El Capitolio

When you take into account Havana's grand variety of architecture, it's hard to imagine that one building undoubtedly rises above the rest—that is, until you see the Capitolio Nacional. This building, constructed in record time during the late 1920s, was born from a period of great opulence, a fact that still shows even today. From its grand cupola to its Roman columns to the massive Estatua de la Republica, read on to learn more about this striking architectural wonder.

It’s an oft repeated “fact” that Havana’s Capitolio Nacional is a copy of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.—but don’t believe a word of it! Though there are undoubtedly some similarities, the Capitolio is unique from the Capitol in many ways, and the designer himself cited the Pantheon in Paris as a primary influence.

A Bit of Background

To understand exactly where such a grand building came from, it’s necessary to understand a bit of history.

World War I affected the world in more ways than can be counted, but in Cuba it was mostly synonymous with one thing—sugar! As European beet fields became battlefields, the world turned to sugarcane for the source of its sweetness. This brought the price of sugar from under seven cents per pound to nearly 23 cents per pound, making even the average Cuban farmer rich and bringing in untold sums of money for the Cuban government. Hardly knowing what to do with this newfound wealth, the administration of Gerardo Machado decided to construct a government building of truly global scale.

Built over the course of some three years to the tune of about 17 million U.S. dollars, the Capitolio housed the Cuban Congress until the body was disbanded after the Cuban Revolution. Since then, it has primarily acted as home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology, though it’s now being refurbished with plans to house Cuba’s National Assembly.

The Building Itself

Perhaps the most famous feature of the Capitolio is its cupola, which at 92 metres in height is actually taller than that of the U.S. Capitol that it is often compared to. This was the tallest structure in Havana all the way until the 1950s, when it was finally surpassed by more modern skyscrapers.

Approaching the main entrance of the Capitolio, one must climb 55 steps flanked by impressive Italian sculptures and French-inspired gardens. The portico, defined by twelve granite columns in the Roman style, welcomes visitors as they pass into the main hall.

The main hall itself is defined by two features. The first, and more immediately noticeable, is the Estatua de la República (Statue of the Republic). Cast in bronze and gilded with 22 carat gold, the statue was crafted in Rome and shipped to Cuba in three separate pieces. It’s especially notable as the third-largest covered statue found anywhere in the world.

The second of the main hall’s important features is the replica of a 25 carat diamond found embedded in the floor. The original diamond was locked away after being stolen during the 1940s, but the replica is just as visually striking. This point marks Kilometre Zero for Cuba, the point from which all distances are measured.

Though the Capitolio is currently undergoing a massive renovation project, the first floor is still open to visitors on most days.

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