CARACAS, Venezuela — Standing at the corner of one of Venezuela’s most historic squares, the Francia building always looked a little incongruous among the Spanish colonial mansions.
But for many, this late art deco construction holds fond memories — it housed Caracas’ largest gold market for more than half a century. Many came to buy engagement or wedding rings for their sweethearts, confirmation bracelets for their children or watches or trinkets for themselves.
That was until last week when the edifice caught the eye of President Hugo Chavez as he presented his weekly television show, “Hello President,” from Plaza Bolivar, Caracas’ most famous square.
“And this building?” he asked the local mayor, pointing at La Francia. “It’s a building that has private jewelry businesses,” the mayor replied. “Expropriate it,” ordered the president. Turning to another corner of the square he explained that someone had told him Simon Bolivar, Venezuela’s liberator, had lived there when recently married. “That little house you can see there with two balconies and where there are some businesses — expropriate it!”
“We need to convert this into a great historical center,” Chavez said. “It already is but we need to recover the historical and architectural project in this, the historic heart of Caracas.”
Within two days of the broadcast of his program, the president’s demands had been met and traders had evacuated almost the entire building afraid that their goods would be seized. There had been 91 gold and silver shops over nine floors.
Standing among empty glass counters and chain smoking cigarettes, Gad Abayor — who had owned a small shop selling gold and silver jewelry since 1979 — said he felt the market was as much a part of Caracas’ historical heritage as the building itself.
|Gad Abayor with employees in his store at the expropriated La Francia gold market.
“Everyone knew this building,” Abayor said. “Entire boats of tourists came here. All sorts came here because they knew we sell a gram of gold or silver at much lower prices than other shops.”
Abayor, who employed three women who had worked for him for more than 14 years, said he did not know where he would relocate his shop.
But others applaud the government’s actions. At the opposite corner of the square, outside the house where Simon Bolivar is said to have lived, retired policeman Edgar Luis Urdaneta related his passion for 19th-century history.
“That’s what laws are for,” he said, clutching a book of the Complete Works of Bolivar. “Bolivar said, 'If the law authorizes it, nothing is impossible.’”
The government has yet to announce what it plans to do with La Francia, although several projects have been proposed. Jari Nunez, an architect at the city government's conservation office, said two projects would be presented to the president within the next week. Those include converting the ground floor into a cafe and the remaining levels into spaces for artisanal jewelry makers. They hope to begin restoring the building within weeks.
Conservation is not just about giving a building a new lick of paint, said Nunez. “If you go inside La Francia there’s nothing left of what was there originally,” she said. “They’ve taken down adjoining walls, they’ve removed windows and added air conditioning units. They’ve gutted it inside and what’s left is basically the facade.” Bolivar’s former home would be converted into a museum, she said.
Nunez said La Francia’s market dealt in stolen gold, an accusation strongly refuted by workers of the building, who claim that gold hawkers on the corner outside the building have nothing to do with the market.
In recent years there has been a push to preserve Venezuela’s historic buildings but also considerable controversy about how that conservation should be executed. In the 1950s, when the oil-producing country was undergoing a boom, many of Caracas’ colonial buildings were demolished to make way for new constructions, a fraction of which are now architectural classics in their own right.
“Caracas is one of the cities in Latin America that has the least vestiges of colonial times,” said Hannia Gomez, director of the Foundation for Urban Memory, a local NGO dedicated to architectural conservation. “There were many demolitions here and not much is left.”
Chavez, an enthusiastic amateur historian who often quotes Venezuelan historical heroes such as Francisco de Miranda and Simon Bolivar, appears bent on restoring Caracas, a city better known for crumbling concrete monstrosities, to its former glories. Last year the Institute of Cultural Patrimony published a list of 1,216 buildings in the city center that must be conserved for their “exceptional historic and artistic value.” Those include private homes and even one of Venezuela’s first gas stations.
Nunez said the expropriation of buildings such as La Francia formed part of a plan to restore 25 blocks in the old center. “The important thing is to rescue our memory,” she said. “Cities and their buildings educate and by eliminating a historic building you are erasing a collective memory.”
However, some fear losing their homes and businesses to the government’s grand scheme. Gomez points out that La Francia was already a protected building and questions the need to expel businesses that had become a part of the area’s history.
“People see the heritage laws as a way of undermining private property,” she said. “It’s very difficult to launch a patrimony campaign in these circumstances when you have a president on television shouting ‘expropriate it!’”
The government hopes the restoration of the city center will rejuvenate the area, lowering crime in an area that empties completely at night because of a lack of security.
But, for the about 500 workers of La Francia, a piece of history has been lost and they see no way of negotiating a compromise with the government.
“How do you find a solution to something that happened in seconds?” said Freddy Chacon, a store owner who first worked in the building as a messenger boy in the 1960s. “You’re relaxing at home and someone calls and says ‘look at the television — they expropriated your business.’”