Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Encore for a National Treasure

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Encore for a National Treasure

Article excerpt

With its massive neoclassical facade, its marble pillars and railings, its gold-leafed moldings and its handsom paintings and statuary, the National Theater of Costa Rica in San Jose is considered one of Latin America's most precious architectural treasures. Now, as a result of a powerful earthquake last December 22, this fine old building is on the verge of collapse.

Already weakened by termites and moisture damage, the foundations of the theater were ill-equipped to absorb the shock. Engineers Ana Lorena Quiros and Jorge Gutierrez, in charge of evaluating the harm done by the earthquake, informed the Costa Rican government that since no structural restoration had ever been performed on the 93-year-old theater, drastic emergency measures would have to be taken. According to Quiros, the separation of several key structural joints would make any future jolt to the building disastrous. The Costa Rican government responded by initiating a mammoth rescue operation.

Even before the earthquake, efforts had begun to restore the National Theater. On August 15, 1990, President Rafael Angel Calderon announced a campaign to save the "coliseum of Costa Rican cultural life." The original plan called for a purely architectural renovation. After the earthquake, however, it became clear that cosmetic repairs would not be enough and that the rehabilitation would be much more expensive than had been thought.

Graciela Moreno, director of the National Theater, estimates that the restoration project will cost about 550 million colones, although some experts say that the price may be incalculable since some of the materials cannot be replaced. No matter what the tab, the Costa Rican people have rallied around their government in its effort to save this national treasure. From street vendors to university professors, citizens interviewed in San Jose expressed their willingness to contribute to the restoration effort.

Several members of the Chamber of Deputies (the national legislature) contributed a million colones each from funds originally designated for other purposes. The Commission for the Quincentennial Celebration of the Discovery of America has donated U.S. $250 million to the cause and the Organization of American States (OAS) has contributed U.S. $30,000. The Instituto Nacional de Seguros (National Insurance Institute) has offered 10 million colones and La Nacion newspaper raised 500,000 colones. Even foreign institutions have responded to the call for help. The government of England delivered a check for one million colones to the Ministry of Culture of Costa Rica and Colgate Palmolive offered to donate five colones to the restoration for every bar of soap it sells. However, the task of raising funds is not yet done and the Costa Rican government continues to solicit support for the project.

Ironically, the National Theater owes its very existence to an earthquake. On December 30, 1888, a substantial tremor destroyed Costa Rica's previous theater, which was already crumbling from old age. When, the following year, an opera company starring the celebrated Adelina Patti wanted to perform in San Jose, the city was embarrassed to be unable to provide a suitable auditorium. A large number of landowners and businessmen offered to pay a specified amount for each arroba (about 25 pounds or 11.5 kilograms) of coffee that Costa Rica exported, to be used for the construction of a new theater. The Congress accepted the offer and approved additional funds for the project, and the municipal government of San Jose donated the site of the old theater for the erection of the new.

Plans were drawn up by a team of Belgian architects and Costa Rican engineers. The Costa Rican Minister in Paris, on orders from his government, went to Italy to acquire everything necessary to furnish and decorate the new building. Metal structural parts were ordered from Belgium. Once the plans were completed, three Costa Rican engineers, Miguel Angel Valazquez, Luis Matamoros, Nicolas Chavarria, and two German architects, Pedro and Fernando Reigh took charge of the construction. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.