Workers are getting ready to apply new stucco, repair roofs, improve heating and cooling, change the landscaping and more at the Palace of the Governors, a 400-year-old National Treasure in the heart of historic Santa Fe. Begun in 1609–1610 as the seat of Spain’s North American colony, the Pueblo Revival building became the flagship of the state’s museum system in 1909. In recent years, it has drawn preservationists’ fears, most critically because of its 1970s cement stucco on the interior courtyard’s wall.
Now, thanks to a $400,000 infusion from the Department of Cultural Affairs and another $680,000 from the state Legislature’s recent session, that water-trapping stucco will be stripped off and replaced with a breathable lime plaster. Stucco around the rest of the building will be patched up, workers will install new roofs above the Palace gift shop and Meem Community Room, and the Palace’s capricious heating-and-cooling system will be tied into the New Mexico History Museum’s more reliable one.
Other repairs include replacing approximately 18 viga ends along the Palace Portal, fixing whatever damage is revealed when existing stucco is peeled off, and smoothing the rumpled brick sidewalks on the sides of the building to make them wheelchair-friendly. The $680,000 allocation will help pay for even more work at the New Mexico History Museum, including replacing doors that have settled poorly and, in some cases, contributed to a problem with rain leaks.
“We’re grateful to Governor Susana Martínez, state legislators, and Cultural Affairs Secretary Veronica Gonzales for seeing the importance of caring for the Palace. We pledge to be wise stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” said Andrew Wulf, director of the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors. “This building stands as a testament to the deep roots of Native, Spanish, Mexican and American life in the United States. We want it to show off its best attributes for years to come and ensure that guests from around the world are safe and comfortable.”
Conron & Woods Architects will oversee the project, which is being put out for a contractor’s bid this month. If all goes well, construction could begin as soon as Sept. 21, with a hoped-for completion by Dec. 11 and 13, when the annual Christmas at the Palace and Las Posadas events fill the courtyard. Architect Roy Woods said the scope of the work represents the biggest facelift the Palace has had since the mid-1980s.
“It is absolutely critical,” he said. “What’s happening is areas are so deteriorated that we’re getting moisture in the adobes any time it rains or snows. When that happens, the adobe deteriorates. We’ve done some probing here and there and, in some areas, we could stick the probe all the way through the adobes. We’ll strip it off in small sections and hopefully can repair any deterioration as we go.”
As part of the construction process, the museum may face a difficult decision on two courtyard trees. A massive Siberian elm believed to be at least 80 years old and a smaller cottonwood suffered lightning strikes in 2013 and, since then, dead or diseased branches have been pruned away. Arborists consulted by the museum say the aging elm is in distress and may be rotting from the inside out. The younger cottonwood tree to its east has set its roots so shallowly that it’s structurally deficient. The museum is seeking an opinion from a consultant for the State Forestry Division to determine whether the trees need to come out.
“Removing a heritage tree is hard,” said Wulf. “But people’s safety is paramount. I’m certain that many people feel a connection to these trees, so we want to get the best possible advice before making a decision.”
This year’s legislative allocation was supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which earlier this year named the Palace a National Treasure. The Trust has committed to continue striving for two more years of funding for critical improvements inside the building. Problems there include deteriorated plaster, aged floors, dilapidated windows and development of a fire-suppression system that won’t imperil adobe. The Museum of New Mexico Foundation has committed to a private fund-raising campaign to pay for new exhibits that will explore the building’s architecture and the historic events it witnessed.
“The Department of Cultural Affairs is entrusted with the Palace of the Governors’ long-term care, and is dedicated to ensuring that this iconic treasure continues to tell an important part of the history of both New Mexico and the United States,” said Cabinet Secretary Veronica Gonzales. “We are doing everything possible to direct internal resources to this effort, but we could not fully carry out our responsibility without the critical support of Governor Martinez, our state legislators, and all stewards of New Mexico’s and the nation’s history who are dedicated to the survival of the Palace.”
The outer walls of the Palace received new stucco in the mid-1980s, and more repairs were required after a 1993 driver struck the eastern end of the portal. Pilar Cannizzaro, preservation planning manager for the state’s Historic Preservation Division, has worked on the building’s care for the last 20 years. “There have been piecemeal improvements in that time, but this is the first time we’ve had the funding for a comprehensive upgrade,” she said. “Being named a National Treasure finally brought it the attention it deserved. The Historic Preservation Division fully supports all the work being proposed, knowing it will help prolong the life of the Palace for generations to come.”
Woods has likewise worked on the Palace for years and said it has grown in personal and professional meaning to him. “It is the most significant project in my career,” he said. “It’s an absolute honor to be able to work on it. I love the history, and in a very small way, helping preserve that. Plus, I love just hanging out there.”
Some improvements are already taking form. A private donor’s generosity paid for the replacement of a rotting pillar and corbel on the courtyard side of the Palace gift shop. New Spanish flags have been ordered for the front of the building, along with signage to more prominently proclaim it as the Palace. And museum staff have cleared out a storage room adjacent to the gift shop. This fall, portions of the Palace’s Segesser Hides will move into that area so that museum conservators can conduct high-tech research on them.
“One of the reasons I took this job is because of the Palace,” said Wulf. “Its significance in the nation called to me, as did the opportunity to play a role in its preservation. I invite all New Mexicans to join us in celebrating the next phase of its long life.”