What is happening with the Palace of the Captains General?

A year ago we reported on the back story of the restoration of the Palace of the Captains General in La Antigua Guatemala. The project met all restoration standards with a Q16 million budget and a projected two-plus years worth of work. I have been trained in architectural conservation (ICCROM/Rome), and I am very picky about restoration projects. The palace restoration is absolutely great!

Then the story became too good to be true! It’s one thing to restore this 1764 structure to its original magnificence, adding 21st-century technology, particularly in lighting and internet. It is another issue to designate an appropriate use for it.

After moving 14 government offices out of the palace in order for the restoration project to begin, the building was put under the Ministry of Culture and Sports, which made sense since the National Council for the Protection of La Antigua Guatemala (CONSEJO) is part of that ministry. This decision seems to have backfired.

The ministry, under the direction of architect Blanca Niño, held a workshop some four years ago to establish a “use” for the palace. Very few Antigua residents were invited. There was no follow up information or outcome from this workshop until recently. And, under UNESCO guidelines, it is essential to take into consideration the local residents’ wishes for the use of their monumental heritage. Add that to the fact that Antigua residents do not want the Ministry of Culture and Sports’ staff to tell them what to do.

News had it that the ministry was going to rent the space for three months to a clothing store from Guatemala City, a well-respected private museum and ANACAFE (coffee association), among others that were arbitrarily chosen. Local participants? Zero. While shops may work very well on the piazza in Venice, Antigua’s residents do not want a shopping mall in their palace. The palace is one of the most important buildings in the city.

Remember that Antigua was abandoned by those who moved to Guatemala City after 1773, and it is the Antigua residents who have created the wonderful city that we see today, particularly since 1969. It has been through Antiguan residents’ painstaking efforts that we all enjoy the city today.

So what do Antiguans want? A meeting was held with local representatives from a number of associations and distinguished residents who drafted a very well-written complaint based on the legislative agreements (397-2007 and 249-2008) calling for an Inter-institutional Commission for the Palace of the Captains General.

More than 250 residents attended the Oct. 13 meeting with the City Council, who unanimously joined in our efforts to establish an appropriate use of the palace. The document was also sent to the National Council for the Protection of La Antigua Guatemala.

What I enjoy about this process is the number of qualified residents who developed a well-organized plan of deciding the use of their cultural heritage. This is done through a democratic process with open meetings and by e-mailing anyone who is interested so everyone may participate.

In November, the Agrupación de la Sociedad Civil de Sacatepéquez (ASOCIS), Asociación de Arquitectos e Ingenieros Colegiados Diego de Porres, Asociación de Mujeres Profesionales de Sacatepéquez (AMPRODES), Asociación de Vecinos Salvemos Antigua, Cámara Empresarial de Comercio y Servicios (CECOMS), Coalición de Instituciones Vecinos, Cocodes y Asociaciones (CIVICA), Comité de Autogestión Turística (CAT), Consejo Cívico de Vecinos de La Antigua Guatemala (CONCIVE) and Vecinos Organizados de la Calle del Espíritu Santo (VOCES) conducted a peaceful protest in front of the palace to show that Antiguans do not want a centro comercial.

Within the palace they want the governor’s office (out of tradition), a small National Civil Police office for assistance to crime victims, and the remainder of the space to be decided by the commission. Everyone is invited to participate. This is a BIG step for the preservation of Antigua’s cultural heritage.

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