The regional museum in San Ramón, which recently reopened after being closed two years for repairs, hardly resembles the original building constructed in 1893 in this western Central Valley coffee town. The changes were mostly necessary because of the forces of nature and termites.
Covering half a block on the corner bordering the city’s central park and diagonal from the main church, the building began as the palacio municipal, or city hall, when it opened on Aug. 16, 1893. It was designed by Cristoph Conrad Runnebaum, a German engineer who lived in Costa Rica and had helped build the railroads and map out the country.
The original building was made of sand, lime, cement and possibly eggshells, according to Flory Otárola, director of the museum and an anthropologist with the University of Costa Rica’s San Ramón campus, to which the museum belongs.
“Eggshells were commonly used in construction at that time,” Otárola says.
The building once had two stories and was laid out around a rectangular courtyard, which let in natural light and air and offered a classical look to the city that was already known for its poets and writers at the time the museum was built. The doors, over 10 feet high, are of unknown wood but hard enough to resist termite teeth.
In 1924, an earthquake toppled the upper story and demolished the church and other buildings in the area. It took two years to clear away the debris and rebuild, and then only the first floor. Even at that time, no one considered reinforced structures necessary. After all, how many times can an earthquake hit? But it was termites that silently devoured the ceilings and supports. “Only the hand of God kept the ceiling up,” Otárola says. Samples of the riddled rafters are on display.
The building was closed in 2006 to replace the damaged ceiling and bring it up to today’s standards. The edifice is part of the patrimonio nacional, or national heritage, and thus cannot be torn down or significantly altered.
The museum will be more than a collection of antiques to look at. A continuing line of halls around the rectangle will present a history of the area, starting with indigenous groups and how they lived. Although no thorough studies have been done, the Malekus were probably the earliest inhabitants of the area.
The next display will show an early house of the colonial era with implements used for cooking and living. Because much of the furniture from a previous, similar display was also consumed by termites, the house remains unfurnished for now.
The next hall shows photos of the original two-story building before and after the earthquake, as well as photos of everyday life in San Ramón in earlier days.
The following rooms hold a history of ceramics from the area and a rotating display of local culture, the first being a collection of mascaradas, papier-mâché masks made locally. There will be a room for arts and crafts workshops and a children’s library, as well as administrative offices. Another hall in front, opposite the historical displays, will be for local artists to show their work.
The museum still needs finishing touches. Otárola says it plans to have murals depicting legends and traditions, some unique to San Ramón, and the building will be a venue for cultural activities.
Hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.