Capitol facelift: Restoring a Cuban landmark

El Capitolio, left, and Teatro Nacional, right, in Havana. The buildings are undergoing extensive renovation.
El Capitolio, left, and Teatro Nacional, right, in Havana. The buildings are undergoing extensive renovation. Special to the Miami Herald

Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, Havana’s city historian, is leading an architectural renaissance in this former capital of the Western Hemisphere.

Architects and engineers working with Spengler’s office and graduates from Cuba’s technical schools have restored hundreds of historic structures, designed and built new projects, and are now involved with the largest renovation projects in the island’s history: adapting the waterfront district and restoring monuments and buildings — public and private — throughout the city.

Their largest project: renovating Cuba’s “El Capitolio,” once the seat of the former Congress. The building was abandoned as the symbol of power after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. While the government offices have been housed at Revolution Plaza across town since 1960, the Capitolio remained open to tourists and housed a science library and Internet café. When the renovation is completed in about two years, the building will again be the seat of government, according to the project manager.

Gladys Rodriguez Ferrero, who served as director of the national museums when the immense Capitolio project was announced three years ago, has been impressed with the renovations.

“What they are doing is magic, and it is real, not virtual magic,” she said recently as she looked down from the cupola or small lantern atop the dome.

Performing that magic has been aided by the creation of trade schools that have graduated a small army of skilled workers. On a recent visit, carpenters with hand planes, chisels and “old-fashioned” braces and bits worked on solid wood doors, trim and windows in one large house. Plasterers were working with fresh, wet plaster and screeds to create crown moldings and ceiling medallions by hand; masons replaced damaged travertine edging at a doorway by cutting new travertine to match.

The massive renovations also involve a new Waterfront Promenade. It will develop several blocks to the east from the Customs Building at the docks. Because functions that were handled at the old docks have moved to the new container port in Mariel, the street level walls of the old Customs house will be open, as they were in 1910, to provide a sea view and space for office and retail activity. Beyond the Customs house, an existing structure is being renovated for passenger ferries. Further down, a craft beer hall is open in a renovated warehouse.

Also renovated has been a prominent house on Fifth Avenue, conspicuous for its green glazed tile roof. It’s now an architecture museum. Plaza Vieja, a once desolate area of the old city where the buildings were mostly vacant in the 90s, has also gotten a facelift. The plaza and its buildings are fully restored. With restaurants and shops, such as a Benetton store, the plaza is now a major draw for visitors to the old city.

The Capitolio, however, remains the centerpiece of the renovations. It was constructed between 1926 and 1929 and designed by Cuban architects Raúl Otero and Eugenio Rayneri Piedra. Sources published in Cuba credit design influences for the dome to the Pantheon in Paris and to Rome’s St. Peter’s for size and form. Although the building’s appearance is similar, but slightly smaller, than the U.S. Capitol, the top of the Cuban dome is slightly higher.

The Capellanias limestone ashlars on the building’s walls were quarried in Cuba. Sixty different types of marble for flooring, steps and trim were sourced from Italy and Germany, with some Cuban marble. The Capitolio houses three large bronze statues by Italian sculptor Angelo Zanelli of Brescia.

Flanking the entry are the statues “Work” and “Guardian Virtue.” The “Statue of the Republic” inside the building was shipped from Italy in three pieces. The Republic, a stylized figure inspired by the legend of Athena, was realized with the help of Cuban model Lily Valty.

Zanelli designed bronze and marble friezes on the building. Three immense bronze entry doors depicting Cuba’s history are the work of Cuban artist Enrique Garcia Cabrera. The plazas and gardens were designed by French landscape architect J.C.N. Forestier, designer of the vast Champ de Mars park beneath the Eiffel Tower.

Most of the Capitolio renovation involves polishing and repair of the bronze statues, lamps, elevators and doors, utility work, sandblasting the exterior, interior painting and structural repairs to the cupola. Work is being done to install new piping for utilities and computer, security, fire alarm lines, fiber optic lines, new electrical wiring throughout and air conditioning to office areas.

The government has not released the cost of the project but Spain, Italy, Germany and Mexico have provided material. Project funding is from Cuba.

The level of authenticity demanded by the City Historian’s architects means that there will be no shortcuts. For example: there will be air-conditioned office areas in the finished Capitolio, but no window units. Instead, new air handlers will be concealed in custom cabinets to match the wood wainscot. Original door locks will be rekeyed by rebuilding the inner mechanisms of the locks instead of replacing the original faceplates, a costly and time-consuming process.

The building also serves as a shrine to the poet, freedom fighter, and national hero, José Martí. There is not a school, major building or a park in Cuba without a statue or bust of José Marti. In the entry foyer, his bust appears to await the return of the current government to the Capitolio.

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