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SPANISH GOVERNOR'S PALACE [COMANDANCIA]

Spanish Governor's Palace
The Spanish Governor's Palace (front entrance), also known as the Comandancia, served as the residence for the captains of the San Antonio de Béxar Presidio and is a popular tourist attraction in San Antonio. Courtesy City of San Antonio's Center City Development and San Antonio Operations Department.

SPANISH GOVERNOR’S PALACE [COMANDANCIA]. The Comandancia has stood on the west side of Plaza de Armas (at 105 Military Plaza) in the center of San Antonio, Texas, since the 1730s. At times the structure has been called the “Casa del Capitan,” indicating it was the residence of the captain of the San Antonio de Béxar Presidio, and in its more recent history, the “Spanish Governor’s Palace.” During the Comandancia’s first 200 years, seven generations of two prominent Tejano families owned the house. Today, it is owned by the city of San Antonio and is the only example of Spanish Colonial residential architecture remaining in Texas.

José de Urrutia, the presidio captain in the early 1730s, most likely began the Comandancia when he built a one-room office with adobe brick on his own property located on the west side of the presidio between San Pedro Creek and Plaza de Armas. The military in New Spain offered commanders like Urrutia substantial financial rewards through the management of the garrison supply post, but elaborate quarters were not part of the compensation.

In 1740 Urrutia’s son, Toribio de Urrutia, took over his father’s military post and soon owned the office as well, and by the end of nine years he had added to the south side of the office three rooms of rubble stone construction, which was an irregular stone aggregate with a lime mortar and finished with white plaster. With a total size greater than 1,800 square feet, the house had only a handful of rivals in the villa for proportion, extravagance, or craftsmanship. Its rooms were connected by doorways with solid walnut lintels and had fourteen-foot ceilings that helped alleviate the summer heat. The hard-packed earthen floor set below the grade of the plaza provided additional cooling. Most importantly, the three-foot-thick walls had sufficient thermal mass to serve as a barrier to moderate interior temperatures in summer and winter. An archetypical Spanish Colonial design component embellished the exterior walls where canales cut through the walls and extended out from the roof to disperse rainwater.

Spanish Governor's Palace Keystone
The keystone, located above the main entrance of the Comandancia (Spanish Governor's Palace), depicts the royal coat-of-arms of the Hapsburg Dynasty and is inscribed with the date 1749. Courtesy City of San Antonio's Center City Development and San Antonio Operations Department.

The most celebrated feature of Urrutia’s Comandancia was an element of artistic adornment. For the keystone above the main entryway, craftsmen carved the inscription, “año 1749 se acabó" (“completed in 1749”) and the royal coat-of-arms of the Hapsburg Dynasty. That detail honored Spain’s King Ferdinand VI, who was a Bourbon but preferred the heraldry of his grandfather, a Hapsburg. The residence served as military headquarters, company store, and, much like the Veramendi or Garza homes on Calle Soledad, the setting for celebrations of high society. When the Marqués de Rubí inspection reached Béxar in August 1767, Joseph Ramón de Urrutia y de las Casas, the expedition’s cartographer, mapped the villa and presidio and included an image of the Comandancia with the inscription “Casa del Capitan.”

When the presidio captaincy changed hands in 1763, the Comandancia stayed in the family. The prosperous grandson of the home’s builder and nephew of Toribio de Urrutia was Luis Antonio Menchaca, a wealthy landowner who owned more livestock than anyone else at Béxar. Over the following thirty years he or his son, José Menchaca, the subsequent presidio commander, expanded the residence by at least 50 percent, and by 1804 Béxar records listed an inventory of six rooms. That included the sala (parlor), the recamara (bedroom), two zaguans, (halls), the cocina (kitchen), and a room that served as the office and company store. Unlike early American kitchens of the United States, the cocina was attached to the northernmost rooms. With the new space, the house took on the classic Spanish design of a horseshoe-shaped ring of single-depth rooms surrounding the interior courtyard. By that time, the house was some fifty-five years old, and it had passed through four generations of ownership in the Urrutia-Menchaca family. But that year, 1804, José Menchaca sold the Comandancia to Juan Ignacio Perez, the new captain of San Antonio de Béxar. Perez served as interim governor of Texas for nine months from July 1816 to March 1817, and a century later that temporary executive post lent the residence the only legitimate credentials for the name “Spanish Governor’s Palace.” In 1819 a downpour sent heavy waters down the San Antonio River, and the plaza in front of the Comandancia flooded with water five feet deep. The flood washed through the structure. During the next century the building was flooded as many as four more times.

Juan Ignacio Perez died in 1823, and his son Ignacio Perez inherited the residence, but he made a different plan in his will. In 1852 the estate divided the property room by room in a practice common in Béxar, so that the house transferred to his widow and his three daughters in separate pieces. Each heir received one or more rooms by way of deed. The Perez widow acquired a parlor on the south end of the house; daughter Maria Josefa acquired a parlor; daughter Trinidad received the hall, the chapel, and kitchen; and Concepcion inherited the salon also on the south end. 

The neighborhood of the Comandancia took on an increasingly commercial role. Hardware stores and exchanges ringed the open space of the plaza, and the town had a schoolhouse there. In 1850 the new city hall and its jail went up within fifty feet of the house. Each day merchants sold agricultural goods on the plaza, and at night the town’s Chili Queens served meals to passersby. The old building housed various businesses, including a saloon, a boarding house, a pawn shop, and a used clothing store. Soon it stood like a decaying eyesore with its days of colonial glory long past.

The division of the property did not stand, and by the end of the century, another generation had title to the Comandancia when the daughter of Maria Josefa Perez Linn, Concepcion Linn Walsh and her husband Frank T. Walsh, acquired full ownership of the house. 

Adina De Zavala at the Comandancia
Adina De Zavala points out the keystone above the front entryway of the Comandancia. In 1915 De Zavala raised awareness about the historic structure and spearheaded the effort to preserve it. Courtesy City of San Antonio's Center City Development and San Antonio Operations Department.

The old royal mark on the doorway attracted the attention of the early Texas preservationist Adina De Zavala to the plight of the Comandancia. With the preservation movement in vogue nationwide, De Zavala wrote a twelve-paragraph article for the San Antonio Express and praised the structure’s link to the city’s Spanish Colonial origins and gave the house a new name—the “Spanish Governor's Palace.” The new name stuck, but it took thirteen years to convince the city council to work up the budgetary will to allocate $55,000 to purchase the property from the Walshes. In May 1928 a bond issue passed for the purchase of the building, and in 1929 when the transaction changed ownership to the city of San Antonio, it was only the second time title had changed hands outside of inheritance. 

With the public advocacy of Adina De Zavala and her organization, the Texas Historical and Landmarks Association, the city began reconstruction of the residence as directed by San Antonio architect Harvey P. Smith. This endeavor was one of the city’s earliest preservation projects. The Spanish Governor’s Palace opened as San Antonio’s first city museum on July 7, 1930. Ironically, daily operation of the museum was given to a new group (and rival to De Zavala’s organization), the San Antonio Conservation Society. The Spanish Governor’s Palace was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and at the time was administered by the Department of Parks and Recreation of San Antonio. By 2016 the landmark, a popular tourist attraction, was managed by the city of San Antonio's Center City Development and Operations Department.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Jesús F. de la Teja, San Antonio de Béxar: A Community on New Spain's Northern Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995). Lewis F. Fisher, River Walk: The Epic Story of San Antonio's River (San Antonio: Maverick Publishing Company, 2007). Kenneth Hafertepe, "The Romantic Rhetoric of the Spanish Governor's Palace, San Antonio, Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 107 (October 2003). Max L. Moorhead, The Presidio: Bastion of the Spanish Borderlands (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975). San Antonio Express, March 21, 1915.

Tim Draves

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Handbook of Texas Online, Tim Draves, "Spanish Governor's Palace [Comandancia]," accessed December 04, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ccs03.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on April 7, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.