Friday, June 12, 2015

The Grandeza of Porfirio Díaz

During the era of the Porfiriato (1877-1911), President and dictator, Porfirio Díaz undertook to turn Mexico City into a grand, cosmopolitan European-style capital. As part of this undertaking, he ordered the construction of many major government and civic buildings in the Historic Center and adjacent areas. Often, they were designed to be grand "palaces" that served modern functions.

Three of the most impressive sit near one another at the western edge of the Centro Histórico, close to the intersection of Tacuba Street and the north-south Eje Central (arterial), also named Lázaro Cárdenas, but before the Mexican Revolution named San Juan de Letrán. They are the Palacio de la Secretaria de Comunicaciones (Palace of the Secretariat of Communications), now Museo Nacional de Arte (National Museum of Art)the Palacio de Correos (main Post Office) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Palace of Fine Arts. All were built in the last decade of Díaz's rule, the first decade of the twentieth century, in preparation for the 100th Anniversary, in 1910, of the start of the Mexican War of Independence.

Palacio de la Secretaria de Commuicaciones/Museo Nacional de Arte

Construction of the Palacio de la Secretaria de Comunicacions began in 1904. It was designed by Italian architect Silvio Contri to house the Secretariat of Communications and Public Works, with the intention of showing Mexico's commitment to modernization. The design is primarily Neo-classical, but—characteristic of the period—mixes in elements of other architectural styles.

The decorative elements of the building were done by the Coppedé family of Florence, who designed many elements, including door knockers, window frames, leaded crystal, stonework, furniture, lamps and ironwork.

Lamps by the Coppede family
Photo. JRB

Click on any photo to enlarge

Ironwork portraying the Mexican Eagle
with serpent in its beak.
Photo: JRB

The interior of this Palace is worth exploring in detail, which we will do in the next post.

Nearby, facing the Eje Central, between Tacuba and Cinco de Mayo Streets is the Palacio de Correos, the Post Office Palace. Its construction began in 1902, and President Díaz inaugurated it in 1907.

Its architectural style, primarily Spanish Renaissance Revival, is highly eclectic. It integrates elements of Spanish Plateresque, Elizabethan Gothic, Elizabethan Plateresque and Venetian Gothic Revival. The building also has Moorish, Neoclassical, Baroque and Art Nouveau elements. It was designed by Italian architect Adamo Boari (1863–1928), who also designed the Palacio de Bellas Artes, just across the Eje Central.

Palacio de Correos, Postal Palace
Photo: JRB

Photo: JRB

Photo: JRB
Photo: JRB
Neo-gothic dragon

Across the Eje Central is the Palacio de Bellas Artes  

The initial design and construction was undertaken by Italian architect Adamo Boari in 1904. The exterior of the building is primarily Neoclassical and Beaux Arts. However, complications arising from the soft subsoil of the former lakebed slowed construction. The chaos of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) first hindered, then, in 1913, stopped construction completely.

Construction was to begin again in 1932 and be completed in 1934. The interior reflects the change of both esthetic and political eras. It is a gallery of revolutionary art. We will, therefore, return to tour the inside when we reach the post-Revolution epoch in our geographic and historical perambulations.

Immediately west of Bellas Artes is the Alameda Central. The park was created in 1592 at the direction of Viceroy Luis de Velasco. The name comes from the Spanish word álamo, which means poplar tree, which was planted here. The park was part of the viceroy's plan to develop what was, at that time, the western edge of the city. It is the oldest urban park in the Americas.

What is now the western section of the park was originally a plaza built during the Inquisition and known as El Quemadero, The Burning Place. By the 1760s, the Inquisition had virtually come to an end and in 1770, Viceroy Marqués de Croix had that plaza torn up to expand the park. The park was expanded again in 1791 by the Count of Revillagigedo, who undertook a major renovation of the cityscape.

Alameda Central,
Bellas Artes, lower right
viewed from the Torre Latinoamericana
Photo: JRB

Porfirio Díaz had the park renovated in the French Neo-classic style, adding fountains of Greek gods and other Romantic figures by the Mexican sculptor, Jesús Fructuoso Contreras, who also designed statues for the Paseo de la Reforma. In 2012, the park was completely renovated to restore its 19th century gracia, elegance.

View from Alameda Park toward Bellas Artes
Photo: JRB
¨Photo: JRB

Photo: JRB

What else are fountains for?
Photo: JRB

On the south side of the Alameda, Díaz had constructed an homage to his one-time ally and then opponent, President Benito Juárez, the Hemiciclo (Half-circle).

Hemiciclo a Juárez
Photo: JRB

Several blocks farther west, in a staight line following Avenida Juárez, across Paseo de Reforma, rises the transformed and repurposed shell of Díaz' grandest project, the Palacio Legislativo Federal.

Palacio Legislativo Federal
as projected by Emile Bénard. Detail of rear (west) facade.

If it reminds you of another Capitol, that is not surprising. Begun in 1910, however, only the dome was completed before the Revolution against Díaz began. After the Revolution, it remained unfinished and abandoned. Thought was given to tearing down this symbol of an overthrown dictator. But in the 1930's, President Lázaro Cárdenaz, seeking to give symbolic representation to the Revolution and a place to enshrine the remains of its diverse and often opposing heroes, decided it should be transformed into the Monument to the Revolution.

Monument to the Revolution
Photo: JRB

Thus, once again, just as the stones of Tenochtitlán were used by the Spanish conquistadores to build Mexico City, and New Spain's Colonial palaces were re-purposed into Mexican government offices and museums, the grand vision of a President for Life was remade into a shrine to those who overthrew him.

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