The Palacio de la Magdalena has had a very intense history, which reflects Spain’s social and political situation. Eight decades of eventful existence, from a Royal Residence to a municipal property and the site of the International University, meant that its refurbishment, which concluded in 1995, was essential.
Today, the Palace is a space that offers different alternatives for holding congresses and meetings, in addition to conserving a museum-like area that recreates the charm of the former Royal Residence.
The Palacio de la Magdalena is the most emblematic building of the city of Santander and one of the most outstanding examples of civil architecture in northern Spain. It is located, presiding over the majestic scenery, on the highest point of the Peninsula that shares its name. Its construction, between 1908 and 1912, following the plans by Gonzalo Bringas and Javier González de Riancho, was the result of the municipal initiative: the City Council wanted to gift King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia a summer residence that would consolidate the summer tradition that was already deep-rooted in the city and its province. The monarchs and their children enjoyed summers in Santander between 1913 and 1930. It seems that it was the Queen, called Ena by her immediate family, who particularly enjoyed the landscape and architecture that was very similar to her English roots: writers and poets evoked her nostalgia for the Isle of Wight, in fact, associating this nostalgia to her presence in Santander and her subsequent exile.
From the beginning of the 2nd Republic, the Palace had several uses that deteriorated its conditions, both inside and out: it was the home of the International Summer University, a hospital, a temporary residence for those affected by the fire in 1941… From this year it was owned, along with the Peninsula, by Don Juan, the son of Alfonso XIII, and Count of Barcelona. In 1977, the City Council purchased this patrimony from its owner, which since then has been accessible to all citizens. In 1995, a brilliant complete refurbishment of the main buildings of La Magdalena was concluded. Today, the Palace houses congresses and meetings; during the summer the City Council releases it to the International Menendez Pelayo University as the centre for its activities. Amongst its attractions, the Palace has an interesting museum-like area that can be visited and that offers a significant part of the royal heritage and their relationship with the city of Santander.
The Palacio de la Magdalena has had a very intense history, which reflects Spain’s social and political situation. Eight decades of eventful existence, from a Royal Residence to a municipal property and the home of the International University, meant that its refurbishment, which was concluded in 1995, was essential. Today, the Palace is a space that offers different alternatives for holding congresses and meetings, in addition to conserving a museum-like area that recreates the charm of the former Royal Residence.
At the end of 1907, eight finalist architectonic projects were presented to tender. The King and Queen perused them in San Sebastian on the 17th of September, 1908. They were signed by Eladio Laredo (three projects), Valentín Ramón Lavín Casalís, Casimiro Pérez de la Riva, Emilio de la Torriente and, jointly, Gonzalo Bringas Vega (1880-1943) and Javier González de Riancho (1881-1953). Another of the projects was by Ralph Selden Wornum (1881-1953), dated the 25th of July of this year under the title of “Résidence Royale à Santander”. Wornum, a disciple of William Burges, had been the author of several works in Biarritz, San Juan de Luz and Gibraltar, before signing two projects closely linked to the Royal Family: the Royal Miramar Country House, in San Sebastian, for the Queen Regent María Cristina (1893), and the Los Hornillos Country House in Las Fraguas (Cantabria) for the Duke of Santo Mauro (1904).
The project by Bringas and Riancho, two young highlanders who had just graduated from the Madrid School of Architecture, was more exuberant than Wornum’s. In fact, from the very beginning they called it a “Royal Palace”, which fitted in perfectly with the pretensions of the promoters from the City Council, who were generously going to donate the entire Magdalena Peninsula to the monarchs. In ‘La Voz de Cantabria’ newspaper on the 23rd of September, 1908 it described the winning project as follows: “The style of the palace is English, highlighted and decorated with projections, balconies, rooftop terraces and other modifications of the purest style that are not possible in England, but that are perfectly adaptable to our land.”
In 1904, the City Council had recovered the land of the Magdalena Peninsula from the State (when Antonio Maura was the president of the Government), in usufruct. The administrative work for the acquisition of the land and its transfer to the King were carried out with maximum discretion. On the 23rd of April, 1908, the King accepted the offer made to him by the City Council by the Mayor, Luis Martínez. A committee was appointed to manage the public subscription that would uphold the project financially, the initial amount of which reached half a million pesetas. On the 7th of August, 1908, the King visited the site where the Palace was to be built: he himself had decided that it would be located on the highest part of the Peninsula. The following month, the project by Bringas and Riancho was chosen. At the end of 1908, the Queen, advised by Wornum, introduced some modifications to the initial project that mainly affected the layout of some of the rooms (the King and Queen’s apartments, for example, moved from the ground floor to the main floor) and that the chapel was to be constructed in a building that was separate from the residence; this building was projected by Bringas and Riancho in 1909, but finally was never built.
In January, 1909 the construction of the building was put out to tender, and the contractor Daniel Sierra won the contract. In March the work began, with a budget of 700,000 pesetas. The funding for the work was to be obtained by public subscription: the returned immigrant, Ramon Pelayo de la Torriente, future Marquis of Valdecilla and one of the largest fortunes of the time, had to pay for a considerable part of the expenses.
The levelling of the land occupied a surface area of 100 x55 m. The description of the project was summarised with these words: “Stone masonry from Cueto and with a slate covering. Rectangular floor plan (91 m. long and 21 wide). A projecting body to the north, with a side measuring 20 m.” The work showed four levels: basement, ground floor, main floor, attic and garret. The extensive foundations eliminated the characteristic contact between the inner and outer spaces usual in a Victorian “garden-house”. In the summer of 1911, the outside of the Palace was finished.
Regarding the furnishings, the King and Queen knew the detailed plan of the interior on the 24th of November, 1910, when Bringas and Riancho presented it to them at the country house of the Duke of Santo Mauro in Las Fraguas (Cantabria). The monarchs offered to send Spanish-style furniture form the Palacio del Pardo, along with English-style furnishings made by the company Mapey of Bilbao, at their own expense. The Duke of Santo Mauro directed the design and decoration work, bringing together different specialists following the “Album of interior designs” by W. Freeborn. Although she did not visit La Magdalena until September, 1912, the Queen followed the evolution of the work very closely, making precise indications particularly referring to the furniture which, according to her daughter, Infanta Doña Cristina, was laid out completely according to her taste.
On the 6th of May, 1912, the Minister of War conclusively handed over the land and buildings of La Magdalena to the City Council of Santander. On the 4th of September, 1912 the Queen entered the Palace for the first time; on the 7th, the solemn handing over of the key to the Palace to Alfonso XIII was carried out. The shield of Santander and the initials of the Royal couple: “AB” and “VB” were engraved on the key. On the 4th of August, 1913 the monarchs and their children started their summer stays in Santander, with continued without interruption, until 1930.
La Magdalena was the summer residence of Alfonso XIII in a crucial period for Spanish contemporary history, between the years 1913 and 1930.
The Palace was refurnished every summer, meaning that most of the furniture was not stable. Many pieces were brought in the spring and their positioning was frequently changed. In spite of its stately style, the Palace made it much easier for the members of the Royal Family to meet up, much more so than in the palaces where they resided the rest of the year. They led lives that were much more in common, even when taking into account the public and private commitments of the King.
With the arrival of the 2nd Republic, the new government seized the assets of the Royal Family, including the Palace and the Peninsula. This occurred with great controversy, given that these assets were private property that the King had received as a donation by the city of Santander. In the Autumn of 1934, Queen Victoria Eugenia requested of the Republican Government, through the British Embassy in Madrid, for some of the furniture from the Palace to be sent to her new residence in London.
On the 23rd of August, 1932, Fernando de los Ríos, the Minister of Public Instruction and Fine Arts, signed the founding decree of the International Summer University in Santander. On the 30th of January, 1933, the Palacio de la Magdalena was officially handed over to the Board of Trustees of the brand-new university, which had Ramón Menéndez Pidal (1933) and Blas Cabrera (1934-1936) as its deans.
The International University, refounded in 1946 as the “Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo”, was able to use some of the installations on the Peninsula, such as the Caballerizas or Stables (or “Beach Residence”) and the Assembly Hall, areas shared from 1953 onwards by Las Llamas, in the northern area of Santander. From 1951, these sites hosted poetry recitals, musical performances, courses and art exhibitions. On the 2nd of August, 1953, the university dining room of the Spanish University Trade Union was installed in the basement of the Caballerizas. On the 1st of August, 1954 the new Assembly Hall was inaugurated and a few days later, on the 21st of August, an agreement was signed by which the UIMP could use parts of the Palace, the partial restoration of which had been finished this same year.
In 1977, the City Council of Santander reached an agreement with Don Juan de Borbón, the Count of Barcelona, to recover the Peninsula for the city. In 1982 the Palace was declared a National Artistic Historic Monument. Over these years, however, the deterioration both of the Palace and of the Stables and the Assembly Hall was such that the City Council took on the complete refurbishment of these spaces in the first half of the nineteen nineties. The improvement and modernisation work finished with its opening by the King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia on the 14th of June, 1995.
When the King and Queen officially declared the conclusion of the refurbishment work on the Palace on the 14th of June, 1995, directed by Luis de la Fuente Salvador, the change that had taken place in the installations was truly admirable, although the project attempted to defer as far as possible to the original that had been planned by Bringas and Riancho.
The refurbishment in the nineteen nineties sought and obtained three essential goals: to recover the luminosity, to organise the uses spread out through the building and to connect it to its surroundings. In the premises that today coincide with the museum-like area the criteria followed was eminently restorative, aimed at recreating the historic era of the royal summers. In other places, refurbishing criteria were given priority, and along with this, some spaces were modified in terms of the new needs. Amongst the main actions, a basement was built and anew central staircase.
The Palace is currently an unusual Conference and Meeting Centre. Meetings of all types are organised there, including civil weddings. By agreement with the City Council, the UIMP uses the Palace from June to September. All the rooms that are used for conferences or congresses (Royal Hall, Gala Dining Room, Riancho Room, Bringas Room, Audience Room Infantes Classroom, Library and Duke Santo Mauro Room) have voice and data circuits. Additionally, in most rooms there are closed circuit television, simultaneous interpretation booths and air conditioning. Amongst
Other unique events, the Palace has been the setting of meetings of the Ministers of Work and Foreign Affairs of the European Union during the Spanish presidency (1995), the Spanish-British Talks (1996), The Spanish-French Summit (1999), the Summit of Ministers of Tourism of the European Union (2002) and a meeting of the Spanish National Research Council presided over by H.R.H. Don Felipe de Borbón (2002). The Palace receives tourist visits around its museum-like area, by appointment.