Restored Treasure of Cuba

Havana will celebrate its 500th anniversary showing proudly the renewed Capitol with its north section acting as the venue of the National People’s Power Assembly

By: Varios Artistas


2017-05-09 | 17:21:55 EST
CapitolioCapitolio Photo: Abel Rojas BarallobreZoom

A decapited woman dressed in white roamed the Hall of lost steps. They say that the specter arrived there attracted by the diamond, and that it was the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. However, most believe that the true ghost of the place is Clemente Vázquez Bello, who was president of the Senate and died in an attack. Beyond myths and legends, the Capitol of Havana is full of history.

It was on May 20, 1929, under Gerardo Machado’s government, when the building was inaugurated. Architect Eugenio Raynieri Piedra led the works of this building which is among the most beautiful of the world for some.

Renowned artists took part in its design; it was decorated with luxurious marble and bronze pieces, as well as a diamond with some history. With its origins in the Russian czars, the diamond was placed at the Hall of lost steps to mark the kilometer zero of the Central Highway.  Although it was in an airtight urn, it was stolen on March 25, 1946 and reappeared mysteriously at the table of the President of the Republic on June 2, 1947.

Full of fantasies the Capitol of Havana was a landmark of the city for many years. Those arriving from other regions of the country could not leave without having a photo taken in front of its staircase, undeniable proof of their visit to the city. Charismatic photographers with old-fashioned photo cameras were there to inmortalize the moment.

Some of us had the chance to walk around their halls. But the years were making a dent in the building and its dome was turned off and could no longer illuminate the nights of the Paseo de Martí (for many Havana Prado).

Start of a Journey

"When I was told I was going to be at the helm of the Capitol building, it was a challenge and a surprise. Although I have worked in the Historian Office for 26 years, I had only been at the head of the group for a year, and this is really a work of great magnitude that, due to its patrimonial importance, requires careful work at every detail », engineer Mariela Mulet Hernández said in an exclusive interview for JR, also head of the investment group Prado, the budgeted investment group of the Havana’s Historian Office.

Mariela, graduated at Havana’s José Antonio Echeverría Technical College in 1991, had some experience in restoration works, but the Capitol is something else, it is a turning point in the careers of those who are working on it.

"It is a very complex work, with the highest degree of protection," she said, and explained: "You have to respect every detail, nothing can be changed. Then the difficulties begin, because under the floors, behind the walls, are the systems that give life to the building, but how to reach them? In addition, the need arises to instal new technologies for air conditioning and security, but without being exposed because they would be anachronistic objects, so it is imperative to mask them.

The building had undergone partial restorations, but none of this scale, the engineer stressed. "For example, the main power system had the original wiring and we had to remove it; It was inevitable to restore sanitary and rainy services while maintaining the architectural features and decorative elements, without spoiling anything, because everything is heritage ", she said.

The conversation with Mariela began in one of the interior gardens of the Palace, but the engineer insisted on walking around, "because we are seeing things". Thus began a journey that took more than two hours between scaffolding, paint cans, works restored and protected by cartons or nylon, which she showed with care and pride. "Up to here it is restored, there it is missing, do you see the difference?", she said pointing to the very high ceiling where several young people were working. Thus, little by little, every wonder returns to life.

Halfway through the journey exhaustion set in, but she continued unabated. We talked about the long hours spent at work, and asked if she had seen a ghost there ... She said smiling that the work takes so much effort and dedication that she is dead tired when she comes home. And ghosts ... they see them every day when something does not go well. Of course we can not miss anecdotes about Eusebio Leal, historian of Havana, the good but demanding angel, who does not lose a detail of the work that takes place there.

"We started diagnosing the building and started the projects following all the requirements," he recalls. "We had to look for materials that, for such a restoration, 90 percent are imported, and it is often difficult to get them. Everything was complicated, but we have been overcoming that stage. We started with the decks, interior yards and trying to solve all that could damage the building even more. " Climbing up one of the stairs, he points to the wall and says, "What you see there are bats' marks; They are still here."

When asked which were the most complex problems, she assured that they evaluate the piping systems to reuse them; We had to do magic, "he says smiling," and even get a device with a small camera to see the interior of the facility.

The Capitol has splendid halls, elevators with beautiful doors, staircases with turned railings, and clocks, lamps, furniture, doors and windows with an elegant, majestic seal; sometimes dazzling, others more sober.

"The original carpentry of precious woods and bronze, and the lamps also of brass had missing elements. We used the original Capitol book, and reproduced complete, or necessary parts. We had to go to Mexico to replace them with alabaster shingles. In addition there are 60 types of marbles in the floors; The majority could be restored, but we made contact with the house in Italy from where they were originally brought and we brought what was necessary to replace what was missing. The furniture and the original tableware of the Capitol was also recovered.



With Hands of Artist

Mariela highlighted the important contribution made by the young workers from the workshop school of the Historian Office, by the Puerto Carenas group and by craftsmen, self-employees and other professionals like engineers and architects. “It’s a multidisciplinary team and the work is done with the upmost quality to meet requirements”, she stressed.

This interview took place amid the hustle and bustle of workers in the building and the noise of the instruments. "We had moments with peaks of 500 workers at a time. The usual is about 300. We try to have the workshops inside the premises, "she said.

The Sparkling Dome is Back

One of the places in worst state was the 91.73 meter-high dome. Mariela said "It was necessary to demolish a part. The goal is to finish it this year and that the scintillator illuminates again. It was the first of its time and will return with all its splendor, "she said proudly.

The tour led us to the main entrance. From there you can see the outer gardens, the restored north wing; while works are underway in the south wing. «The floor is of built-in terrazzo. It was very run down and we replaced it with a replica of the original. The electrical installations are 101 iron and bronze lampposts that are already restored and will carry LED lighting, modern and energy-saving, "she said.

"The replica of the diamond - the original is in the National Bank - will return to the Hall of Lost Steps, at the foot of the Statue of the Republic, the work of the Italian artist Angelo Zanelli, one of the most prestigious of his day. That sculpture, which is 17 meter-tall and weighs 49 tons, is one of the largest in the world.

On our tour we walked through the Martí, Baraguá, Bolívar, Yara, Jimaguayú and Baire halls, with different architectural and artistic characteristics. To the north, the Chamber Camilo Cienfuegos, formerly House of Representatives, in the form of an amphitheater; To the south, the Senate Hall. Both intentionally separated by "the one of Los Pasos Perdidos". And the library, impressively beautiful with its wooden shelves, elegant furniture and majestic lamps, once dedicated to congressmen. The wide central granite staircase can be mentioned, with 55 steps leading to the central portico. To each side, a sculpture of Zanelli: the one of the right represents the tutelary virtue of the town; The one on the left symbolizes the work.

Over the doors, marble boxes on both sides represent war and peace; In the center the coat of arms of the Republic. Above the windows stand metopas carved with themes of national life: commerce, family, justice, agriculture and education. There are also others related to science and art.

Mariela said that this was always the Capitol’s area to be visited by the public, and that idea will be resumed once the restoration is completed.

Cuban Tradition and Magnificence

Although the Capitol’s idea emerged from a dictator that is not worth remembering, Cuban nationality is observed in every place where the gaze is directed. The coat of arms, the RC letters - initials of the Republic of Cuba - as well as allusions to culture and history are in each space. Faced with this conviction, we asked the interviewee if she believed that the Capitol of Havana is purely Cuban.

“There are conflicting opinions about it. Elements which define our identity are everywhere. The coat of arms of the Republic is seen in something as insignificant as the vacuum air cleaning system. The inner courtyards, which are not seen in any other Capitol, are conceived for Cuba. The hands of Cuban artists created what it treasures, she stressed.

Havana will celebrate its 500th anniversary on November 16, 2019 showing proudly the renewed Capitol which will have banished the ghosts of carelessness forever.

Patrimony of the Cuban people

On the 497th anniversary of Havana, on November 16, 2016, the National Assembly of People's Power (ANPP) arrived at the Capitol. And although the regular sessions will continue to take place as they have hitherto at the Convention Hall, the auxiliary offices of the supreme body of State power are in the north wing of the emblematic building.

Perhaps at some point all the deputies of Cuba will meet in the symbolic site, but, at least for now, the reality is that the two large rooms (built when the Parliament had two chambers) do not have enough technological and logistic capacity to receive the people’s representatives in the meetings of the ten permanent work commissions, or in legislative sessions.

A few blocks from there, exactly on Barcelona No. 109, is the Office for Public Service, endowed with greater comfort than the previous one. With the change of installation, you can be closer to the citizens, because it is in the middle of two very populous municipalities: Centro Habana and Old Havana. That reality moves the day-to-day work of Parliament's headquarters, since they have organized activities to get inserted in the new environment.

In addition to the coordinated visits they receive every day since they arrived at the Capitol, the creation of the parliamentary classroom has resulted in an extra link with the community. With its three modes of operation (adult lectures, high-school classrooms and children's special interest club), this initiative seeks to bring the population closer to the Assembly. This was explained by Daymaris Alemán Salazar, a young official who works in the Communication area of the ANPP.

The lectures are planned monthly for institutions and are offered by specialists and deputies of the Assembly, Daymaris said, and it shows that they generally approach the electoral system or any matter of Government needed by the organism. Although this year is already scheduled, the young woman argues that many entities request that, if they can not attend the classroom, the experts come to their work centers.

The Assembly also made a working agreement with the Provincial Division of Education, so that schools can visit the place. For now, students from two nearby high-schools attend once a month to receive their classes on any subject, but preceded by a brief lecture on the political and the electoral system. The course aims to spread this experience to centers in other municipalities.

Sixth grade students from Concepción Arenal Elementary School attend biweekly to develop their special interest club on Civic Education topics. They are also given tours of the Capitol and have discussed with the Vice President and other deputies, as well as explaining the meaning of the building and the restoration it is undergoing.

Translated by ESTI

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