Photo: Juvenal Balán

El Capitolio, Cuba’s national capitol inaugurated May 20, 1929, became one of the most emblematic buildings in Havana and Cuba. No one person can be given credit for its design, since several engineers and architects participated, mostly Cuban, but also some from abroad.

Some have the opinion that it was inspired by the United States’ capitol, but this is not entirely correct. Like the capitol in Argentina, as well, these three edifices are all based on ancient Rome’s Monte Capitolino or Roca Tarpeya, where the citadel was located, along with the temple to Jupiter, site of the coronation of heroes.

When it was decided to seek a name for the work to be built, the people were consulted as to their opinion. Some were in favor of “Congressional Palace,” while others preferred simply “El Capitolio,” which in the end was chosen.

A publication from the era, Excelsior, explained the reason:

“… The king Tarquinius Priscus, wishing to erect a temple to Jupiter, ordered the best Etruscan artisans to lay the foundation for what would be the center of Roman grandeur… Two days into the work and at quite a depth, they found the head of a man in perfect condition, with the word Tolus etched on the forehead. The case was submitted to the Oracles who said that such an event promised Rome dominion of the world and first place among cities of the Earth.”

As a result, the place was named Caput Toli (head of Tolus), which evolved to become Capitolium.

The Pasos Perdidos Great Hall. Photo: Juvenal Balán

Some five million bricks were used in the Cuban Capitolio’s construction, plus 40,000 cubic meters of sand, 40,000 of rock, and 150,000 tons of steel, by 8,000 workers organized in eight-hour shifts, that made possible its completion in three years and 50 days.

The building was designed to hold sessions of the Senate and House of Representatives of the era. Construction began in April of 1926, with the projected finish date set for 1928, with a view toward hosting the Pan American Conference scheduled for that year. But as the work began, specialists quickly realized that this was not going to be possible, that another year would be required.

Once the Capitolio was inaugurated, the Cuban Congress began to meet there. Although it was plagued by unfortunate events, such as the machine gunning of strikers in 1933, it was also where the Constitution of 1940 was approved, one of the most advanced written in the Americas, at that time.

The cost of the building’s construction and furnishings ultimately reached more than 16,640,743 pesos. When the work began, the tools and equipment required for the job were not on hand, and needed to be imported.

Photo: Juvenal Balán

“A prayer for those who gave their lives. A remembrance for those who imbued these stones with strength, science, and spirit,” reads a section of the text on a plaque honoring workers who died during the construction.

In November of 2012, the City Historian’s Office received, from the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment, a request to begin the long, complex task of restoring the Capitolio. In charge of the project are Kenia Días, director for architecture and urban infrastructure for the central historic district, and Johana Aldo, director of investments at the City Historian’s Office.

The building includes 49,000 square meters of total space, 25,000 square meters of gardens, 11 elevators, 28 patios, six skylights, innumerable offices and halls, among other unique characteristics.

From the beginning of the restoration project, the roof was prioritized, since leaks were causing serious damage to the structure, and these needed to be repaired before work on the interior could begin. The plan includes every room individually, and these are grouped in blocs. Work began on the North Wing, focused mainly on capital restoration of the granite, since the exterior alone is composed of 15,000 square meters of stone. The repair of wooden trim, bronze railings, and the façade of this wing was also essential.

The statue La República is the world’s third tallest indoor sculpture. Photo: Juvenal Balán

Some of the Capitolio’s original plans still exist and were first restored to preserve them and then digitalized, so they could be used in the restoration process. Among new elements which were incorporated are fire protection and security systems, as well as air conditioning in some areas.

Regarding these changes to the original, engineer Mariela Mulet, head of the Prado Boulevard investment department, commented, “Installing these technological systems was very complicated, since they did not previously exist within the building. For example, in order to have the central air conditioning reach many large offices and halls without being noticeable, we constructed channels or conduits in the floors, waterproofing them where the plumbing went, and later disguising the equipment with furniture very similar to that existent in each area.”

Some areas, however, could not be air conditioned without damaging the building, and the decision was made to leave them as they were designed.

At this time, efforts are being concentrated on the cupola, and the Capitolio’s South Wing. In the case of the dome, the entire rain drainage system was replaced since it was beyond repair.

“In both this area and the rest of the installation, we did an evaluation with some equipment we purchased, to be able to determine the condition in which they were. We restored all the piping with epoxy resins, as needed, to later re-use these systems,” Mulet continued.

Additionally, given the enormity of the project, several other entities in Havana are supporting the restoration, some affiliated with the Ministry of Construction, as well as the City Historian Office’s trade school, and cooperatives like Sancof (scaffolding and awnings) and Serconst (construction), artists from the Ministry of Culture, and others – although the City Historian’s Office is the principal project manager.

Despite the planning, throughout the project complications have arisen, Mulet explained, “To be able to restore the roofs, we first needed to evaluate the condition of the concrete slabs under the roofing. What happened: on the fourth floor, there are many open air patios, and damage to these led to leaks to the third and second levels, making it necessary to demolish some concrete slabs and repair others in very bad condition, before restoring the coffered panels.

Used in the Capitolio are 60 different types of marble, among them both Cuban and Italian, and fortunately the same quarries are still in operation, as well as the original Italian manufacturers.

Restoring the chandeliers was also a challenge, since with the passage of time some has simply disappeared, and others taken in pieces to other areas of the building. The City Historian’s Office was able to locate a Mexican team that works in onyx to carefully reproduce the missing parts of several lamps.

Another noteworthy element of the restoration is the Tomb of the Unknown Mambi, an area included in the original design that was never completed.

“In terms of its sculptures, which are the work of Angelo Zanelli - except for the Ángel Caído - Italian artists were contracted to do the restoration. Fortunately, they were not damaged, and what was done was a professional cleaning. Regarding the República sculpture, the third tallest among the world’s indoor statutes, we are attempting to restore its original gold plating, and in this are working on a project with Russia to replace the gold on the statue and the dome,” she said.

The original sketches used by the artist are exhibited in one of the Capitolio’s halls open to the public, on the main floor. Also open to visitors is part of the Pasos Perdidos Great Hall, as well as the left wing which was finished two years ago and houses the National Assembly of People’s Power offices.

The façade is being restored by the Puerto Carenas enterprise, which is affiliated with the City Historian’s Office and the project’s main builder, though many materials, technologies, and technical advice are provided by a German company.

Although much remains to be done, there is no doubt that the work undertaken is of great importance to the country given the patrimonial value of the building. The Capitolio will surely continue being a symbol of Cuba.”