or possibly occurred a year or two earlier. For more than two centuries, it was occupied by a succession of 59 Spanish governors and their families, along with administrative offices. While the Mexican flag flew on the Palace from that nation’s 1821 independence until the U.S. conquest in 1846, 14 more governors resided there.
The government moved into a new Capitol building, designed by E.S. Jenison of Chicago, in 1886, but when it burned down six years later, Gov. L. Bradford Prince was obliged to move back to the Old Palace. In the first decade of the 20th century, the current governor and his family moved into a new Capitol designed by Isaac Rapp. In a 1953 remodel, its stately portico and dome were removed; that structure became the Bataan Memorial Building when the new Capitol, nicknamed the Roundhouse, was completed in 1966. (Architect Willard Kruger had the design reins on both the remodel and the round Capitol.)
The first Palace of the Governors was substantially changed between the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and the 1692 reconquest; it reportedly had four levels and at least two kivas in the courtyard during the occupation by Tano Indians. After 1696 the Indian pueblo was taken down and the Casa Real rebuilt, according to a National Historic Landmark nomination written by Santa Fe architectural historian Corinne P. Sze.
Before and after the revolt, a common complaint discovered in early descriptions of the Palace was that it was “in need of repair.” Sze reports that in 1716 it was “near collapse” and that when the U.S. Army of the West occupied Santa Fe in 1846, much of it was in a “state of decay.” It is something of a miracle that the adobe Palace lasted to become the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States.
Next May, workers will reveal wall surfaces not seen for some time. Jon Hunner, interim Palace/New Mexico History Museum director, said cement stucco will be removed from the exterior walls all around the Palace courtyard and in some areas on the outside of the building. Cement was long used as stucco for its permanence — Hunner said this cement surface may date back to Jesse Nusbaum’s 1910-to-1913 restoration work — but it is now known to be inferior because it traps moisture that tends to degrade the adobe bricks underneath. The old adobe walls will be finished with lime plaster.
The Palace also has a long history of remodels. One of the most drastic was the 1866 subtraction of more than 100 feet on the west end to make way for Lincoln Avenue. The most recent was Nusbaum’s project undertaken by the Museum of New Mexico. Tierra Dulce: Reminiscences From the Jesse Nusbaum Papers (1980) has a passage about the removal of “2,100 wagonloads of trash and manure left over from the long stabling of livestock at the building’s rear,” as well as information on repairs to interior walls, ceiling beams, and fireplaces.
Nusbaum also removed a classical cornice and balustrade that was added in 1878 and gave the building an airy aspect. A story in the first issue of the magazine El Palacio in November 1913 proclaimed, “The ancient portal facing the Plaza has been restored to its original rugged beauty,” complete with “immense wooden pillars from the Pecos Mountains.”
To prepare for the New Mexico History Museum’s annual lecture on Wednesday, Sept. 3, Snow worked with the state’s Office of Archaeological Studies’ Scott Jaquith to recall — both in word and image — descriptions found in historical documents. “I’m trying to not just re-create the Palace but life in Santa Fe as well,” she said. “For example, we have names of some of the town criers who would march around the Plaza spreading news.”
Snow’s relationship with Santa Fe began in 1964, when she and anthropologist Florence Hawley Ellis participated in an archaeological field school and she and her future husband, archaeologist David Snow, worked with curator E. Boyd at a 17th-century colonial site on the Santa Fe River west of the village of Agua Fría. Following their marriage, the Snows moved to Santa Fe in 1969.
Snow has been with the Archaeological Records Management Section of the State Historic Preservation Division since 1996. In January 1974, she began excavating beneath the floors at the west end of the Palace. “I was in Room 7, which was the old Ben Hur Room [the room in which Gov. Lew Wallace completed his novel of that name]. We cleared out Jesse Nusbaum’s detritus and one of our crew members actually fell into a storage pit dating to the Pueblo Revolt. I’ve used the analogy ever since of Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole. I had no idea that we would ever uncover anything like storage pits, and we eventually also found adobe-brick floors. We had seen adobe-brick floors at Pecos, but I never expected to see them in Santa Fe. These are adobe bricks laid in patterns.
“Adobe-brick floors represent not only a huge investment in time and labor (especially on the part of Indian laborers who made and laid the bricks), but more importantly, adobe-brick floors are a symbol of continuity with the way of life the Spanish had left behind in Mexico and Spain. They were tangible reminders that while simple unfired adobe bricks, the floors resembled those of home.”
Also perhaps dating to prerevolt times are the foundations Snow discovered, both for one-story and two-story construction. “That blew me away, because who ever dreamed we had a two-story Palace of the Governors?” The excavations, which also took place in Room 5, the west hallway, and the Prince dining room (Puyé Room), lasted almost two years. “As a result of that work and the research I’ve done ever since, I started noticing inconsistencies with what we’d been taught. I had two-story foundations!”
She explained that the foundation for a single-story Spanish room from the period was generally made of cobbles (river stones) and was about 50 centimeters wide. What she found at the Palace was more than twice that wide, as required to support the thicker ground-floor wall in a two-story building. Snow points to other references to a second story, including a document describing how Isidro Sanchez robbed the Palace in 1720. “He had been walking through the Plaza and noticed that a window on a balcony on the second story was open. He went to the guard house, begged a candle stub, climbed to the balcony via a ground-floor window and got into the room, walked down some stairs to a storeroom and collected some goods. The next night, deceived by the Devil, he went back to the storeroom but this time he was caught.” There is also a 1716 document, translated by Ralph Emerson Twitchell, that mentions a second-floor chapel.
Today’s visitors to the Palace of the Governors can get a glimpse of the building’s earliest foundations via floor hatches featured in the ongoing exhibit Santa Fe Found: Fragments of Time. But Snow acknowledges that the information uncovered about the founding of Santa Fe is wanting. “I think there are still records in the archives in Mexico and Spain. For example, when [Gov. Pedro de] Peralta laid out Santa Fe, he assigned house and garden plots to the settlers by lottery. You have to have a plan to keep track of that. Where is it? And Antonio de Otermín [the governor in 1680] talks about a map. Where is that map?
“José Antonio Esquibel went through Inquisition records looking for references to the Palace and came up with an amazing assortment of things. In 1661 the Palace of the Governors had at least 16 rooms, and there was a colonnaded arcade around the interior patio that had been built by Juan Chamiso. It all paints a different kind of picture. It goes back to the fact that, beginning with Oñate and continuing with Peralta and the founding of Santa Fe, the Spanish who came to New Mexico brought their culture with them, and they were familiar with two-story architecture. They would re-create, to the extent that they could, that with which they were familiar.” ◀
▼ Annual Santa Fe Fiesta Lecture: Cordelia Thomas Snow, “A Palace in Need of Repair: 1660-1720”
▼ 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3
▼ New Mexico History Museum auditorium, 113 Lincoln Ave.
▼ $5 at the door; 505-476-5200