National Theatre, San José

We arrived in the crowded and noisy city of San José after a 5-hour bus ride from the countryside. Outside our hotel was the public square full of people and pigeons and shrieking parakeets, but next to that was the National Theatre. Inside it was quiet, so we decided to stay there and look around for a while.

This beautifully ornate theatre was built in 1897, in the neo-classical style, and we thought it would be worth paying the fee to go in and look around. Inside the theatre we eavesdropped a bit on an American tour group whose leader was telling them about the history of the theatre. In the 1890’s the ruling coffee barons decided they needed an important cultural building like the ones the countries in Europe had, so they put an export tax on coffee and raised the funds in just a few years. They hired artists to decorate the place and the result was quite stunning.

All of the walls were covered with elaborate carvings, which were covered with gold leaf, and the ceilings were covered with either classical art with cherubs and so on or with realistic depictions of Costa Rican themes like coffee harvesting. The stairs in the theatre are all marble and the floor in the upstairs foyer is parquet made of 32 different hardwood species which are indigenous to Costa Rica.

The lower seating area has seats which were brought from Carnegie Hall in 1926, and the theatre can be converted into a ballroom by removing all the seats and raising the floor to the same level as the stage. Above that there is a second level of box seating, of which the central box is the Presidential box, and a third level of boxes which have no seats. Originally they were for the hoi polloi, so they have separate entrances from the street.

The marble statues were discreetly supported by heavy-duty metal frameworks, because of the number of earthquakes which happen in Costa Rica. But despite the earthquakes and the tropical climate, the theatre and its furnishings have survived remarkably well over the last century.

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