Robaina's plantation

Friday 1 March 2019

El Capitolio (Havana) The Capital Building Comes Back to Life

                 The Capitolio or "Capitolio Nacional de La Habana" is one of if not the most recognizable buildings in Cuba and one of the most visited sites in Havana. Let me start by getting a couple of facts out of the way: Although the building is similar to the one in Washington D.C., according to its architect, Eugenio Rayneri Piedra, it's actually modeled after the neoclassical dome of the Pantheon in Paris with its French Renaissance style. The building is 681 by 300 feet in size making it a meter longer and wider and it's 302' height at the dome makes it one meter taller (than the Washington D.C. Building)'s also much more elaborate in detail. When it was completed in 1929 it was the tallest building in Havana until the FOCSA building was completed in 1956. The Cupola was the third highest in the world at the time of its completion. The statue within the entrance of the building under the cupola, the Statue of the Republic (La Estatua de la República), was the 2nd tallest indoor statue in the world at the time of it's construction, today it's the 3rd tallest. The cupola, which is stone clad around a steel frame, was constructed in the United States.
                  Long before construction of the Capitolio building was even considered, while the city walls outside Old Havana were still in place, the space that today occupies the building was a great swamp turned into a dump in the area outside those walls. In 1839 the swamp was drained and the Villanueva Train Station was inaugurated. It operated until the beginning of the last century when it became necessary to build another Modern Railway Station. The new Station, or the one under renovations today, was built in 1912 to replace it.  In 1863, the city walls were knocked down so that the metropolis could be enlarged.
                  Initially the Capitolio building was to have been used as the Presidential Palace when construction began in 1910 but everything came to a halt when new designs were to be made to include space for the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives. It wasn't until April 1, 1926, after the demolition of everything previously built, that work resumed on the building during the reign of US-backed dictator General Machado. It took 8000 workers, toiling 24 hours a day in 8 hour shifts just over 3 years at a cost of $17 million US dollars to construct the building....the inauguration was on May 20, 1929 but the Legislative Body didn't occupy the space until February 24, 1931, after the decorative work was completed. The "Parque de la Fraternidad" right next to the Capitolio was originally set up in 1892 to be a parade ground.
                  There are 55 steps leading to the main entrance which is flanked by two 6.5 meter statues created by the Italian artist Angelo Zanelli. The one to the left is named Work (El Trabajo) and to the right is The Tutelary Virtue (La Virtud Tutelar). The massive doors to the entrance of the building, designed by Enrique García Cabrera, were made of ornamental bronze and depict the history of Cuba. As a result of his having violated the Constitution, Gerardo Machado y Morales, fifth president of the Republic of Cuba (1925-1933), was removed from this history. His face had been rubbed out from the two panels in which he appears. The statue within the entrance of the building under the cupola, the Statue of the Republic (La Estatua de la República), was also done by Zanelli. This statue was constructed in Rome, made of bronze and cast in three pieces. It was assembled inside the Capitolio building after its arrival in Cuba. It was covered with 22 carat gold leaf and weighs 49 tons. Unfortunately it was still being restored during my visit.
                   Embedded in the floor under the cupola, in the center of the main hall, a replica 25 carat diamond has been encased, it marks Kilometer Zero for Cuba.......Highway distances between Havana and all sites in Cuba are calculated from this point. It's been said that the original diamond belonged to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. It was stolen on the 25th of March in 1946 only to be mysteriously returned to the then President Ramón Grau San Martín, on the 2nd of June 1946.  After that episode it was locked in a safe at the Central Bank in Havana and replaced with the replica.                              On either side of the main hall is the Salón de Pasos Perdidos (Hall of Lost Steps), named for it's acoustic properties. These halls lead to the two rooms that housed the Parliament and Chamber of Deputies. The Parliament chamber to the right of building is backed by the President's office which has a door opening directly onto the dais. Within the building, 60 different types of marble are used for flooring, walls and steps, coming from Italy, Germany and Cuba itself. Most of the detailing on the walls, ceiling, doors and lamps were cast in France.
                   The floor directly under the cupola is where the (Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) Tumba del Mambí Desconocido lies with it's eternal flame being precisely under the replica 25 carat diamond. The inscription that accompanies it reads: "Here rests, symbolically, the moral, political and historical foundation of the nation: the mortal remains of an unknown Cuban soldier, to whose efforts and nameless sacrifices, the birth of Cuba as a Republic is due.". The tomb is surrounded by the flags of all the countries of Spanish America....or so I've read because once there I noticed flags from Canada, the US and Portugal, just to name a few....and included as well, the flag of Spain for which the Mambi fought against. There's a conspiracy theory going around, due to certain circumstances, that Fidel Castro himself might be buried in this tomb. At the time of the building's original construction, although it was in the plans, this proposal, the room and it's contents, was never completed. Originally the tomb was to be isolated and viewed from above or a distance like the tombs of Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris and Ulysses S. Grant in New York. Today, as I experienced, the tour takes you within arms length of the shrine. The immediate contact with the tomb was to have been reserved for those who came to deposit the offering of national gratitude (flowers). Some of the other objects within this space include: the Coat of Arms of Cuba cast in bronze, the verses of the Anthem of Bayamo & the words of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes when he was proclaimed President of the Republic in Arms both of which are on huge bronze plaques, a marble replica of the statue upstairs 'La Estatua de la República' and you'll hear the 'Bayamo Anthem' being played on an endless loop by Camerata Romeu, the Cuban Premiere Strings Orchestra. 
                  As I stated previously, Congress was housed in this building but abolished and disbanded following the Cuban Revolution in 1959. After Fidel's Revolution, until 2013, the building was home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology....and so began the building's deterioration. As of 2013, Eusebio Leal Spengler, the City Historian of Havana, had begun restoration of this beautiful building at a reported cost of over $60 million, more than 3 times the price of the original construction. It's intended to be used once again as the home of Cuba's National Assembly. Besides having to fix the obvious; statues, lamps, floors, walls, doors.....the building also needed to be modernized with new electrical wiring, air-conditioning systems, security systems, fire alarms, new piping, fiber optic cables....and so much more. I've been traveling to Havana for more than a decade and started coming here prior to the Capitolio being shut down. Myself as well as many others have often wondered, what the heck is taking so I (we) know. They have done an amazing job and I have to say it was worth the wait, albeit, a rather long wait, double the time it took to construct it initially. Even though they've jacked up the price of the tour to $10, it was still worth taking the one hour excursion. It wasn't quite finished when I went for my visit last November but there were still a considerable amount of things to see. The tours are given in multiple languages, English being one of them. Check it out if you can.

Capitolio Nacional de La Habana
Prado, e/ San José y Dragones,
Habana Vieja

El Trabajo

La Virtud Tutelar

On the top right hand side, Gerardo Machado y Morales (5th president of Cuba 1925-1933) was removed from the history of Cuba that's been laid out on the entrance doors.

The Cupola

Replica of an encased 25 carat diamond that marks Kilometer Zero for Cuba

Salón de Pasos Perdidos (Hall of Lost Steps)

Parliament Chamber

Internal Courtyard

Eternal Flame

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Mambi)

Cuba's Coat of Arms

Words of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes when proclaimed President of the Republic in Arms

Verses of the Anthem of Bayamo

Replica of La Estatua de la República

Martín Morúa Delgado (November 11, 1857- April 28, 1910) started as a journalist in 1868 and a year later founded the newspaper El pueblo, through whose pages he advocated the defense of the rights of the black race. 

Juan Gualberto Gómez (July 12, 1854 – March 5, 1933) was an Afro-Cuban revolutionary leader in the Cuban War of Independence against Spain. He was a close collaborator of José Martí's & alongside him helped plan the uprising & unite the island's black population behind the rebellion.

Taken from the rooftop patio of the Hotel Saratoga

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