San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A Familiar Sight for More than a Century

Anyone familiar with San José will recognize the church-like building recessed between San Juan de Dios Hospital and the Children’s Hospital on Paseo Colón.

Today it is the Biblioteca Nacional de Salud, or National Health Library, and is open to anyone looking for information on health issues. In keeping with the timeless aura of libraries, the long, vaulted hall with its central dome inspires quiet and meditation, just as it did when it was the chapel of the Hospicio Nacional de Locos, literally translated “Insane Asylum.” The institution was more commonly known as Chapui, a name still used for the modern psychiatric hospital in the western district of Pavas.

Back in the 1840s, San José was growing at a fast rate, and there was a need for a hospital, a leprosarium for leprosy patients and cemeteries to be administered under a board of charities, forerunner of the Social Protection Council that runs today’s lotteries. At that time, Calle 14 was the western boundary of the city, and that is where these offices were located – far from the busy, healthy population.

By the 1880s, the need for a hospital for mental patients instigated a decree to found such a hospital and a lottery to fund it. The grand prize was ¢500 ($1, today). The land was bought for ¢6,000 ($12) and construction began on March 15, 1886, in the same location where the leprosarium stood. In accordance with the beliefs of the times, mental patients were held in conditions more like those of jails than of hospitals, and were kept in seclusion. Prior to housing patients, the building was used to hold political prisoners.

The design of the building was neo-Gothic, popular at the time and in the same style as the bishop’s residence and the cathedral offices on Avenida 4 and Calles Central and 1, built at about the same time. The new hospital was described as having a central nave with pavilions or wings stretching out on each side.

Spacious gardens both inside and out were included, as well as a chapel under the dome. Men were housed in one wing, women in the other.When the doors opened in May 1890, 72 men and 40 women became the first patients.

The hospital was named after Father Manuel Antonio Chapui de Torres, whose name first appears in records as the owner and seller of the property in 1752, when he was described as a priest in the AserríValley, which later became San José. In 1772, he

became the chaplain of the new community and became known for his charitable works.

He died on Oct. 2, 1783.

From 1958 to 1959, the hospital was moved to its present location in Pavas, and the wings were torn down for the construction of the Children’s Hospital and the expansion of San Juan de Dios. The central part that now houses the health library is open to the public for anyone interested in researching health issues. The building was declared a national monument on Sept. 24, 1974. Entrance is at the back of San Juan de Dios Hospital, adjacent to the parking lot.Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m.


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