Finished in July, 1908, the historic jail in Heredia has long fallen into disuse and deterioration. But today it is undergoing a 450 million colon facelift that will turn back the clock from its decline through weathering and neglect.

prison barsThe project began last September, a project of the Ministry of Culture’s efforts to preserve historic landmarks. The architecture is typical of the massive (and not too pretty) jails of the time. But Costa Ricans have a certain perverse fondness for their prisons; the National Children’s Museum is one example, now with a lively paint job it never had before.

The national newspaper La Nacion, with its usual thoroughness found two oldsters who had particular ties to the prison. One is Aria Arias, 79, whose grandfather, Rafael Arias, was commandant there and whose father and two of her uncles worked there.

Her memories show that Costa Ricans were not always as liberal as they are today. “In that era police pursued ‘mujeres alegres’ (happy women or, in ruder parlance, prostitutes).” she told La Nacion. “They say they called my grandfather the Black Cat because none of them escaped him.”

Jose Joaquin Zuniga, 86, has a somewhat different view of the building, having grown up, a barefoot child from a family of limited means, across the street and whose father and mother were both incarcerated there. He remembers as a child, hearing a trumpet blown at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. daily.

His father spent 22 days as a prisoner there during the 1948 civil war when he fought with the Caribbean Legion. “I was a prisoner there,” he told the paper, “It doesn’t bring back to me pleasant memories but I feel it’s important that new generations known the great efforts we exerted to defend freedom.”

Architect Veronica Solorzano feels that the neoclassic building is well worth saving. “Despite having suffered many alterations during the years and having suffered a fire in 2004, it conserves the majority of its original architectural characteristics…”

Included in those characteristics is a type of bricklaying that no longer is used but resulted in a strong structure–indeed, strong enough to resist the heavy tropical rains and minor earthquakes it has endured.

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