Tom Leech

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

March 2, 2018

A Book-Lover's Paradise: The Print Shop and Bindery at the Palace of the Governors

  • By: Lauren Walser
  • Photography: Minesh Bacrania

There’s a simple reason why the 19th- and 20th-century letterpress printing equipment in the Print Shop and Bindery at Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Palace of the Governors, is in such excellent condition: It’s still in use.

“It’s preservation through production,” says Tom Leech (pictured above), the master printer who runs the shop, a living museum dedicated to the state’s printing traditions. “We know things are taken care of because we use them and keep them in good shape.”

The Print Shop and Bindery was established at the palace in 1972, after the family who owned the Estancia News-Herald print shop in Estancia, New Mexico, donated the contents of its printing operations to the site. While there were no formal printing operations at the palace at the time, printing certainly had played a role in the site’s history.

And no surprise—the Palace of the Governors has a long history, dating back to around 1610, when it was first built as Spain’s seat of government. Over time, it stood witness to many chapters of the region’s history—Spanish colonization, Native American resistance, the Mexican-American War, the birth of the state of New Mexico—eventually becoming a museum dedicated to New Mexico history in 1909. It’s said to be the oldest continuously occupied public building in the country, and today the one-story adobe building is a National Treasure of the National Trust. (You can read more about the Palace of the Governors in the Winter 2018 issue of Preservation magazine.)

And in the midst of all that activity, in 1834, New Mexico’s first printing press arrived at the palace by way of the Santa Fe Trail. During the Mexican period in the 1840s, two governmental newspapers—Le Verdad and El Payo del Neuvo Mejico—were issued and likely printed in an office set up at the palace. And Leech notes that the first laws of New Mexico were printed there there, as well.

Palace of the Governors

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

The Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The palace has changed size and shape many times throughout its lifetime, and Leech says those first printing offices were probably located in a part of the building that is no longer standing. But since 1972, the palace has welcomed visitors to its print shop at the north side of its courtyard, in rooms that were used as artist studios in the 1920s and ‘30s.

It’s both a museum and an active printing operation—an unusual set-up, Leech says. And a sensory one, too. Visitors can not only see the historic artifacts on display, but they can hear the clanking of the machines and take in the heavy scent of the ink, as the printmakers use the equipment to keep the book arts alive.

print shop collection

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

The Print Shop and Bindery features an extensive collection of 19th- and 20th-century letterpress printing tools and equipment.

There are objects exhibited like a restored Washington Hand Press, built circa 1860 by the Cincinnati Type Foundry & Printer’s Warehouse, and a type collection featuring more than 200 fonts. Its working bindery includes 19th-century tools that were used to create blank books and limited-edition press books, and the shop holds an extensive collection of printing plates, as well. There are also 19th-century newspapers and “Wanted” posters on display.

There’s a research library on hand, too, featuring more than 400 volumes on graphic arts.

The print shop also hosts various workshops and classes each year, on topics like paper-making, calligraphy, and binding. “Any subject you can think of that’s tied to books, that’s what we do,” Leech says.

print shop posters

photo by: Minesh Bacrania

Visitors to the Print Shop and Bindery can experience what a 19th-century publishing operation was like.

On the operational side, the shop prints limited edition books, collectible books, poetry broadsides, cards, and the like, all printed on the historic equipment. Publishing at the print shop is a slow process, Leech says, and he’s selective about what gets printed. He estimates on average, one book is printed every two years or so, but some books can take a decade to complete.

“We want to make sure we get it as right as we possibly can, so we don’t hurry things,” Leech says. “You can’t un-print a book.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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