Capitol facelift – Restoring a Cuban landmark
Capitol facelift: Restoring a Cuban landmark
Architectural look at the ongoing work
Seat of government to return to El Capitolio after renovations
Massive renovations to also include Waterfront Promenade
BY MARK TREVOR BURRELL
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
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
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
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
Source: Capitol facelift: Restoring a Cuban landmark | Miami Herald –