Tom Leech, curator of the Press at the Palace of the Governors, is a busy man. “I’ve worked here for 11 years, and I’ve never had two days that were the same,” he says.
He’s standing in his office, which is flooded with natural light and is part of the original Palace of the Governors. The walls and ceiling date back to the Civil War; in 1867, the space was built for stables that were used by the US Army.
But Leech’s goal isn’t to rest on history’s quiet laurels; instead, he hopes to introduce modern Santa Fe to its printed past.
“People call us the best kept secret in Santa Fe, and I’m out to change that,” he says.
To that end, he’s helped organize a weeklong event to familiarize Santa Feans with a history that links New Mexico to the printing press, Benjamin Franklin and Spain.
Not to be confused with the Museum of New Mexico Press, established in 1972, the Press at the Palace of the Governors publishes rare, limited-edition books and functions as a “living museum,” Leech says. Much of the building is accessible to the public, allowing museum visitors the experience of seeing a vintage printing press in action.
Drawers with dozens of different cases of type are pushed against the walls, and stacks of paper, varying in color, thickness and design, are neatly organized across the surface of the main worktable.
Leech leans against a stool as he describes the printing process.
“You know on your computer, where you go to your menu bar, and you can pick out any font you want? I have a separate case for each one of those things,” Leech explains as he continues the tour. “So, where you can push a button and call this up, I have to pull out a 50-pound drawer of lead and schlep it around.”
Their most modern machine, Leech says, is a Vandercook Press.
“It’s about 65 years old. Our oldest press dates from about 1845.”
The workspace opens up to another room where people can observe different printing presses. Directly behind the exhibit are some of the books that the Palace Press has produced over the years—with price tags as high as $600.
Currently, Leech is preparing to publish a new book: Dr. Franklin and Spain, an account of Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence with Spain during the American Revolution, written by former Palace of the Governors Director Thomas Chávez.
“Most people think of France as being our great ally during the revolution, but it was really Spain that was funneling the money,” Leech says.
A boutique run of no more than 100 copies, the book will be printed on handmade Spanish paper.
Coinciding with Mr. $100 Bill’s 307th birthday, it’s no coincidence that the New Mexico History Museum chose Franklin for a weeklong celebration that kicks off this Saturday.
Events include classes, instruction by Leech and his colleagues on the art of printing, a discussion by Chávez on the forthcoming book and a musical performance by Corrales-based Mayling Garcia, one of 13 people in the world adept in Franklin’s armonica—a glass piano made from crystal quartz and 22-karat gold.
Leech hopes to make it a yearly event.
Although at first, there seems to be no obvious connection between Franklin and New Mexico, Leech reveals that there is a subtle one in the form of a rare “platinum press,” also on display at the working museum.
“The inking disc was invented by a 14-year-old boy back before the Civil War,” Leech says. That boy’s name was George Phineas Gordon.
“All his life, [Gordon] claimed that Benjamin Franklin had come to him in a dream and showed him this mechanism and said, ‘Build this for America,’” Leech says. “Franklin would have given his right arm for a modern press like that.”
That story provides the perfect segue into one of Leech’s goals for the Franklin event: to expose a younger generation to his craft.
Boy Scouts are able to work on merit badges, and students from Carlos Gilbert Elementary and the Institute for American Indian Arts are scheduled to attend.
Asked about his round, brass-hued spectacles, Leech laughs and says they’re not a direct homage to the Founding Father.
“I got a deal on them at Acoma Optical,” he says, then quickly changes his mind. “In a sense, yes—they’re bifocals. I have Franklin to thank for my bifocals; we have Franklin to thank for so many things.”
Preview of Mayling Garcia's armonica skills: