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Parque Céspedes: heart and soul of Santiago de Cuba

Parque Céspedes: heart and soul of Santiago de Cuba

By Lucía Lamadrid

When the town of Santiago de Cuba was founded on July 25, 1515, a small area of land was left empty following the regulations of the Spanish Crown on building cities in the New World. This empty lot was surrounded by rudimentary buildings that held the Town Hall, the Governor’s House, the church and the homes of the city’s principal Spanish families.

Soon, the empty lot became Plaza de la Catedral, and since its founding in the 16th century, it was successively called Plaza de Armas, Plaza Mayor, Plaza Principal, Plaza de la Constitución, Plaza de la Reina and Plaza de Isabel II. The square received its present name, Plaza Carlos Manuel de Céspedes (although it is most commonly known as Parque Céspedes) in the early 20th century and the bronze bust of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the Father of the Nation, was placed in 1953.

Throughout time, it has been the most important political, religious, administrative and social site in the city. One of Santiago de Cuba’s most important and long-standing traditions takes place here. The Fiesta de la Bandera, or Festivity of the Flag, held on December 31, is a one-of-a-kind festivity in Cuba and the world, for that matter. The flag is raised and the way it flies in the wind is said to forebode the fate of the people of Santiago for the coming year.

The face of the picturesque plaza has changed many times, whether by the hand of pirates, governors or the forces of nature, but it continues to be the major gathering spot for Santiagueros and non-Santiagueros alike, any time, night or day.

Limited by Aguilera, San Pedro, Heredia and Santo Tomás Streets, the plaza is surrounded by emblematic buildings, such as the Town Hall, the Home of Diego Velázquez, the Cathedral, the former San Carlos Club and the Casa Granda Hotel—a treasure trove of Colonial, Eclectic, Rationalist, Neoclassical and Modern architecture.

The Ayuntamiento, or Town Hall, on the northern side of the square, was originally built in 1516 and occupied by the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés. It was partly destroyed by an earthquake and reconstructed successively. The present neoclassical building was built in the 1950s based on a design from 1783. It was from its central balcony that Fidel Castro addressed the people of Santiago on January 1, 1959. It was his first speech following Batista’s flight from Cuba.

The former San Carlos Club on the square’s eastern side is considered the most important exponent of eclectic architecture in Santiago. Built from 1908-1912, it has been home to several institutions, becoming the Municipal Culture House and the Esteban Salas Concert Hall in the 1980s. Today, it is undergoing extensive restoration and will become home to the Decorative Arts Museum and the Cuban Fund of Cultural Property in July 2015.

On the west side of the park is the 16th-century Casa de Diego Velázquez, today the Museo de Ambiente Histórico Colonial Cubano. Built in 1515 for Cuba’s first governor, this is the oldest house still standing in Cuba and arguably the oldest in Latin America. The top floor was the living quarters while the ground floor served as a trading house and gold foundry. The Andalusian-style façade with fine, wooden lattice windows and a wonderfully carved cedar ceiling was extensively restored in the 1960s after a fire. The museum depicts the varied styles and eras of colonial life seen through furnishings and decorations from the 16th to 19th centuries. Some splendid pieces of French, British, Spanish and Cuban furniture; Spanish ceramics, carved chests and French porcelain, as well as dressers with inlaid designs are on display.

The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción was destroyed by fire only a few years after its construction in 1524. The buildings that replaced the original church were later subjected to all types of calamities from pirate attacks to hurricanes and earthquakes. The Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba holds the record for being the building that has been reconstructed and remodeled the most in the city. The fourth building was consecrated in 1813 and was given the title of Minor Basilica and declared National Monument in 1958. The church you see today combines the surviving 19th-century features with changes made in the 1920s. Meticulously restored, the interior is a magnificent mixture of intricate ceiling frescoes, hand-carved choir stalls and an altar honoring the venerated Virgen de la Caridad. It is believed that the first colonial governor, Diego Velázquez, was buried here although his remains have never been found.

The Casa Granda Hotel is one of Santiago’s most notable buildings and was described by Graham Greene, who used to stay here in the late 1950s, in his book Our Man in Havana. The Cuban Railroad Company commissioned the design of this lavish Eclectic building to architect Carlos Segrera and it took the Cuban construction company Amigos & Hermanos only six months to finish the hotel, which was officially inaugurated on January 10, 1914.

The Casa Granda Hotel has four floors with majestic, although sober Eclectic façades. The vanes and balustrade decorations on the second and third floors are perfectly symmetrical, while the fourth floor has a larger number of ornamental elements, with windows that feature semicircular arches. The Roof Garden on the fifth floor offers a stunning view of the city. The hotel was completely refurbished between 1993 and 1995, and is today part of Santiago’s cultural and historical heritage.

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