Two Cities of Nicaragua
The bitter rivalry between Granada and León came to a head in the 1850s when a full-scale civil war erupted. León contracted the services of the notorious American William Walker, who conquered Granada for a brief time. He was forced to flee in 1856, but not before burning the city to the ground.
Although it saw short-lived street fighting between the Sandinista and Somocista forces during the civil war in the 1980s, Granada was spared the damage suffered by other Nicaraguan cities in that bitter and brutal conflict. Today many of Granada's buildings have been restored to their former glory, and the city is thriving in a feel-good atmosphere that feels distant from the perils of war.
At the center of town, the impressive plaza Parque Colon is lined with shady mango trees. The plaza is surrounded by magnificent buildings, most in the Spanish colonial revival style of the 1920s and 30s. On view here are complex, deeply sculptured surfaces, wrought-iron grillwork, elaborately carved decorations surrounding round-arched windows, arcaded entrances and porches, and tile roofs.
The Casa de la Gran Francia, on the plaza's southeast corner, was rebuilt in 1997 from adobe and hardwood, the same materials used in the original. It is the only building in the city that retains the initial Spanish colonial style, which was typical in the city before Walker's devastation. Other historic structures are in the more complex and elaborate Spanish colonial revival style.
In addition to displaying the large forms and curving lines of the traditional European baroque, Spanish colonial buildings maintained a distinctive contrast between ornamented and plain surfaces.
A fine example of Central American baroque in Granada is the Iglesia de La Mercad, which was completed in 1539 and restored in 1862. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful of Nicaragua's many churches. Its rich baroque facade is carved into orange-yellow stone. Light-and-shade patterns enhance richly carved columns amid alternating curves and angles.
León up from Ashes
The current city of León was established when Old León was destroyed by an earthquake in 1609. That earthquake, and subsequent eruptions from the Momotombo volcano destroyed every single building. The "New León" was built on a different site and incorporates massive architecture that represents the religious art of the 17th century. The city has long been regarded as the intellectual center of Nicaragua, boasting a university, several religious colleges, and the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Construction of the colossal Metropolitan Cathedral began in 1747 and lasted over 100 years. It is the largest cathedral in Central America and displays outstanding works of art in its interior. To its north, the 18th century cathedral Iglesia de El Calvario features a colorful facade illustrating scenes from the bible between a pair of red brick bell towers.
The Colegio de San Ramon opposite the Metropolitan Cathedral functions today as a primary school. Its elaborate arched entrance opens into a spacious, pleasant courtyard surrounded by pillars supporting a low three-story building. On the second floor, a long terrace encircles the courtyard at the center of which stands a typical Spanish-inspired fountain.
Domestic buildings in the Spanish colonial style are usually built of thick stone walls covered with stucco. The bare exterior walls contrast dramatically with the carved doorways and other highly ornamented details. The red tile roofs are either flat or low pitched. These houses typically have multiple exterior doors and few window openings, usually with grills or bars and heavy shutters.
Long narrow wrought-iron porches often open onto interior gardens or exquisite courtyards. Inside, the rooms frequently lack connecting doors, and the balconies function as secluded passages between them.
In a country lacking in infrastructure and government services, it is up to the people to take the initiative, from cleaning the pavement in front of their homes to handcrafting the ornamentation that decorates the exteriors of many of their houses.
Although Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, the people are proud of their heritage, including the architectural splendors of León and Granada. Natural disasters and human-inflicted devastation have eliminated much of Nicaragua's colonial architecture, but the rebuilding and restoration, intensified in the past 15 years, have reestablished Nicaragua as an architectural landmark.
Steven Allan is a freelance photographer and writer born in London, currently living in Tel-Aviv.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...