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The Red, the White and the Green: A Colonial Palace in Aguascalientes

One of the most distinctive features of Mexican architecture is the brilliant use of contrasting surface colors and textures - a trait traceable back to pre-hispanic structures that was further developed early in colonial times and has continued to the present day.

One especially striking technique employed by colonial architects and designers to achieve such effects, in metropolitan and provincial buildings alike, was the juxtaposing of native black or red basalt, known as tezontle, with smooth, light-colored limestone, called chiluca or simply cantera. The rough volcanic tezontle was generally used for plain wall surfaces, while the finer textured limestones, more amenable to the stonecarver's chisel, were reserved for sculpted doorways, windows and other architectural decoration which contrasted with the darker background.

A beautifully realized example of this technique can be admired in the Palacio del Gobierno, a late 17th century building facing the main plaza, La Plaza Patria, of the city of Aguascalientes in north central Mexico. Founded in the 1660s as a bishop's mansion, the building was acquired and elaborated by a prominent local family, Los Rincón Gallardo, whose coat-of-arms is emblazoned over the upper windows facing the plaza. Later used as an inn, in 1856 the palace was converted into the town hall and now serves as the State office building.

Whether by design or no, the exterior and especially the interior hues of the Palacio echo the colors of the Mexican flag. Limestone entries, windows, cornices, cartouches and balconies, cut from off-white cantera rosada and ornately framed in an elaborate, late baroque style, stand out dramatically against the dark red tezontle walls - an effect enhanced by the sharp sunlight and shadow of highland Mexico.

The refurbished interior is, if anything, more theatrical. A baroque central stairway (below right) links two courtyards, arrayed with multiple arcaded walkways on two levels. Over 100 sinuously carved and scrolled arches, supported on ornate composite columns (below left) and outlined in dazzling white against a background of alternating burgundy and mottled gray-green stone, have created a petrified forest of light and shade. Beneath its canopy, colorful satirical murals by the late Chilean artist Oswaldo Barra, a student of Diego Rivera, feature local personalities who cavort along the walls like exotic denizens of the urban jungle.


three of the Oswaldo Barra murals*

  • text & pictures ©2004 Richard D. Perry, except where noted.
  • * pictures of the Oswaldo Barra murals by Tony Burton, by kind permission.
  • for more on selected Mexican colonial palaces and civic buildings in west Mexico, see our guidebook Blue Lakes & Silver Cities
  • visit our most recent page on the Santuario de Guadalupe in Aguascalientes.
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