Between politics and culture

New life for the Palace of the Second Corporal.

One of colonial Havana’s most important buildings, usually called Palace of the Second Corporal, has reopened its doors. The majestic building, located on the north side of the Plaza de Armas, in the junction of O’Reilly and Tacón streets, was restored by the Office of the City Historian with European Union financing. According to what the Office’s specialists have said, the building will be a “centre for the interpretation of Cuba-Europe cultural relations, it will deal from a symbolic perspective with the exchange between both parts of the world.” The institution has several permanent halls: one dedicated to the history of the Palace, others are devoted to images of the New World, cartography, travellers’ chronicles, architecture, books, music and dance, in addition to several multipurpose halls and a grand protocol room.

The history of this place begins in 1770, when the island’s governor, the Marquis de la Torre, notified the Havana town hall of the Royal Order that established the building as a Postal Administration House. It seems that the original plan was sent from Spain, but the work was directed and perfected by Cuban-born engineer Antonio Fernández Trevejos and it is estimated that it was concluded around 1772. For decades the place was the very centre of the exchange of mail between Europe and America.

When this palace opened its doors it was the most beautiful of Havana’s buildings and served as a model for the construction of the neighbouring House of the Town Hall or the Palace of the Captains General and other constructions of the city. Its solidity and elegance were in tune with the work of remodelling the Plaza de Armas which had begun at the same time by the Marquis de la Torre as part of the application of the principle of Enlightened Despotism. A city in full flourishing of sugar and tobacco exports needed a symbolic centre close to the port that would evidence the strength of its government institutions.

Architecture historian Joaquín Weiss has pointed out some of the most notable merits of that construction: “The building is of a very moderate Baroque style…a prelude to neoclassicism. The porch is a beautiful Roman arcade of classical purity; the top floor groups together the three main windows and two on each side through four pilasters that alternate with projections in the cornice resting on short panels, a Mudejar element restyled by great painter and sculptor from Granada Alonso Cano….”

Despite the fact that the construction had been built for a specific purpose, around 1820 the military authorities started taking over the building, and they first situated there the Army Quartermaster Corps, Accounts Office and General Treasury and in the mid-19th century the offices of the Second Corporal Assistant Inspector, as well as his personal residence, while the Postal House was moved to Cathedral Square, to the so-called palace of the Marquis de Arcos, adjacent to that of Lombillo.

It was the last Second Corporal who resided there who handed over the island’s command to the U.S. Intervention Government on January 1, 1899, since Captain General Ramón Blanco, who had that mission, decided to embark for Spain before time to not have to participate in such a shameful ceremony and imposed this duty on his subordinate Adolfo Jiménez Castellanos who had to walk with bowed head the minimum space between his residence and the neighbouring Government House, where the U.S. invaders were waiting for him for the transfer of powers, while his wife, Carmen Barreto, from Camagüey, a known opera aficionada, supervised the closing of her bulky trunks that the soldiers had to carry to the ship anchored in the port. That is how four centuries of colonial domination came to an end.

In the 20th century the building had to be adapted for completely different functions. The first venue of the Senate was located there and, because of this, in 1910 architect Eugenio Rayneri made major adaptations on the top floor which changed the distribution of the two front rooms. Once the National Capitol Building was concluded during the government of Gerardo Machado, the Palace went through a new transformation to serve as the Supreme Court of Justice in 1930. The controversial decision of the firm of architects in charge of the transformation, Govantes and Cabarrocas, of withdrawing all the exterior plaster of the walls to show the beauty of the bare stonework, a fashion that reached other Havana buildings based on aesthetic but not historic considerations and that did not take into account the role of plaster as a protection of the stones from the effects of humidity and environmental contamination, dates back to those years.

At the end of the last government of Fulgencio Batista, once the construction of the Palace of Justice in the Civic Plaza had been concluded and the Supreme Court was based there, it was decided that the old mansion, again empty, become the Palace of Academies to house the venues of the national academies of arts and letters, of history and of the language.

However, these institutions were not able to meet there too long since in 1964 the building was vacated by the National Commission of Monuments for a new restoration. The Arts and Letters and the History academies were dissolved, and that of the Language was moved by its director, José María Chacón y Calvo, to the Ateneo building in Vedado, where it met until his death.

The once again renovated building was planned to serve as the venue of the National Council of Culture. Thus, from its offices actions were generated to promote culture and popular education of undeniable value, but which also, in the first five years of the 1970s, when the agency was directed by Luis Pavón Tamayo, displayed the most incorrect policy regarding arts and letters, driven by dogmatism, intolerance and the attack on valuable creators and institutions, all of which came to a stop in 1975 with the dissolution of the Council when the Culture Ministry was created, though some of the damages caused to national culture have left considerable marks until today. During some of those years, the Palace, with its twisted corridors full of cubicles for bureaucrats, seemed to emit the same emanations of the times of the Spanish colonial administration.

With the installation there of the Cuban Book Institute, its mezzanine soon also housed some emblematic publishing houses, especially Arte y Literatura and Letras Cubanas. The magazine La Jiribilla was born in one of the corners of the first floor. The building became brighter. Some of us writers still yearn for the Book Saturdays held in its central patio or the literary meetings and awards ceremonies in the grand salon of the top floor, with its balconies facing the Plaza de Armas. This perhaps was the mansion’s happiest and most useful time.

In the second five years of the 21st century, the traces of time were already evident in the Palace. The humidity caused by the moat of La Fuerza Castle was as terrible as the cracks that all of a sudden were appearing on the walls. The building, calculated only for two floors, barely withstood the additional constructions on its rooftop and the hundreds of partition walls that for centuries had been built to expand the number of offices. And the Book Institute also had to move to another place.

The return to public life of the old building, now with adequate functions according to its heritage value, not only is a contribution to the safeguarding of a jewel of our architecture, but also a sort of prophetic sign in the midst of a city in need of preserving from routine other notable buildings so that international cooperation not be urgent. (2014)

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