One of the joys of doing research for novels is finding out tidbits of history about a city in which I grew up. While researching for my novel on 1770s New Spain, I learned that Mexico City had been called “The City of Palaces.” The reason was Carlos III of Spain.
For nearly 200 years, Spain had profited mightily from its gold and silver mines. By the 1600s, however, their fabulous wealth had been spent on European wars that lasted for years. Spain had gone into decline. The arrival of the French Bourbon monarchs on the Spanish throne in 1700, thanks to the intervention of French King Louis XIV, brought a resurgence of efficiency and prosperity to Spain and, by extension, its colonial empire.
The greatest influence came from Carlos III, an unprepossessing monarch, who instituted reforms throughout his empire. José de Gálvez became his eyes and ears in the New World. Using the reports from Gálvez, Carlos III lowered taxes, improved local governments, and opened much of the empire to internal trade.
He also encouraged investments in silver mines and helped improve the silver mining techniques. The old ‘patio process’ where mercury was ground into the silver ore by having natives or mules stamp the mercury into the ore, was improved and made more effective. New mines were discovered or reopened. Miners became incredibly wealthy and the already rich merchants were pleased to have their daughters marry the nouveau arrive miners.
Palaces. Everyone wanted a palace. The wealthy wanted to show off their wealth and what better way to do it than to build a palace or two? With encouragement from the Spanish crown, the wealthy upper classes invested in a building boom that lasted from the 1750s to the 1780s. Mexico City earned the nickname “The City of Palaces.”
Most of the major downtown streets in Mexico City, as well as suburbs like Coyoacan where we lived, and cities like Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Oaxaca have cheek-by-jowl palaces. While I was researching in northern Mexico, I stayed at a hotel with an immense central patio surrounded by two-story arched colonnades. When I checked the date of its construction, sure enough, 1780, a result of that building boom.
The Palace at Chapultepec was built during this period. Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez was accused of wanting it for a fortress so that he could create a New World empire for himself. He didn’t, of course. One widow brought bright blue tiles from Puebla to decorate her palace. She called it the Casa de Azulejos or House of Tiles. Today it is known as Sanborn’s.
The churches also benefited. Churches and cathedrals that had been under construction for years at long last had “contributions” from their parishioners to finish them. The Cathedral in Mexico City as well as those in Monterrey and other cities were completed with ornate gold and silver decorations.
As you walk through the streets of most of Mexico’s big cities today, you will find palaces. Most have been converted into government buildings, banks, museums, or hotels. Expensive though they are to keep up, and even more expensive to modernize with air conditioning and bathroom facilities, they are still a sign of status and wealth. And they are still fascinating.
Thank goodness, Mexico is not prone to tearing down its historic buildings.