Amidst a technicolor cluster of vintage automobiles, the hoarse shouting of peanut vendors, and a constant stream of pedestrians that make up the chaotic hustle of Havana’s city center, sits El Capitolio. Equal parts inspiring and imposing in its palatial opulence, it is an iconic part of the Havana skyline.
The Capitol Building’s towering front doors are copper-plated with images of Cuban history, having just reopened to the public this spring. While many rooms remain under construction, the areas that are available provide visitors with a resplendently grandiose experience. Cuba’s capitol building has spent the past eight years under significant renovations, and this year it is set to welcome Cuba’s legislative branch for the first time since 1959.
El Paseo de Martí, colloquially referred to as El Prado, a bustling promenade dividing Centro and Old Havana, runs from El Malecón all the way up to the 55 foot granite staircase at El Capitolio’s columned entryway. Flanking the stairs are two allegorical bronze statues, both over 20 feet tall, representing Virtue and Work, created by Italian sculptor Angelo Zanelli. From the top of the stairs, visitors can delight in Havana’s architectural splendors. The classic gardens surrounding the building were designed by French landscape architect Jean Claude Nicolas Forrestier, who was also responsible for the park surrounding the Eiffel tower. El Capitolio’s impeccably manicured lawns, dotted with abundant beds of deeply colored flowers and divided by pristine walkways, are perfect for an afternoon stroll.
In 1926, with the unprecedented fortune brought to Cuba by the post-WWI sugar rush, President Gerardo Machado commissioned El Capitolio. Loosely modeled after the U.S. Capitol building and the Panthéon in Paris, yet slightly larger than both, the neoclassical domed capitol was designed by Cuban architects Raúl Otero and Eugenio Reyneri Piedra. It was constructed using only world-class materials including limestone, granite, and over six types of marble. With a workforce of over 5,000, the ornate building was constructed in a remarkable three year period.
Just inside its front doors lies the majestic Hall of Lost Steps. Walking the shining inlaid-marble floors of this cavernous hall, visitors are treated to a profound silence-- the ceilings are so high and ornate they create an acoustic phenomenon that mutes echoes(!). Lined with floor-to ceiling windows punctuated by rows of gilded lamps imported from France, the hallway is dominated by the world’s third-largest indoor statue, the nearly fifty foot Statue of the Republic. Made of bronze but plated in 22-carat gold, she looms over onlookers as a dignified monument to Cuban nationalism.
Slightly less conspicuous, yet no less magnificent, is the 24-karat diamond embedded in the floor at her feet. In 1929 the gem, which was originally one of five diamonds on the crown of the last Czar of Russia, was laid in a gold-rimmed platinum base and reinforced by a supposedly unbreakable layer of crystal. Twenty years later, it was stolen overnight. A nationwide manhunt garnered no clues, yet the diamond was mysteriously returned to President Ramón Grau San Martín the next year. Despite its eventual return, a replica diamond has sat in El Capitolio’s entrance hall since the heist. It marks Cuba’s Kilometer Zero, the cartographic center from which distances to any other point on the island are calculated.
In 2010, the emblematic edifice was declared a national monument, and the restoration process began. Aside from cosmetic recovery, the renovations include new piping for utilities, updated security, fire safety, electrical lines, and the installation of air conditioning. The project, which has been referred to as the grandest of Cuba’s architectural renaissance, is being spearheaded by Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, a Havana city historian.
The grandiosity of El Capitolio’s entryway is consistent throughout the entire building, which includes an Italian Renaissance Hall, a room dedicated to national hero Jose Martí, and a mahogany-paneled library.
Travel to Cuba this year and you’ll be one of the first to set foot in historically significant and palatially grand spaces like El Capitolio that have spent over half a century largely hidden from the public eye.