Through their architecture, design and adornment, New Mexico’s public buildings offer fascinating insights into the state’s multilayered history. While a typical governor’s mansion might feature majestic elements and elegant furnishings, New Mexico’s is unique in both the residence itself and how it is appointed. But the official home of the state’s chief executive is more than just a fancy dwelling: it is a symbol meant to inspire its actual owners, the state’s taxpayers. It is truly a “people’s house.”
From Santa Fe’s humble origins as a dusty outpost of the Spanish empire to its current status as a trend-setting locus of everything fashionable and chic, the governor’s dwelling has always reflected the state’s history perfectly. The first governor’s residence dates back to 1610 when the city was founded as the capital of the province of New Spain. The name casas reales (“royal houses”) was later changed to Palace of the Governors. After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 led to the departure of the Spanish, the original building known as the Palace of the Governors was under Native American rule for a dozen years. When the Spanish reclaimed the city in 1692–93, the building remained the Spanish governor’s residence until 1821. It then became the home of the governor of newly independent Mexico until 1846, the year the United States annexed New Mexico as an official territory. The adobe, fort-like structure may have conjured up battles of old. In 1880, while living there as territorial governor, Lee Wallace completed his best-selling novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. All told, the Palace of the Governors served as home to various forms of government for nearly three centuries during periods of Spanish, Native American and Mexican rule, and as a US territorial capitol and governor’s residence until the early 1900s.
By then, the Palace of the Governors was no longer considered suitable as a governor’s dwelling. The bustling territory was angling for statehood, so state leaders planned a stately Greek Revival structure that would evoke the architecture of the nation’s capital. This mainstream aesthetic aided New Mexico’s quest to become a state, which occurred in 1912, and the residence was a popular attraction known for its huge dahlia gardens. However, by the late 1940s a disastrous flood from a nearby river had made the home unsafe and unlivable, so plans began anew to erect a dwelling befitting a head of state.
New Mexico’s third official governor’s residence opened in 1955. (While the third mansion was being built, there was a temporary one between the second and third mansions.) New Mexico chose a modern, sprawling, ranch-style structure built atop a thirty-acre spread overlooking the heart of the ancient city. Designed by W.C. Kruger, the home incorporated Native American, Spanish and Anglo architectural elements. Over the years, the building has been enhanced and remodeled to include design elements now associated with “Santa Fe style.” For example, interior designer Gene Law fashioned furniture pieces that incorporated elements of local cultures and had the dining room beams stenciled to replicate those of the palace in Spain where King Phillip signed the papers authorizing the settlement of Santa Fe.
The nonpartisan New Mexico Governor’s Mansion Foundation is a nonprofit founded to preserve and protect the legacy of the historic building. Various first ladies, former Governor Susana Martinez and current Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, along with state museum officials and artists, have worked to make the mansion a stellar attraction. Although docent tours and public functions are on hold during the pandemic, visitors can still see the home’s famous paintings, world-class pottery and sculpture, and historic furnishings. Many of these, along with the mansion’s history and grounds, are presented in the foundation’s new short film, a virtual tour narrated by award-winning author and Santa Fean, Hampton Sides. It is available at newmexicogovernorsmansion.org. The film reveals a core truth: while the mansion’s luxurious appointments and fine furnishings are wonders in their own right, it’s the celebrations that take place there that Santa Feans treasure.
Jaima Chevalier is a Santa Fe author and filmmaker dedicated to telling authentic stories of her home state. Her most recent book on flamenco legend María Benítez, Fringe, won the 2020 NMBook Award for Best Biography. She directed and produced The People’s House.