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Santo Domingo builds up history's treasures.

AS EUGENIO PEREZ MONTAS STEPS from the cool interior of Santo Domingo's Casas Reales onto the city's oldest street, the sun-bleached Calle de las Damas, his gaze takes in an impressive inventory of hemispheric firsts. From the heart of the first Spanish capital in the New World, he looks south to the Fortaleza Ozama, the oldest European fortress in the Americas. Not far away stands the Catedral Basilica Menor de Santa Maria, the Hemisphere's first cathedral. Across the slow-moving Ozama River, the Capilla de la Virgen del Rosario claims first-church honors.

Defiled through the centuries by pirates, earthquakes, hurricanes, neglect and misguided modernizations, Santo Domingo's Ciudad Colonial (Colonial Zone) is nearing the end of a methodical renovation that began in the mid-1960s. Rushing to complete the project in time to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Dominican Republic, preservationists are working not only to forestall the crumbling of colonial facades, but also to instill a new appreciation for history.

For a quarter of a century, Perez Montas has led the Dominican effort to save the country's important colonial heritage. An architect and urban planner, he was an influential founding member of the Internatioal Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a former president of the Dominican National Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and a professor of architectural history at Pedro Henriquez Urena National University.

Much of the restoration along the Calle de las Damas occurred between 1966 and 1978. One major project was the Casas Reales, which Perez Montas considers to be the zone's most historically significant structure--or, to be precise, structures: The Casas Reales was originally two palaces, one which served as a residence for the Governors and Captains General and the other as the seat of the Royal Audiencia, the colonial institution that governed the West Indies. Toward the end of the colonial period, the palaces housed the Royal Accountant, the mint, and administrative offices.

The Casas Reales continued to serve a governmental function through the mid-1969s. During the administration of Rafael Trujillo, the government's executive offices and the Ministry of Foreign Relations shared the space. As their predecessors had done, the officials of that era took the liberty of remodeling and re-designing the structures to suit their own tastes. Eventually, the second story deteriorated so badly that it had to be abandoned. By that time, the repeated modifications has obscured the palaces' original architectural purity and had all but masked the fact that the Casas Resales comprised two buildings.

Perez Montas recalls the day in December 1972, when then-President Joaquin Balaguer surveyed the dilapidated old seat of government and pondered aloud, "Could we make it into a museum?" The Dominican leader's offhand suggestion became a mandate, and within five years, the proud stone structure, which dates back to the early 1500s, was restored and ready to begin a new life as an important museum.

"Voluminously powerful and esthetically sound," Perez Montas calls the resuscitated Casas Reales in his Biography of a Monument, published in 1979 by the Dominican Committee of ICOMOS. "The laws of form and function are fulfilled in the splendor of its courtly presumption and its Renaissance illusion ... Sober and modest as a fortress, this castle is a symbol of the temporal power which was exercised there with patriarchal severity or with libertine abandon." Restored to their original dignity, the Casas Reales allow us to see the past. "Gracefully, these palatial free-stone walls rise," Perez Montas writes. "Their heavy doors have opened and closed for five centuries, receiving the breezes of the Ozama and giving welcome to governors, lawyers and physicians, or defying nature's elements, so dramatically aggressive in these lands of the Caribbean."

By far the most important reconstruction project was the Alcazar de Colon, a striking castle surrounded by manicured grounds at the northern end of the Calle de las Damas. Originally built in 1509 for Columbus' son Diego and his wife, the niece of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand, the Alcazar served as the official seat of the Spanish crown for six decades. Today it houses Santo Domingo's Museo Virreinal (Viceregal Museum).

At the other end of the street, dozens of rusting cannons peer out from behind the thick, protective walls of the Ozama fortress. The fort's impressive Torre del Homenaje (Tower of Homage) offers a sweeping view of the Colonial Zone and the mouth of the muddy river. Freighters from around the world load and unload cargo on the shores where, centuries before, Spanish galleons prepared for the long trip back to the mother country.

The Dominican government's aggressive restoration program has succeeded in rebuilding most of the important public, religious, and military structures in the Colonial Zone. Today, as work moves into the small neighborhoods bordering the Calle de las Damas, the private sector is becoming involved.

"We wanted to go into a different phase with a new view," Perez Montas explains. "We don't want more museums--we want people to live normal lives in the Colonial Zone." He envisions a special fund to help people properly restore the houses, mostly two-story, that date back to colonial days. The government has already purchased some houses and set about restoring them to their original state.

A particularly successful integration of past and present has transformed the complex two-story structure that once served as the residence of Governor Nicolas de Ovando. His sixteenth-century mansion on the Calle de las Damas is now one of the Hemisphere's most unique hotels. Broad, dimly lit passages and sweeping stairways lead to Gothic public rooms outfitted with massive trunks, tables and chairs. Monastic, high-ceilinged guestrooms surround a series of courtyards.

Across the street from the Hostal Nicolas de Ovando, is the long-restored eighteeth-century Convento de San Ignacio de Loyola, which serves as a national pantheon. Other nearby restorations include the French Cultural Center, the mansion of explorer Rodrigo Bastidas, and a colonial home restored by Perez Montas.

As more and more sites are restored, the potential for tourism is expanding. The Organization of American States, at the request of the Dominican government, has recently completed a study aptly entitled Cuna de America (Cradle of America). The study proposes the preservation of architecturally important structures and the revitalization of the Colonial Zone through restoration of selected areas of cultural importance. Implementation of the study's far-reaching recommendations, including up-grading of basic infrastructure in the Zone, will depend on both private and public sector investment and involvement of the community itself. The project's directors predict that costs will be offset by revenues resulting from increased tourism.

Tragic events of the past underscore the importance of today's preservation efforts. Perez Montas equates Francis Drake's 1586 attack on Santo Domingo--the the English pirate trashed the city and torched its archives--with Attila the Hun's pillage of Rome. "The main link in the chain of American history went up in smoke," laments Perez Montas.

Under his direction, the museum housed in the Casas Reales is much more than a repository of historic artifacts. It has taken on an impressive number of activities and programs that have enhanced its educational impact. A current project, for example, is documenting thirty historic events that were the first of their kind to occur in the New World and were linked to Santo Domingo. A traveling exhibit, funded by the OAS, Plan CARIMOS and the Dominican Quincentennial Commission, will preserve for the world significant facts that not even Francis Drake could erase.

As for the historical buildings that still stand in Santo Domingo, says Perez Montas, they "have served civilization, education and culture--a destiny they have taken on today as a challenge for their survival tomorrow."
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Title Annotation:includes related article CARIMOS: preservation at work
Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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