Few cities are more inextricably tied to a central physical space than Santa Fe is to the Plaza. Santa Fe Plaza provided a definition and boundary between the state of ‘civilization’ for the Spanish and the ‘frontier’ without. In creating the Plaza and binding it with the central institutions of Spanish culture (the Church, the Palace of the Governors and the court), the colonists defined the space as the re-creation of their central identity. The Plaza symbolized the colony and in return, the colony became defined by the Plaza.
The settlement of the Plaza was among the earliest acts of Don Pedro de Peralta’s establishment of Santa Fe in 1610. This consisted of a presidio (Fort) with a large surrounding wall. All the elements of Spanish civilization were present within the square, including: the prison, barracks, a chapel, the Palace of the Governors, and private residences. In a very real sense ‘civilization,’ as defined by the Spanish, thrived within a clearly delineated boundary.
The Plaza served as the grand end-point of the Camino Real during the peak of New Mexico’s colonization, which is significant because Camino Real marked the great North/South trade route that connected Mexico with the New Mexican colonies. Linking the interior of North America with the markets of New Spain and Spain proper ensured Santa Fe’s importance in continental trade. From its establishment in the 17th century until the development of the Santa Fe Trail, the Camino Real was the primary artery of trade.
As New Mexico was settled and Santa Fe prospered, the Plaza became the terminus of the famed Santa Fe Trail. Blazed in 1821, the trail was a difficult journey through unforgiving landscapes and hostile native tribes, and stretched all the way from St. Louis to Santa Fe. As New Mexico became part of the United States, the trail was crucial in the opening of The West and the settlement of the territory. The terminus is still found today in the Plaza, and a prominent stone marks the official end of what was once a vital mercantile artery. Elements of this mercantile still exist today. One of which is the historic ‘Burro Alley,’ and another, the former horse corrals on Camino Corrales. These streets were areas of unloading and stabling of livestock – important elements of overland trade.
Over time, the Plaza became a place of pulsing activity, further reinforcing its significance to the place and time. Historical elements, like the original Palacio (Palace of the Governors), remain and testify to the boundaries of the space. New structures, representing emerging architectural schools, sprung up around the space. Among the landmarks in the Plaza were the Civil War monuments erected following the war. One of the most notable was a controversial obelisk dedicated “To the heroes who have fallen in the various battles with Savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico.” Controversy over the wording erupted in 1973 when the Santa Fe city council, responding to requests from the Governor and activists in the American Indian Movement, voted to have the monument removed. Resistance to the removal came from numerous sources, but it was the Federal Government’s threats to remove funding for the space (coinciding with the upcoming bicentennial) that settled the issue once and for all. The monument, with its inflammatory language, remained. The monument to Kearny (the ‘conqueror’ of the New Mexico territory) and the Indian Wars represents the ways in which the Plaza continues to define the identity of the New Mexican and the ‘dialogue’ between place and people. The word ‘Savage’ on the monument was scratched out following the resolution of its non-removal, and the unofficial vandalism exists as an informal compromise between the voices of the past and the needs and rights of the modern community.
The Plaza continues to be a vital part of Santa Fe today. Native artisans display their wares along the old Palace of the Governors, an unbroken continuum of commerce and artistry stretching back five centuries. Young children run and play while older teens begin their courtship rituals or practice skateboarding or hacky sack. World-class galleries compete for space with the Five and Dime and the Tamale cart alike. Visiting the Plaza today emphasizes the continuance of Santa Fe, including the contradictions inherent in this dynamic city identity, and provides an opportunity to ‘live as a local’. Annual events like the Fiestas de Santa Fe, the Indian market, and the Santa Fe Bandstand continue to draw locals and tourists alike – and no visit to Santa Fe is complete without a trip to the Plaza.
Structures like the New Mexico History Museum, the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts, and the Georgia O’Keefe Museum emphasize the arts and history that have always been a crucial part of Santa Fe’s identity. These artistic institutions form a link with the galleries of Canyon Road and Museum Hill, a pulsing vein of artistry that runs through this high desert land. The Palace of the Governors remains in situ, and has been called the longest continuously used seat of government in the United States. Over its long history, multiple flags have flown over, those of New Spain, Mexico, the Confederacy and the United States, but the one thing that has remained the same in both symbolism and historical significance, is the Plaza.
We at the Inn on the Alameda look forward to seeing you in Santa Fe soon, and please remember that when you stay at the Inn, that Enchanting Small Hotel in Old Santa Fe, you are only a five minute stroll away from the Plaza!
–Joe and Michael Schepps