New Mexico's Roundhouse Capitol Building -
New Mexico Capitol The Roundhouse

What makes New Mexico unique? Most of us can suggest something. But there is one uniqueness we can all agree on — New Mexico’s state capitol. It’s called The Roundhouse for a reason. Our state capitol is the only one of 50 that’s round and has a flat roof. The other 49 all, more or less, follow the design of the nation’s capitol — a rectangular building with a central dome or tower. There is no good reason why ours is round, except Willard C. Kruger, the architect who designed the building, may have wanted to shape it reminiscent of the Zia symbol that represents New Mexico in so many ways.

Before the Roundhouse

The Zia Pueblo’s sun symbol is a circle, representing the circle of life, with four rays extending from each of the cardinal points — north, east, south, and west. Simple as it is, the Zia symbol is full of meaning. Besides the cardinal points, the other rays represent the four periods of each day — morning, afternoon, evening, and night; the four stages of life — childhood, youth, middle years, and old age; and the four sacred aspects of one’s life — strong body, clear mind, pure spirit, and devotion to the well-being of others. Since the symbol was incorporated into the capitol’s design, we can only hope the legislators who meet there keep these meanings in mind.

inside the Roundhouse

New Mexico became America’s 47th state in 1912, after 14 tries over more than 50 years. By that time, Santa Fe had been the capital since 1610, only three years after the English founded the Jamestown settlement in Virginia and a decade before the first Pilgrims used Plymouth Rock to set foot in North America.

The capitol then was the Palace of the Governors, built by Don Pedro de Peralta, the governor who followed Juan de Oñate and who established the city of Santa Fe in 1610. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government designated Santa Fe as the capital of the Mexican province of Nuevo México, and the Palace continued to serve as the seat of government.

In 1846, when the U.S. declared New Mexico an American territory, the Palace became New Mexico’s first territorial capitol. It had been the capitol for nearly three centuries under Spanish and Mexican rule. Today, the Palace of the Governors is part of the New Mexico History Museum. It is the oldest public building in the county still in use — although Maryland’s capitol, built between 1772 and 1797, is the oldest capitol building still in use.

In 1886, a new capitol building, begun in 1850, was finally completed. However, it was never used as the capitol. That honor went to yet another new building constructed of sandstone quarried in Lamy. This building was destroyed by fire in 1892. In 1900, a building designed by Isaac Rapp was completed. The 1886 building, which had been repurposed as the territorial courthouse, served as the capitol in the interim. This latest new building housed the government until 1950 when a fourth capitol was occupied. The Bataan Memorial Building, following the Territorial Revival style, was used until The Roundhouse was dedicated in 1966.

Inside the Roundhouse

This fifth building was designed to forge a coherent regional identity, distinct from politics, of the various Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo people who have lived here for more than four centuries. The Roundhouse combines elements of New Mexico Territorial style, Pueblo adobe architecture, and neoclassic Greek Revival. It is a four-story building of 232,000 square feet. It has a subterranean story, reminiscent of pueblo kivas (in which both houses of the legislature meet), and a 49-foot-diameter, central interior rotunda that rises 60 feet from the ground floor to the third, above-grade story.

glass ceiling at the Roundhouse made to look like Native American basketry

The rotunda’s floor is New Mexico travertine marble and in its center is the Zia symbol incorporating the state’s great seal. It is composed of a turquoise and brass mosaic. The rotunda skylight represents the sky and earth with its pink and blue stained glass in a basket weave pattern, much like you’d find among the 23 sovereign nations of New Mexico’s Native Americans. The legislative rooms are not accessible to the public, but the ground floor includes galleries where visitors can view the House and Senate chambers.

The upper two stories are legislative offices and the governor’s offices. Another aspect that makes The Roundhouse unique is its Capitol Art Collection — paintings, photography, mixed media, textiles, ceramics, glass works, sculptures, and furniture. The work of more than 600 artists, the majority of whom are New Mexican, is represented in the collection displayed in the Rotunda, and it is currently valued at more than $5.5 million.

For visitors who may be aware only of the political functions of The Roundhouse, they might think they’ve stepped into a museum. Each piece of art is accompanied  by brief descriptions of the artist, the theme, the medium, and the date of its creation. Additionally, there’s the Governor’s Gallery located on the fourth floor. It was founded by Clare Apodaca, who served as New Mexico’s First Lady from 1975 to 1978. Her husband, Jerry, was governor at the time. The Governor’s Gallery is an outreach facility of New Mexico’s Museum of Art and the Department of Cultural Affairs. It presents about six exhibits per year, including the annual Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts.

You can spend an hour — or all day — enjoying the art and gaining a deeper appreciation of the culture of New Mexico. From perhaps mid-April until mid-October, your visit should include time spent in the 6.5-acre Clay Buchanan Memorial Garden outside The Roundhouse. Here you’ll find a hundred varieties of plants, including roses; plum, almond, and nectarine trees; Russian olives; and sequoias — all providing natural beauty to the sculptures in the gardens. Among the collection, you’ll find Douglas Coffin’s Moon Shaman, Glenna Goodacre’s Waterbearers and Children’s Tug o’War, Allan Houser’s When Friends Meet, Estella Loretto’s Earth Mother, Dan Namingha’s Passage, and Michael Naranjo’s Eagle Man. If you think they seem like Native American themes, they are — although you’ll also find the bust of Bronson Cutting, New Mexico’s first U.S. Senator.

The Roundhouse is open year-round Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for self-guided tours. You can also arrange a docent-led guided tour by calling 505-986-4589 during business hours. And there’s free parking in the garage at 420 Galisteo St., just west of The Roundhouse across Don Gaspar Avenue. Until March 18 this year, the legislature will be in session. It is composed of the House of Representatives with 70 members and the Senate with 42 members and convened at noon on the third Tuesday in January. The legislature holds a 60-day session in odd-numbered years (2023) and a 30-day session in even-numbered years at The Roundhouse.

Our government is “Of the people, By the people, and For the people,” and New Mexico’s Roundhouse, with its governmental functions and exceptional art collection open to the public, certainly lives up to that promise, no matter what your politics may be.


Story by Bud Russo | Photography by McCall Sides and courtesy
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.

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