Monday, September 8, 2014

San Luis Potosí Part 2: The magnificent Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas is the most beautiful of San Luis Potosí's several lovely plazas. In Part 1 we visited Plaza de los Fundadores. Plaza de Armas is one block east of it on Avenida Venustiano Carranza. The kiosco (bandstand) just behind the small fountain in the foreground was constructed with pink cantera, a building stone very popular in old Mexican buildings. In this posting I will treat you to some of the plaza area's outstanding architecture and lively activities. To locate Plaza de Armas on a Google map, click here.

The view east on Calle Francisco Madero toward Plaza de Armas. This calle (street) is typical of several pedestrian-only passageways in the Centro Historico. Notice the wonderful old balconies that overlook the street on both sides. The activity on streets like this is lively, including fellow strollers, street musicians, jugglers, clowns and more.

Plaza de Armas from its northwest corner looking toward the Cathedral steeples. Carole stands on the left, surveying the action. It is hard to overemphasize the positive effect of removing traffic from an area like this. The entire atmosphere is different from an area where motor vehicles dominate, rushing by, spewing exhaust and honking their horns.

Palacio Gobierno, looking west along Avenida Lazaro Cardenas. The Palacio occupies the whole west side of the Plaza. It is the seat of the executive and legislative departments of the State of San Luis Potosí. Construction of this stately Neo-classical building was ordered by Don José de Galvez, Visitador de Nueva España (Inspector of New Spain). Construction began in the second half of the 18th Century. Until the Palacio replaced it, the site had been occupied by the Casa Real (Royal House), the seat of government. The first stone was laid in 1770, during the colonial period. However, ironically the building was never used by the colonial government. By the time it was finished in 1827, Mexico had been independent for six years.

View of the Palacio Gobierno from the left. The building was designed by a military engineer, Miguel Costanzó. He was also a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Carlos, in Mexico City. Due to the scarcity of architects and engineers, it was common colonial practice for military engineers to design civilian architecture, including religious buildings. The man who initially directed construction was Felipe Cleere, the Royal Treasurer and an amateur architect. Several other architects became involved over the years. The project took so long because funds were frequently unavailable. Another factor was the 1810-1821 Independence War, during which trained engineers were engaged in the war. When the builders of the Palacio finally declared it finished in 1827, and presented the bill for 166,000 pesos, the rear of the building was still incomplete.

An exact copy of the Independence Bell of Dolores Hidalgo hangs over the main entrance. The original bell was the one rung by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla on September 15, 1810 in the Guanajuato town of Dolores. Using the bell to summon the townspeople, he stood on the steps of his church and gave his famous grito (cry) for independence. That original bell now hangs over the balcony outside the office of the President of Mexico at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. Everywhere in Mexico, from the capital city to the smallest town, a similar bell hangs over the entrance of the most important government building. Late in the evening, every September 15, each bell is rung to cheers of ¡Viva Mexico!  The pealing bells and cheers commemorate Father Hidalgo and the beginning of the great struggle for independence.

A fine old colonial mansion occupies the northwest corner of the Plaza. Today, the ground floor is filled with store-front businesses. I am not sure, but I believe the upper floor is occupied by the State Controller's offices. The original owner of the mansion would have had a fine view of the activities on the Plaza de Armas from the ornate balcony on the second-story corner. The structure on the left of the photo is the corner of the Palacio Gobierno. Notice the statue on the roof pedestal over the corner balcony.

The Roman god Mercury is typical of Neo-classical architectural adornment. The finely wrought bronze figure wears the winged hat and boots common to images of Mercury. He carries the snake-entwined caduceus--symbol of the herald--in his left hand. Mercury was called Hermes by the Greeks. The Romans were great borrowers and began worshipping Hermes as Mercury around the 4th Century BC. He was the patron of financial gain, commerce, eloquence and messages, travellers, boundaries, luck, trickery, and thieves. The Latin words merx (merchandise), mercari (to trade), and merces (wages) all relate to the god Mercury. His presence on this old building is probably very appropriate. While constructed as mansions for the wealthy, many such structures were built with their living quarters on the second floor. Even in colonial times, the ground floors were often devoted to storefronts or other commercial purposes. San Luis itself was founded, and grew wealthy, as a commercial center to provide goods to the mining areas in the adjacent mountains.

A pair of street musicians entertains passersby. Mexican plazas often attract musicians and performers of various kinds and they seem especially prolific in San Luis Potosí. These two were quite versatile, utilizing a small guitar, rattle, and flutes of various sizes. As many street musicians do, they left their instrument case open to encourage donations. I obliged, as I nearly always do.

Kids enjoying a statue of The Birdman. The statue was modelled on the miner José Moreno Diaz who fed the hungry pigeons so regularly that they flocked to him when he arrived in the plaza. The two kids seemed fascinated by him and the little girl couldn't resist playing with his mustache. I love the way such statues are not blocked off by fences and barriers. Touching is encouraged.

The stone kiosco is fairly unusual. I have seen many throughout Mexico and can't recall any others that were constructed using pink cantera. In fact, the original kiosco at this site was of the usual wrought iron and wood design. In 1948, the earlier structure was replaced by this octagonal one, apparently to better fit with the cantera facades of the surrounding buildings. The stone gives it the appearance of a small Greco-Roman temple. Both the kiosco and the fountain in the foreground were the work of the Biagi brothers. Their other work includes the statues of the Twelve Apostles in the nearby Cathedral. The scene above, photographed in the early evening, shows people flocking around the kiosco to listen to a performance by the San Luis Potosí State Orchestra.

Life in Mexico always comes with a live soundtrack. Mexicans love music and everywhere we go there are live performances, often in free, public venues like this one. Unfortunately, in the US, the days of Woodstock and free performances by famous rock groups in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park are long gone. Today, orchestra performances are usually restricted to those with the funds to pay for expensive tickets. Greed rules. By contrast, the State Orchestra regularly plays in this kiosco, along with many of Mexico's great musicians. Some of their names are inscribed on the walls.

Early morning sunshine warms pedestrians on Avenida Venustiano Carranza. This street runs along the north side of the plaza between the Palacio Gobierno and the Palacio Municipal (county government office). A leisurely, traffic-free, morning amble along streets like this is one of the many pleasures that await visitors to San Luis.

Palacio Municipal and the bell towers of the Catedral. The two buildings fill the east side of the plaza. The site of the Palacio Municipal has had many uses since early colonial times. The first Casa Real (Royal House) stood here and was the office of the colonial mayor. Later, it became the site of both the prison and the headquarters of the Royal Tobacconists (the government monopoly on tobacco).

View of the Palacio Municipal from the right  In the mid-19th Century, the site was changed into the Parián (market). It was converted to the two-story building you see today, with the large arcade in front bordered by the portales (arches). In the later 19th Century, the building was taken over Bishop Montes de Oca and renovated into a Neo-renaissance Episcopal Palace. This was probably due to its proximity to the Cathedral next door. Finally, in 1915, the new Revolutionary City Council seized the building and reconverted into the Palacio Municipal. This sequence is typical of Mexico's old architecture. Instead of simply tearing down one building and putting up another, the same structure will be modified, altered, improved, and reused for centuries. The Oficina de Turismo (Tourist Office) is located in this building and a kind employee led me several blocks through the streets to find a new memory chip for my battery. It's always a good idea to find the Oficina de Turismo early in any visit.

Catedral Metropolitana de San Luis Rey. The Metropolitan Cathedral is the most impressive building on this very impressive plaza. In this posting, I will show you a bit of the exterior, but in the next one you will be able to see the exterior and interior in detail. The original parish church, built in 1593, once stood here. It was constructed only a year after San Luis Potosí was founded. Construction on this great Cathedral started in 1670, using the Baroque style popular in the 17th Century. Sixty years later, in 1730, they finally finished. At that point the Cathedral had only one tower, the rust-colored steeple on the right.

Late afternoon sun lights up the pink cantera of the Cathedral's facade. In the 19th Century, the church was remodelled, with many Neo-classical elements replacing the Baroque. The steeple on the left, built with grey stone, was added in 1910, the Centennial of Mexican Independence. In front of the entrance you can see one of the Omnibuses that pick up tourists here for a ride around the Centro Historico.

The Omnibus loads up. Carole and I decided to take a ride. Although our Spanish was not quite good enough to understand the guide's detail descriptions, the ride gave us a good overview of the area. We were able to identify what to look for when we came back on foot in the following days. If you can position yourself correctly, the upper deck of an Omnibus is also a handy spot for photography.

View down Calle Francisco Madero from Plaza de Armas to the Caja Real.  Another pedestrian-only street, this one leads west from the Plaza one block, along the south side of the Palacio Gobierno (right side of street). At the end of the block on the right is the Caja Real (literally: the Royal Box, or Treasury). Felipe Cleere, who initially directed the construction of the Palacio Gobierno in the late 18th Century, also built the Caja Real. The building served many purposes over the centuries, including treasury office, customs, and a residence for governors and military commanders. In 1854, President Santa Ana gave the building to Bishop Montes de Oca as a residence. In 1935 it was declared a national monument. Two years later, it became the Federal Finance Office. Finally, in 1960, Caja Real was taken over by the University of San Luis Potosí as a cultural center. Today, many artists display their work in the Caja, and there are musical and theatrical performances as well.

The original purpose of the Caja Real was to collect the "Royal Fifth."  During the colonial period, the Spanish King reserved for himself the Quinto del Rey or Royal Fifth. This amounted to 20% of the value of precious metals and other commodities acquired by his subjects through war loot, found treasure, or mining. The concept of the Royal Fifth goes back to the Middle Ages. It had been collected in New Spain from the moment Hernán Cortés landed and sacked his first indigenous city. Not coincidentally, San Luis' Caja Real is located across the street from La Moneda, the old mint. Immediately above the balcony is Bishop Montes de Oca's coat-of-arms. In the niche above the coat-of-arms is a statue of the Immaculate Virgin, a gift from King Charles III (1716-1788). The city's evening lights were just coming on as I took this shot.

This completes Part 2 of my San Luis Potosí series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If so, and you'd like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Really nice pictures, Jim, and informative commentary as well, as always. This looks like a good place to visit.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim