By Marc Simmons

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Over the years, New Mexico has had a series of historic buildings that have served, each in turn, as the state capitol in the ancient city of Santa Fe. The story of these interesting structures is not familiar to the average citizen today.

We believe that in 1610, with the formal establishment of Santa Fe, foundations were laid for the Palace of the Governors, as the Spaniards initially called it, La Casa Real (the Royal House, or Government House).

For more than two centuries, that unlovely adobe building with packed-dirt floors housed Spain's royal governor and his family, along with assorted administrative offices. After 1700, it was incorporated into the complex that formed the military prsidio.

Under colonial rule, 59 Spanish governors used the Palace, or capitol building. Another 14 occupied it under the Maxican flag between independence from Spain in 1821 and the U.S. conquest of 1846.

Thereafter, a succession of American territorial governors put up with the old, rustic structure and its leaky adobe roof. One of them urged that the Palace be given up and demolished, but happily that was not done.

Gov. Lew Wallace, abaout 1880, proposed a complete renovation of the building and the adding of a second story. He estimated the cost at $30,000. Congress refused the appropriation, thereby saving the historical integrity of the Palace.

In 1885 New Mexicans passed a bond issue to fund construction of an entirely new capitol, south of the Santa Fe River. Finished the following year, it had three stories and two small domes. A territorial newspaper described it as "a noble structure of yellow sandstone, richly ornamented inside and out."

The pride of citizens from Las Cruces to Taos, the building survived a mere six years. On the evening of May 12, 1892, smoke billowed from the capitol dome, and 5,000 residents rushed to the scene to observe the conflagration.

Among them were government officials who dashed into the building to save what they could. Furniture, rugs, paintings and business records were hauled outside and loaded into Army wagons hastily driven to the scene by soldiers from Fort Marcy. Also rescued were the Spanish and Mexican archives.

The next day Gov. L. Bradford prince wired the secretary of the interior, saying that "the beautiful territorial capitol burned last night." The structure had been uninsured, so he pleaded for a congressional appropriation to replace it.

But once more, money from Washington was not forthcoming. The territorial legislature in 1895, therefore, authorized a bond issue to pay for a new capitol to be placed on the site of the one destroyed.

Construction limped along for another five years, the slow progress probably caused by the use of convict labor. Daily 50 inmates of the penitentiary, then located on Santa Fe's south side, were marched in a body to the work site. Master carpenters and masons supervised them.

Finished in 1900, the building had a central dome that flew the American flag, and at its stately entrance were six Greek columns supporting a triangular pediment.

Dedication day, June 4, featured a spectacular parade that included Gov. Miguel Otero and Archbishop Peter Bourgade riding together in a horse carriage. A Fort Marcy troop filed past the Palace on the Plaza at present arms, "thus bidding it a farewell forever as the seat of official government in New Mexico," said the press.

A capitol makeover, 1950 to 1953, saw removal of the dome and columns and redesign of the exterior in territorial style with brown stucco. Renamed the Bataan Memorial Building in honor of New Mexicans on the Bataan Death March, it was superseded by a new capitol building, which opened in 1966.

After it surrendered its role as the capitol, the famous old Palace briefly had some of its rooms occupied by the U.s. Post Office, the territorial library and the New Mexico Historical Society. In 1909 it became home to the newly formed Museum of New Mexico.

As our tourist brochures like to say, the Palace of the Governors is the oldest public building in continuous use anywhere in the United States. So far, no one has successfully challenged that claim.

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Read Marc Simmons's "Coronado Land: Daily Life in Colonial New Mexico" (University of New Mexico Press).

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