Friday 29 September 2023

10 historic buildings that survive in chaotic San José

They get lost in the disorder and noise of the capital and thousands of people pass them in front of them every day without noticing them. Even so, they resist and remain as imposing as 100 years ago, when they were benchmarks of good taste and prosperity.

QCOSTARICA – You’ve walked by them sure, but most likely haven’t noticed them or given them any importance other than just another old building.

These buildings of a century ago, today find themselves in silence, witnessing the daily hustle and bustle of the city, amid all the noise and the immense number of shop signs trying to capture the attention of passers-by.

Before the Maroy building, the newspaper La Información was located here, which a group of Josefinos burned. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

They have been there longer than most people. Immovable, watching the generations go by and the transformations of the city. Its walls are so imposing that they speak for themselves, although many do not listen.

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These are buildings that have been standing since the end of the 19th century and others from the beginning of the 20th century, which have survived the demolitions and the works that have been carried out in the heart of the capital city over time and which continue to be witnesses of the history of San José.

“They are buildings of the highest quality, which as long as they are maintained can last another 100 years more,” says architect and chronicler of the city of San José, Andrés Fernández.

“We cannot measure the value it has for Costa Rica, because they tell us about a Costa Rica that, in every sense, is no longer: neither politically, nor technologically, nor economically and the designers, master builders, architects are not the same.

“People loved these buildings and knew their materials well and we have lost that exquisite knowledge,” said the architect.

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These are buildings not like the Teatro Nacional, the Melico Salazar, the Variedades, the Post Office and some churches such as the Catedral Metropolitana that are recognized by many, mostly for their strategic location.

However, there are other properties that are just as old, but due to the saturation of modernity, they cannot be appreciated so easily.

“Visual pollution comes first, or the fact that there are no sidewalks in San José, and the sonic pollution. There is no living in San José, only barely survive and when you have survival as your primacy, you don’t have time for beauty,” adds Fernández.

So, which are the 10 buildings?

1. La Magnolia

In 1901, there was a two-storey business that was dedicated to the sales and distribution of different products and that belonged to a Spanish family. It was one of the hot spots that was located on an iconic corner of Avenida Central.

The Magnolia building. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

There was a store called La Magnolia, a very frequented shop by the “señoras” “señoritas” (ladies and young women). That attracted a lot of attention from the “señoritingos” – a young man, from a wealthy family, who behaves with presumption and arrogance.

2. Edificio Macaya

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In the early 1900s, the Carranza family decided to sell their property, located in the heart of the capital, to the Colombian Miguel Macaya. There was located a house with a stable included and that was torn down with the purpose of creating a large commercial premise.

The old Macaya Hardware Store was the first and largest in San José.  Photo: Rafael Pacheco

Jaime Carranza Aguilar, the first Costa Rican to graduate as an architect, was entrusted with the task of constructing a two-story building to be used as a hardware store, which would operate there since 1908 and would be the largest and most sophisticated of that time.

“It was way beyond a hardware store. It was a business that was dedicated to all construction materials and other related materials, so it had a very wide range of European and North American products that could be found in San José, Costa Rica,” says Fernández.

3. Banco Anglo

In front of the house of Juan Mora Fernández, Costa Rica’s first head of state, in one of the most important areas of downtown San José, the Banco Anglo Costarricense was built in 1914.

The former Banco Anglo building now houses the Heritage Center. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

This was originally located in an old brick house, however, the financial institution, which at that time was private and enjoyed great prestige, decided to build its facilities on a new plot of land.

After a fire consumed more than half of the block, including the advanced work of the Banco Anglo, work on what is the current building restarted from the ground up. The building is the one that today houses the offices of the Centro de Patrimonio (Heritage Center), on Avenida Central, in front of the Lehmann building, and although its essence has not changed, the architect assures that in his opinion “the contemporary restoration (that they did) is not the most appropriate”.

4. Editio Juan Knöhr e Hijos

In the bourgeois and coffee-growing San José, towards the end of the 19th century, many of the businesses of the time opened their doors around noon and closed at around 10 pm. These were late-night department stores, selling fabrics, ready-made dresses, hats brought from Paris, and sacks from London.

The Juan Knöhr building is one of the best preserved. This was a two-story building that sold all kinds of products in its early days. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

“They were the small-scale European department stores in San José that were born to satisfy bourgeois tastes and that sold everything: from a needle to an engine. It was impressive,” says Fernández.

5. Edificio Lehmann

The German priest Bernardo Augusto Thiel, second bishop of Costa Rica, proposed to open a Catholic bookstore in the country, to promote reading and religion. The idea was for books to be sold, printed and bound, all in the same place.

The Lehmann Building housed the most important Catholic bookstore of the time. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

To do this, he hired Antonio Lehmann, also a German, who met the needs of the bishop and who opened the Lehmann Bookstore in an avant-garde building (at that time), located on Avenida Central, in front of today’s Centro de Patrimonio (see above Banco Anglo).

Soon this became one of the favorite hang-out places of the lawyers of the country at that time. “From there came some of the most important books in Costa Rican literature,” says Andrés Fernández.

6. Maroy

In June 1919, a group of Josefinos (residents of San Jos) enraged by the dictatorship of Federico Tinoco gathered in the center of capital and burned the La Información newspaper building, which had been placed under the Tinoco’s orders.

The Maroy building dates back to 1923 and is currently in disuse. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

Some former presidents such as Julio Acosta and Otilio Ulate Blanco worked at the newspaper, and as a result of the fire, the site, which was a two-story Creole corner building, was reduced to ashes.

On the north side of the newspaper, located 50 meters north of the Variedades cinema, there was a small and narrow building, but long, that survived the fire, that was used as a base to create a new building, thus was born the Maroy.

“It was a building that only had a window, a door and a balcony; and it was preserved because it was made of brick ”, says Fernández.

7. Luis Ollé

In 1917, a corner building was built diagonally to the church of El Carmen, which in its early years was the De la Espriella hardware store.

The original dome of the Luis Ollé building fell and in its place they built a metal replica. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

However, very few remember it by that name, because years later it became the Almacén Luis Ollé, a name that was recorded in the Costa Rican collective, since it was one of the most frequented of the time.

This was a warehouse where a great variety of imported products were sold and it was very frequented by the Josefinos. At the end of the 20th century it became the property of the Bank of Costa Rica (BCR).

“This is a very attractive building, not only for its location but also for its design, which was in charge of the Salvadoran architect Daniel Domínguez Parraga and which to date is preserved in good condition,” explains Fernández.

8. Baruch Carvajal

In 1904 there was an exclusive store, which was fashionable and that all the Josefinas ladies and gentlemen wanted to buy there, since they sold the latest in hats of high quality imported from Paris.

The Baruch Carjaval building housed one of the most famous shops of the early 20th century. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

They were exclusive designs, not made here and limited, so when a new collection was announced, everyone wanted to have theirs.

The store belonged to Ms. Velásquez, the daughters of Mr. Miguel Velásquez, owner of the property and who used the first floor for the store for his daughters, while the family lived on the second floor.

9. La Alhambra

In 1893, this building became “the first skyscraper in Costa Rica” and for the peasants of the time, it was an impressive infrastructure, due to its height.

The La Alhambra was the “first skyscraper in Costa Rica”. At that time three-story buildings were not seen. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

In total there were three floors and it was a building commissioned by José Román Rojas, a Costa Rican who thought of making a large house to live with his wife and that, in addition, his children (already married) would live there with their respective wives.

Don José Román traveled to Belgium to commission the building, in order to achieve the style that he wanted. His idea was to live on the third floor, for the second floor to be used as offices for rent, and for the first floor to be a warehouse that he would call La Alhambra, so that his wife and his daughters-in-law would work there.

10. Hospital Clínico Bíblico

This was possibly one of the simplest buildings of the time, compared to the others mentioned here. However, it was a very exclusive place, frequented by wealthy people from different parts of Central America.

This was the best hospital in Central America, where the wealthy came to the country for surgery. It is currently a cafeteria of the Hospital Clinica Biblica. Photo: Rafael Pacheco

Wealthy patients were operated and treated at the Hospital Clínico Bíblico, who in the mid-1940s arrived at La Sabana Airport and from there directly to the medical center. Meanwhile, companions stayed at Hotel Costa Rica and the Hotel Europa.

It was opened in 1928 and became the most modern and the best hospital in the region. This was born as an option for people who did not want to be treated at the San Juan de Dios Hospital, which was a charity medical center. At the time the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS) did not exist, being founded in 1941.

The building is now part of the Hospital Clínica Bíblica, the largest private hospital of Costa Rica.

“In my opinion, the work that the Clínica Bíblica did with its old building is the best that has been done in San José, because making a cafeteria there is giving the public one of those few exquisite corners of that old San José that remails: with quality, with color, and beauty.

“It is a true jewel from every point of view and the way they have restored it has been with a delicacy worthy of Europe. What they have done is to be commended, it is the kind of thing that enhances our heritage,” asserts Fernández


These are the oldest buildings that are still standing in the center of San José, according to Fernández.

“I feel that from the beginning of the century to here, there is an interest in the youth for these buildings, because they tell them about their past. A past that already their parents, ignorant of their past, cannot tell them. A past that, separated from their grandparents, they can no longer tell them. So these buildings are what is left, in some way, for the new generations, to hold on and learn something about their past, and I know it from my work on the streets,’ assures the city of San José architect and chronicler.

Indulge me for a moment, close your eyes and try to visualize these buildings from your memories of your strolls in downtown San Jose. How many quickly pop up in your mind?

So, as once again you stroll through the streets of downtown, take a few seconds, stop to appreciate the architecture in front of you, because it is possibly all that remains of what the capital city was 100 years ago.

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