San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The National Culture Center: A History

The drab, weatherworn walls of the exterior of the National Culture Center (CENAC) belie the wealth of history that lies inside them.

Founded in 1994, CENAC inhabits a 150- year-old building that was the state liquor factory until the government transferred guaro (sugarcane liquor) production to Grecia, a coffee-producing town west of San José, in the 1980s.

The center has nourished a vibrant artistic community during its 12-year existence, and a suggestion by President Oscar Arias that he would like to move Casa Presidencial, the presidential offices, to the centrally located factory building in downtown San José has fostered anxiety about the survival of the landmark and the artistic and cultural communities it supports.

San José was young when construction began on the factory. The city had little more than a cathedral and some adobe-brick houses, said Carlos Zamora, a city historian.

It was 1856. In the face of rampant guaro bootlegging and the associated health risks, the government decided to regulate the production of the powerful alcoholic beverage and raise tax revenues while they were at it, said Zamora, who works in the Cultural Heritage Office at CENAC.

Running a guaro monopoly required a factory.

Recognizing the explosive potential of an alcohol factory, government officials chose to build it outside of town, on a spot where there was plenty of underground water to support the factory’s industrial thirst, Zamora said.

Though the factory was built on the city’s outskirts, it ended up being near the center when the town grew into a metropolis. The factory continued producing guaro until production was moved to Grecia in the 1980s.

By that time the liquor factory had become one of San José’s most historically potent locations, and when the government vacated the building, then Culture Minister Aida Fishman snapped it up for the ministry, Zamora said.

The ministry built theaters and offices in the factory’s warehouses, and converted the old liquor factory into the National Culture Center.

CENAC now houses the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, the Contemporary Art and Design Museum, the National Dance Theater, the National Dance School, the 1887 Theater (named for the year the structure was built as a laboratory) and an archive of documents dealing with art, buildings and Costa Rican folklore.

During the sunny months of January, February and March, CENAC frequently hosts free shows in the open-air theater in the center of the complex.

Each year about 50,000 people visit CENAC and dozens of dance shows, art exhibits, plays, conferences and musical acts pass through the center.

The building is part of the attraction. With old stonewalls and leftover machinery, CENAC’s industrial heritage is clearly visible. The building has architectural heritage status, meaning that it cannot legally be demolished.

The meter-thick walls that circle the complex are made in the cal y canto style, with blocks of stone held together with sand, ground limestone and egg whites, Zamora said.

Near the Contemporary Art and Design Museum, a house-sized series of furnaces that once heated water for the factory has been preserved, as have the exposed pipes that dot the complex.

The factory’s pipes have a history of their own. Though guaro production at the factory drew to a halt before the construction of CENAC, bits of the alcoholic beverage remained in the tubes used to pipe the beverage around the plant. Workers would sometimes drink the bits of remaining guaro, Zamora said.

During construction, one worker extracted enough alcohol from the pipes to get drunk and injure himself by falling off the roof, the historian recalled.

Most of the historic complex has been drafted into the service of the modern culture center.

Behind the museum, for example, there is a square metal pool that is now a venue for concerts and contemporary art exhibits.

When the factory was operational, the pool was filled with water and heated to melt conical blocks of cane sugar into the molasses that would later be fermented to make guaro.

Alcohol hasn’t been made at the plant for almost two decades, but since Arias suggested displacing the culture center with Casa Presidencial, anxiety has fermented rapidly.

Members of the arts community have gathered to protest the idea of moving CENAC to make room for the presidential offices, now located a few kilometers away in the southeastern suburb of Zapote.

Vocal members of the community have also met with officials, including Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada, in an effort to enlist their support in the campaign against the proposed move.

Culture Minister María Carballo has said on multiple occasions that the move is only an idea, and in a recent interview with The Tico Times, she maintained that there is no formal plan to move Casa Presidencial to CENAC.

“It continues being just an idea; there are no projects at this time,” Carballo said.

But it is a serious idea, she said: a committee – which Carballo said includes people both for and against the president’s suggestion – is considering the possible move.

Carballo’s reassurances have done little to alleviate the distress in the artistic community.

After the subject of the suggested displacement came up at a press conference held by the Union of Police and Security Officials (SIPO) last week, Johnny Chacón, vice-president of culture for the National Association of Public and Private Employees (ANEP), expressed his frustration with the minister.

Committee meetings make it look like a project to move Casa Presidencial to CENAC is advancing, Chacón said.

“The minister has not been sincere with us,” he added.

Zamora, one of many members of the CENAC community attached to the building, worries about the future of the culture center.

“In a horrible city, it is a place that is alive,” he said. “Moving the Ministry of Culture out of here would mean that it will never again have a place like this.”

Zamora worries that moving Casa Presidencial to the old liquor factory could damage the historic building, and that increased security measures could result in the landmark being closed to the public, he said.

Carballo dismissed concerns that the culture center would lose space in the event of a possible move.

“If they decide to occupy this space for something else – if they decide that – (the culture center) would not in any way lose space; it would gain it,” she said.

She could not explain how the culture center might gain space if it is moved from the old factory building, but she said Arias has promised that it would, and she trusts him.

She also discounted worries about possible damage to the historic building, calling them “more driven by rumors than anything else,” she said.

“It is a detail that no one is even thinking about at this time… no one wants to damage the heritage site.”


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