The Capitol building is once again the venue of the Cuban Parliament
People from other provinces who come to Havana don’t want to return home without visiting the Capitol building. They have pictures taken with the Capitol in the background, bearing witness to their stay in the city. Foreigners visiting the island do the same.
The area occupied by the Capitol building belonged to the Economic Society of Friends of the Country, which founded a botanical garden on its premises in 1817. The Spanish colonial government appropriated that plot of land, and in 1835 construction began on the site for the Villanueva train station. The desire to bring the railroads to that area that was becoming the best in Havana was, in the last decades of the 19th century, a growing wish of the city’s residents.
It would become a reality in 1910 when, in a fraudulent business deal, the State ceded the plots of land of the old arsenal to the Railroad Union company, where the new railroad station was built. In exchange it received the Villanueva plots, on which the Presidential Palace would be built.
The construction of the Executive mansion began, but the work came to a standstill when General Menocal assumed the presidency. Menocal had other plans: he wanted to build the palace on the plot of land occupied by the Quinta de los Molinos, and the recently commenced building would remain as the Legislative venue. That decision led to considerable modifications to the original project and the already built cupola—which weighed 1,200 metric tons—was dynamited. Four conveniently placed explosives demolished it in three and a half seconds.
Construction resumed in 1917, only to be interrupted two years later for lack of funds, and was suspended definitively by President Zayas in 1921. When Machado assumed the presidency in 1926, he found the Capitol half-built.
A MEGALOMANIAC MINISTRY
Machado decided to modernize the Cuban capital and launched into a vast and ambitious public works plan. It was unthinkable that his megalomaniac minister Carlos Manuel de Céspedes would lose sight of the building. Begun on April 1, 1926, the project was concluded in 37 months.
Five million bricks, more than three million feet of wood, 150,000 barrels of cement, and 38,000 cubic meters of water were used in its construction, in addition to 40,000 cubic meters of cut stones and 25,000 cubic meters of quarry stones, 3,500 tons of steel structure, and 2,000 tons of belaying pins.
The foundation was insufficient for the new cupola and close to a thousand hardwood pilings were thrust into the ground over which a reinforced cement plaque was cast; on top of that rested eight steel load-bearing columns. Given its width and height, it is the world’s sixth largest cupola. Its lantern is 94 meters from street level, and when the building was inaugurated it was only surpassed by that of St Peter’s in Rome, and St Paul’s in London, 129 and 107 meters high, respectively.
Its monumental staircase has 55 steps. Two sculptures flank it. One symbolizes work or the progress of human activity; the other, the tutelary virtue of the people. They are works by the Italian Angelo Zanelli, creator of the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) in Rome, which forms part of the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II. He is also the sculptor of the Statue of the Republic in the Capitolio that dominates the imposing Hall of Lost Steps, exactly under the cupola. It weighs 30 tons and is 14.6 meters high. It is one of the world’s largest indoor statues. Little is known about the exuberant Cuban woman who served as the model for that sculpture. At her feet, embedded in the shining floor, a diamond marks Kilometer Zero of the Central Highway.
When assessing the construction of this building, the names of architect Eugenio Rayneri Piedra and engineer Luis Betancourt, head of the design room, are usually highlighted. The Capitol building is also the work of many architects, engineers, draftsmen, and others.
The Machado government wanted to gather on the all the workers who contributed to building this mammoth structure and take a picture of them on its staircase as a record and memento. The image captured by the cameras of more than 30 photojournalists is considered the photograph for which the largest number of people posed in Cuba.According to Rayneri’s estimates, there were some 5,000 men, mostly Cubans and Spaniards who worked hard as foremen, carpenters, electricians, masons, gardeners, mechanics, sculptors, locksmiths, cooks, laborers, and support personnel, as well as hundreds of workers who had already concluded their tasks and the specialists from some 20 Cuban and foreign companies hired for the finishing touches. However, another 3,000 laborers could not appear in the photo because they worked in workshops located in Italy, France and England, creating the sculptures and paintings, or making the iron fittings, curtains, and decorations sent to Havana. Five workers and technicians, some of them Cuban, died during construction.
The building was solemnly inaugurated on May 20, 1929. It is said it had cost 17 million pesos. The people, through a poll, decided that it would be named Capitolio. After an arduous process of still unconcluded restoration, it was re-inaugurated as the institutional venue of the National Assembly of People’s Power (the unicameral parliament) on November 16, 2017. Because of its magnitude and beauty, it is the most important building in Havana and all of Cuba, and one of the most majestic in the Americas. Palace of palaces. National monument. Symbol of the Republic. The pride of all Cubans.