Historical Recognition A Matter of Pride

February 24, 2006

What earthquakes haven’t demolished in Costa Rica, the wrecking ball has; history seems not immediately evident here.

Costa Rica’s decade-old Law of Historic Architecture and Patrimony (Law 7555) attempts to address the dwindling number of historical structures in the country, but has spoken only to the big picture. San José’s National Theater and the Church of San Blas in Nicoya, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, are among the 300-plus historic structures that enjoy the protection of law.

The Ministry of Culture administers Law 7555 and adds more structures to the list each year.

But let’s say you don’t live in Heredia’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, north of San José. What recognition of the historical value of your house is available, however grand or humble it may be?

The Recognition of Owners or Tenants of Buildings of Cultural Heritage program may be just the ticket.

The name – the ministry launched the program in 2000 – is a mouthful, but essentially translates into an extension of recognition of the historical value of private property, with none of the legal implications of Law 7555.

“It’s symbolic recognition more than anything,” explains architect Ana Jenny Rodríguez, who shepherds the program for the ministry.

Rodríguez describes the program as geared toward those who, say, want to preserve their grandmother’s house.

“Maybe your house is not of national importance,” she elaborates. “It’s not where a former President lived, but its history still makes it important to the community.”

Evaluators for the Center for Research and Conservation of Cultural Patrimony, the division of the Culture Ministry that administers the program, evaluate the value of the structure’s heritage. Maintenance of the original style and good condition are prime prerequisites for acceptance, according to Rodríguez.

Houses need not be 200-year-old colonial structures to qualify. Saray Córdoba lives in the wooden house her parents built in the center of the western Central Valley city of San Ramón in 1951. Her father, an accomplished builder, modeled the house on a photo he saw in the Spanish-language edition of “Popular Mechanics” at the time. The cost? A mere ¢17,000, or just over $2,000 in those days.

Representatives from the research center came to Córdoba’s door one day, and suggested she submit the house for evaluation.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the house, which sits just two blocks from San Ramón’s famed church, is one of the oldest remaining private buildings in the city.

“There just isn’t much appreciation for the history of houses in this area,” Córdoba laments.

Rodríguez is quick to point out that the program lacks the force of law. Owners of recognized properties are still free to, for example, remodel their bathrooms without getting anybody’s permission to do so.

“People are reluctant to get involved in the program, thinking it will involve all kinds of restrictions,” she explains.

None of the limits that exist for Law 7555’s structures apply to private property acknowledged by the heritage recognition program. Indeed, Córdoba has reinforced the walls of her house and restored eight large windows, still maintaining the original style of the house, she quickly adds.

The program continually refers to the valor patrimonial (“heritage value”) of the structure, but the ministry has no data on the effect of such recognition on increasing property values.

“I see a value to the tourism sector,” Rodríguez says, citing several historical homes that now serve other functions, namely as hotels or restaurants. San José’s Dunn Inn and Fleur de Lys hotels and Bakea restaurant were among 11 buildings most recently added to the roster last October.

The capital’s Clínica Bíblica hospital and the Banex bank in Alajuela also appear on the register.

But monetary value was not an issue for Córdoba, who absorbed the cost of the architect and construction materials herself.

“There’s no advantage to me except one of personal pride,” she says.

For more information on the program, call the center at 223-2533, or e-mail cenpat@hotmail.com.

 

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