A Closer Look at a Havana Architectural Gem

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By Redacción
October 18, 2013 - 9:56am

The Cuban national capitol’s restoration is an effort of colossal dimensions, requiring work in a diverse set of arts and trades, in bronze, plaster, gold, carpentry… and the work on the building’s cupola is very complicated, Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal explained to Prensa Latina.

Actually initiated at the end of last year, the restoration is the most comprehensive ever of the edifice which was inaugurated in 1929, according to Mariela Mulet, lead project manager.

Fortunately the Capitolio, located in Central Havana, is not structurally damaged, definitely an asset, she reported, but its internal systems are in very poor condition.

Mulet said that, at this time, the mezzanine’s tile floor has been repaired and work is underway on the cupola which, given its proportions and silhouette, recalls St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Leal added that the restoration includes work on outdoor patios, gardens and sculpture, in addition to all the interior accessories within the Salón de los Pasos Perdidos (The Hall of the Lost Steps) - furniture, fittings, curtains, etc.

Being repaired is all of the stone from Capellanía, used in decorative work around the world given its hardness and uniformity, but susceptible to climate damage in Cuba.

Also complete is restoration of the area beneath the grand staircase, approximately 36 meters wide and 28 long, originally designed as storage and now returned to its original purpose.

At the top of the grand stairway’s 55 steps, guarding the main entrance, are two bronze statues on granite bases, currently being restored. They were created by Italian artist Angelo Zanelli, also responsible for the frieze on the famous monument in Rome to Victor Manuel II, the country’s first king.

Both six-meter figures, one female, the other male, were cast in Naples and respectively represent the progress of human activity and the people’s virtue.

Zanelli also sculpted the bronze, gold plated República, which at 17 meters in height, on a black marble base, is the world’s third largest indoor statue, surpassed in size only by the Japanese Nada Buddha and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

In exterior areas, between the Paseo del Prado and Dragones, Industria and San José Streets, the granite paving was 80% damaged and is being completely replaced.

The decorative lamp posts faced a similar fate and according to the project manager, all the exterior illumination will be new.

At the same time, all of the building’s wooden trim and bronze lighting fixtures are being renovated, Mulet reported. Some of these were made in the Saunier Duval Frisquet, in Paris, while others were gold plated and fitted with glass at the Societé Anonime Bague.

She added that work is also underway on the building’s doors, including those of the main entrance with relief work depicting the history of Cuba. Most of the decorative door hardware, knobs and locks are bronze and thanks to the efforts of self-employed artisans, in collaboration with the City Historian’s Office, these are being restored.

Among the most outstanding doors are those on the building’s 11 elevators, five of which are being restored, five are being replaced and one is about to be reinstalled.

Marilyn Mederos, general project manager, indicated that elements which were added over the years are now being removed, to return the building to its original design, but that some new systems, such as those providing security, air conditioning and fire protection are being installed.

She explained that the when the building housed the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA) and the Cuban Academy of Science, which had other purposes and functions, modifications were made.

MORE THAN 80 YEARS OF HISTORY

The land occupied by the Capitolio, the second tallest building in the city with a cupola which was the fifth highest in the world at the time of its construction, was originally a swampy area which had been converted into the city’s first botanical garden.

With the participation of 8,000 workers, the majority Spanish, plus Cubans and those of other nationalities, the construction was completed in record time. Work was initiated in 1926, and completed in 1931 – even though the building was inaugurated in 1929.

After its opening during the Gerardo Machado dictatorship, the Capitolio housed the Senate and House of Representatives; then served as a museum and more recently the CITMA Ministry.

Prior to the triumph of the Revolution, the Capitolio was the site of one of the most mysterious stories of the pseudo-republican era, which gained notoriety around the world at the time – the March, 1946, robbery of a 25-carat diamond, which marked Kilometer Zero of the country’s national highway.

Journalist Ciro Bianchi recounts that despite the tight security afforded the gem, from the second crown of Czar Nicolas II, thieves managed to get away with it in just 30 minutes.

Participating in the fruitless search were 5,000 police, 2,000 secret agents and technicians from the infamous National Identification Bureau, who were unable to locate the diamond or capture the thieves.

Fifteen months later, it reappeared in the private office of President Ramón Grau San Martín.

The gem was replaced with a replica, enclosed within an octagonal star, crafted with Italian marble of various tones, while the original diamond was placed in the Cuban National Bank’s vault.

Leal also recounted another interesting anecdote. Below the cupola, at the foot of the statue República, a niche to honor the Unknown Mambi was created. The area has been rediscovered and the City Historian commented that this find is exemplary of the restoration’s goal, to allow the Capitolio to once again serve the country’s struggle for freedom.

CUBAN NATIONAL ASSEMBLY TO RETURN

Declared a National Heritage Site, the Capitolio is appropriate for its original purpose, though the county’s People’s Power system is not bicameral, Leal commented.

The House of Representatives space is perfect for the National Assembly, he said, and being installed are all of the modern systems used in parliamentary activity today, and in the press room, as well, which was part of the original design.

He recounted that when construction done over the years was removed, the original, spacious press room was revealed, originally designed with telegraph access for reporters who covered legislative sessions.

Leal emphasized that work is underway in the area which will be the main daily work site of the National Assembly, located on the northern wing of the building.

This area has been prioritized so that the Assembly can begin to function here as soon as possible, while renovation of other sections continues, with a view toward completing the project within the shortest period of time possible, Mulet said.

In addition to its governmental role, specific areas of the Capitolio will continue to be open to the public, such as the Salón de los Pasos Perdidos, so named because of its acoustics and the library inspired by that of the Vatican, with walls paneled with rare hardwoods, using a tongue and groove technique.

This is a national project, not just one of the City Historian’s Office, with financing from the state and the participation of various entities, the lead project manager explained.

The Capitolio, one of the city’s architectural treasures and one of the country’s major tourist attractions, is being returned to its original splendor and, as Eusebio Leal said, will serve to restore a national memory.

Source: Prensa Latina

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