Feature – Happy 280th birthday, San José

Feature – Happy 280th birthday, San José

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Best wishes are in order for the city of San José, founded on May 21, 1737, 280 years ago. This is the date when construction on a modest chapel started on the orders of the head priest in Cartago, which was then Costa Rica’s capital.

The site was known as Boca del Monte, “Mouth of the Mountain,” and the chapel was built at roughly what is today Avenida Central and Calle Central. The chapel was dedicated to St. Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary, hence the modern name.

Things were great back then — believe it or not, there was almost no traffic. By 1751, a local bishop recorded that there were already 11 houses near the chapel made of sun-dried mud and 15 made of straw, but there were no plazas or even streets.

After independence from Spain, a civil war broke out in 1823 between imperialists in Cartago and Heredia who wanted to join the First Mexican Empire and republicans in San José and Alajuela who wanted total independence. The latter won, and San José became the new capital of Costa Rica.

San José added another feather to its cap in 1884, when it became the first city in Central America with electric streetlights. And as it grew in wealth with exports of coffee, it distinguished itself further in 1897 by building the neo-baroque National Theater, which one visitor described as “a jewel in a mudhole.”

With this issue, in a salute to all things Chepe, the Howler inaugurates a new feature with historical photographs from all over Costa Rica. It’s a rich history that we’re proud to celebrate.

A passion for historical photos

Photos are provided courtesy of José Gerardo Suárez Monge, author of “San José: 280 Years of History.” Suárez is a professional photographer and graphic designer with a degree in electrical engineering from the Tecnológico in Cartago, but his passion is collecting and analyzing historical photos — he has over 14,000. He has six books for sale, which are available at Librería Lehmann and the University of Costa Rica bookstore, or by calling 7062-3086 or 8794-7679.

The National Theater, days before its inauguration in 1897. The hovels in front were where the builders slept.
Parque de la Concordia, or “Harmony Park,” on the east side of the Metal Building, in 1898. Oxcart drivers came here to sell the National Liquor Factory ingredients to make liquor out of sugar cane. On the right is the Consulate of Cuba and France, the current location of the INS insurance building.
Central Park, 1903. An iron gate imported from Belgium opened on four corners, and served to separate people of different classes, like the poorer people on the sidewalk, left, and the rich people inside, right.
The Tiribi River in 1904: Oxcarts were the only way to cross the river between San José and Desamparados without getting wet.
A streetcar in 1904 on what is today Paseo Colón, looking east to west.
San José firefighters used horse-drawn carriages to transport water to fight the fire of Jan. 23, 1913, that burned a large area on Avenida Central between Calle 1 and Calle 3.
Some of the forces loyal to Secretary of War Federico Tinoco Granados, who overthrew President Alfredo González Flores on Jan. 27, 1917.
Stocks were used to punish offenders around the turn of the 20th century by binding their wrists or ankles into holes between two blocks of wood. The condemned would be exposed to the elements without food or water for hours, days or until death. This laborer was condemned in 1880 for disobeying his boss near central San José.