A Trip in Time: Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors

As I was researching The Lost Castle Treasure, the second book in my Sir Kaye, the Boy Knight series, I needed to learn all I could about castles; after all, a castle was a main character in the book. During my castle research, including an interview with Bob Lawson, the Curator of the Ferniehirst Castle in Scotland, I was amazed by how many ancient castles are still in use today. Not only are most of the European castles many hundreds of, and some over a thousand, years old, a lot of them have remained occupied for hundreds of years.

I was reminded of my castle research during a recent trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. No, I didn’t come across an ancient castle, not like what you’d find in Europe, but I did discover, to my surprise, something closely related.

I learned that the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Like my medieval castle research, this fact needed further investigation. One would think that since the east coast was the birthplace of the American colonies, such a building would be on that side of the nation. But no, New Mexico’s Palace of the Governors holds that title! A good reminder that colonization came from more than one direction.

How old is the palace? New Mexico was first inhabited by Native Americans of course, but in 1598 that changed when Spanish explorers began colonization. Construction of the palace is traditionally thought to have begun in 1610 under the authorization of Pedro de Peralta, the newly appointed governor of the American Southwest Spanish Territory. I have to mention, however, that current research suggests that construction didn’t actually begin until 1618.

The palace originally served as the seat of government of the Spanish colony of Nuevo Mexico, which included the present-day states of Texas, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, California, and New Mexico.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1850, New Mexico was annexed as a U.S. territory, the palace being absorbed along with the rest of the territory. The palace then became New Mexico’s first territorial capitol, until January 6, 1912, when the territory was admitted to the Union as the State of New Mexico.

In 1909, the New Mexico territorial legislature established the Museum of New Mexico, and the Palace of the Governors served as the site of the state history museum.

In 2009 the New Mexico History Museum was opened adjacent to the palace, which is now one of eight museums overseen by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.

So this would make this continuously occupied building about 400 years old. But enough about the history, let’s take a look inside.

Adobe Construction

Adobe brick

Inside the museum, there are many exhibits and cutaways that show how the building was first constructed. Adobe is basically a mud brick made of earth with a fairly high clay content and mixed with straw or even dung. The earth mix is placed in open, rectangular-shaped molds, cast on the ground, and left to dry out. Adobe bricks are sun-dried, not kiln-dried, and are used in construction by being placed into staggered runs using an earth mortar to hold the bricks together.

Adobe Walls

Since adobe construction was load-bearing, adobe walls were generally massively thick, and seldom rose over 2 stories.

2 photos of windows in the thick adobe walls. Notice how deep set the windows are.

Adobe Roofs

Early adobe roofs in the southwest were generally flat, with low parapet walls, unlike the pitched roofs we are used to today. These roofs were made of logs which supported wooden poles, which in turn supported wooden lathing or layers of twigs covered with packed adobe earth. The wood was usually aspen, mesquite, cedar, or other native hardwoods.

In some parts of the southwest, it was common to place a long wooden timber within the last courses of adobe bricks. This timber provided a horizontal bearing plate for the roof, thereby distributing the weight of the roof along the wall.

Adobe ceiling construction, squared logs
Adobe ceiling construction, rounded logs

As my wife and I strolled through the property, peering into cutaways at bricks that were formed by men and women with their own hands hundreds of years ago, we were transported back to a time when there were no asphalt-paved surfaces, electric lines, cellular telephones, or indoor plumbing. We imagined living in a time where all people were connected intimately with their planet, indeed shaping their very homes from its topsoil, people who were sustained beautifully and abundantly from the earth’s bounty. How quiet it would have been to have lived then: no cars, humming refrigerators, dishwashers, washer or dryers, no blowing fans or air conditioners—just the crackling of the fire that provided warmth and cooked one’s simple food for the day. It reminded me of the importance of living simply, with a small footprint placed gently and respectfully on our planet, being satisfied with simple, lasting, quality things. I was grateful for the reminder that there’s a lot more to learn about American History than just the basic information about the founding fathers.

Link for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_the_Governors

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