Cristóbal Colón Cemetery

BY/ Por Lohania Aruca Alonso | PHOTOS/ Fotos Néstor Martí, David Cruz, J.L. Beker

Located at the intersection of the old Zapata Avenue and 12th Street in one of the most central spots of El Vedado district, the Colón Cemetery, as it is popularly called, surprises the unknowing visitor with its grand main entrance

Among Havana’s unequaled architectural treasures, Cristóbal Colón Cemetery, named for Christopher Columbus and declared a National Monument, is a true “city of the dead,” designed and built on a monumental scale in the late 19th century.

Located at the intersection of the old Zapata Avenue and 12th Street in one of the most central spots of El Vedado district, the Colón Cemetery, as it is popularly called, surprises the unknowing visitor with its grand main entrance: a three-arched portico in the form of an arc of triumph, in Romanesque-Byzantine style, with fine stonework on the hard calcareous rock. Standing atop the arch we find The Three Theological Virtues, three statues that were carved out from a single block of Carrara marble by Cuban sculptor José Vilalta Saavedra (1865-1912). Admirable as well is the realism of the bas-reliefs within semicircular plaques on the front and back of the main entrance: The Crucifixion and The Resurrection of Lazarus, respectively, also sculpted by Vilalta Saavedra.

Previously, on February 2, 1806, Havana had seen the opening of its first general cemetery known as Espada Cemetery, which took its name from its principal promoter, Bishop Juan José Díaz de Espada y Fernández de Landa (1756-1832). Étienne-Sulpice Hallet (ca. 1760-1825) was in charge of its design, which is possibly an early example of the neoclassical style in a Havana building. It represented a prominent symbol of the enlightenment thought and modernization, especially in relation to health and public hygiene. Until then, burials had been made inside churches or in churchyards.

A little over half a century after its opening, Espada Cemetery no longer responded to the needs of the growing population in the capital. This, along with its dangerous proximity to the suburbs (San Lázaro and El Vedado) determined its official closure in 1878. Accordingly, a competition was announced in November 1869 to build a new cemetery in the capital, and the project was ultimately awarded to Galician architect Calixto Aureliano de Loira y Cardoso (1840-1872). The land from several farms, either purchased or donated, were used for the cemetery’s construction. Located to the west and removed from the urban center, altogether they formed a rectangle measuring 810 meters from east to west and 620.2 meters from north to south—the total area was little more than 50 hectares (123.5 acres). The Royal Corps of Military Engineers approved the selection of the site as part of the general plan for the development of the city and construction works began on October 30, 1871.

Two 21-meter wide avenues, perpendicular to each other (running north-south and east-west), form the central cross. This is highlighted by a plaza of 90 meters in diameter, in the center of which stands the Byzantine chapel 

To the general astonishment, Loira died in Havana before the first full year of construction on September 29, 1872. He was buried in the first niche of the Galería de Tobías—Tobias Gallery—his first architectural composition in the cemetery. He was succeeded by Havana-born architect Eugenio Rayneri Sorrentino (? -1922), who, like Loira, had studied at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Madrid, and was a tenured professor at the Professional School of the Island of Cuba. The urgent need to close the Espada Cemetery in 1878 accelerated the construction works of the new necropolis, whose main entrance, walls, paved avenues and streets, administration buildings and general ossuary had already been completed. Finally, in 1886, the central chapel was inaugurated. Built by Francisco Marcótegui, engineer of the Diocese of Havana, the chapel’s interiors feature paintings by Miguel Melero (1836-1907).

Like the other urban works and civil buildings, Colón Cemetery’s perimeter walls were designed and built in compliance with the new Construction Ordinances for Havana and its Towns of 1861, reputably progressive at the time. The urban plan, which was divided into five crosses, was based on the design established during the pontificate of Pope Saint Gregory (590-604 AD).

Two 21-meter wide avenues, perpendicular to each other (running north-south and east-west), form the central cross. This is highlighted by a plaza of 90 meters in diameter, in the center of which stands the Byzantine chapel designed by Marcótegui. Each of the four areas that resulted from that first division are the quadrants, which are called Northeast (NE), Northwest (NW), Southeast (SE) and Southwest (SW). Each of the quadrants, which are crossed by secondary streets that are also perpendicular, were further divided to create new areas or common grounds. In addition to the central square, other smaller plazas were located on the north-south avenue, and one in the center of each quadrant and common grounds. Loira added roundabouts at the intersection of every street, which increased the formal richness of the ground plan and facilitated vehicle traffic.

The hierarchy of the funerary monuments was defined by establishing different categories for the monument zones

The urban landscape was dressed in green with different varieties of trees that were planted and elegantly trimmed, lining the two avenues. The names of prominent figures identify the latter and at the same rank their sections within the group: Cristóbal Colón Avenue from the main gate to the central chapel; Obispo Juan José de Espada Avenue, from the central chapel to the south gate—a triumphal arch of a single body—while from the east to the west gate, the avenue is named after Fray Jacinto, another bishop of Havana who worked tirelessly for the construction of the necropolis.

The hierarchy of the funerary monuments was defined by establishing different categories for the monument zones: of the first order on both sides of Cristóbal Colón Avenue, and of the second order along the other main avenues mentioned above. The tombs built within the common fields, which always respected their outer contours, could be considered of a lesser category. Approximately until the first quarter of the 20th century, Carrara white marble had been the chosen material for tombs, chapels, obelisks, sculptures and reliefs in the higher ranking areas, thus achieving dazzling settings in the sunlight or in the moonlight.

Gradually, the urban development of El Vedado began to encircle the valuable Colón necropolis. Today the centenary ground plan created by Calixto de Loira, which was expanded at the beginning of the 20th century on its northeast side, is integrated into the city, adding a very peculiar landscape to it. Its historical and artistic values demand increased attention for its conservation and protection.

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