An iconic and beautiful house with more than a century of history today houses the Franco-Costa Rican Cultural Alliance, or simply French Alliance as we all call it, a place where a broad cultural agenda has been developed that has benefited the metropolitan population, in addition to being the place where hundreds of Costa Ricans have received French classes for more than 50 years. It is located in Barrio Amón, on 7th Avenue and 5th Street, and reflects the process of cultural and architectural change in Costa Rica at the end of the 19th century.
This change, boosted by coffee development, made the city of San José adopt new materials and construction systems that resulted in the transformation of its urban appearance, in which the house stands out, which is a reflection of the way of life of the coffee elite. It is quite unmissable, since it stands out with its beauty and architecture over its immediate surroundings.
In more detail, in the building the different construction techniques of the time are harmoniously combined. It is a striking eclectic-style construction, although with great influence from the Victorian style, where details of the French Renaissance stand out, and it is characteristic for its filigree iron border ceiling and for the perfect symmetry of its façade, which is symmetrical with walls of masonry with neoclassical decoration.
Its metal gates and columns were forged in France and a flat laminate roof structure is installed on the masonry walls, topped by a simple crest. The exterior columns are very slender and on its capital a decoration is developed that articulates the system. On the roof there is an attic window, of French Baroque influence. The metal parts were imported from Belgium. It has a central corridor, characteristic of the Costa Rican house of that time, the porch is made of metal, obtained through a catalog, the doors and windows are made of fine wood.
The floors for the most part are made of wood, plank, except for the corridor of the main facade and a corridor. The one in the corridor is in mosaic decorated in the corners, which when joined form a small diamond. The one in the corridor is a clay tile, simple, without decorations.
The ceiling of the mezzanine is in clapboard, between which you can see the exposed metal beams. The ceiling of the attic is in wood, handcrafted, with clapboard lining. The attic was conditioned as a library or media library —as they call it, so it is quite large, although according to the librarian herself, it has the problem that it sometimes gets very hot because it is very close to the ceiling.
The ground floor —assuming that the attic is the upper floor— is made up of 14 rooms, used as follows: secretariat, management, performance hall, exhibition hall, concert hall, reception hall, three classrooms, cafeteria, kitchen, bathrooms and meeting room.
On the north side, where the patio was originally set, another house was built, which due to its architecture seems to date from the 1970s of the last century, which has a garage. Currently it forms a single unit with the rest of the building and forms what is known as the annex, where the classrooms are, which communicates with the main floor through an internal patio with a skylight. In the library, there is a board where you can read “March 3rd, 1896”, which still has the same painting of the original house. Likewise, the brick can be seen directly in various divisions of the house.
This work is part of the Amón-Otoya complex, currently the greatest exponent of residential architecture in San José from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was declared historical heritage through Executive Decree No. 26474-C, published in scope No. 5 of La Gaceta No. 2301 of November 28th, 1997.
Exact data of who built it is not available, but it is believed that he was a man with the surname Pirie. The building was completed in 1895 by Mr. Manuel Sandoval. Upon his death, the property is transferred to his widow, Mrs. Ana Isabel Lara; later, to her son, Mr. Jorge Lara Iraeta. The last to live there were the Lara Montealegre family.
In 1965, the Alliance began operating in the old structure and in 1989, 94 years after its construction, thanks to the efforts of the directors of the cultural center and the support of the French government, the Franco-Costa Rican Cultural Alliance Association purchased the property.
By adapting the building to the educational needs of the Alliance, it became necessary to make a series of additions and divisions to the spacious rooms. This is how, in 1995, a profound restoration was carried out, trying to recover the wide spaces and rescue the most significant details of the property, which were hidden among the different internal remodeling to which it had been subjected. The restoration was carried out by the architect Bruno Stagno.
I do not include information about Barrio Amón, because in my column “Recuerdos de mi barrio (Amón)” I wrote in detail about its history and most important data. As annexes, I include a brief history of the alliance that I took directly from its website, and a remembrance text of the Lara Montealegre family, from the time when they lived in the house, which I took from the book “A century, a house”, published by the French Alliance on the centenary of the building, and which I had the opportunity to consult when I visited the place.
The gallery includes images of both the interior and exterior. It includes images of a very nice exhibition that was at that time in the room set aside for that purpose. I only regret not being able to record the name of the author of the paintings, because at the time of preparing this column, the Alliance had already closed for the year-end festivities, and I was unable to consult anyone about it.
I do not want to finish without thanking the representatives of the Alliance for the great collaboration provided to be able to write this column.
History of the French Alliance
It is on a Saturday, July 21st, 1883, that several French intellectuals meet at the Cercle Saint Simon to create an association whose purpose is “to support France’s presence abroad through the dissemination of its language.” Several important personalities make up its Board of Directors, including Jules Verne, Louis Pasteur, Ferdinand de Lesseps, Armand Collin, and Ernest Renan. Convinced by this mission, they commit to developing the association.
Quickly, 4,500 members are registered and, in the same way, different groups begin to meet in other parts of the world: Mexico, Dakar, Lima, London and New York. In Costa Rica, the local association was founded in 1947 by Costa Ricans who wanted to implement the Alliance Française project in the country. The association is run by an ad honorem board of directors.
The institution has been located since the 1960s in its famous headquarters in Barrio Amón, in a house inscribed in the heritage of Costa Rica, which the French Alliance preserves and values. In 2001, a new office was opened in Sabana Sur and another in Heredia in 2009. The latter office closed its doors in 2015 and in 2016 a new office was opened in Escazú.
The descendants of that family that occupied the Alliance Française mansion for many years recover the spirit that inhabited it. Concrete, true memories are built by moistening the collective images of individual memories, and it is impossible to determine what who contributes, if it was exactly, or if it is impregnated with the subjectivity of each one: its value lies in the intensity of feeling, in the perfume that remained forever within the soul, enriching it.
That happened that night when, gathered in the attic of the mansion that houses the French Alliance, the Herrero Lara brothers revived ghosts, laughter, and voices of yesteryear in what was their childhood home. Not the only one they had, but the one that bore the indelible seal of the grandparents.
That was above all their house —Dr. Jorge Lara Iraeta and Celia Montealegre Gutiérrez de Lara—: for the grandchildren, daddy and mommy. They are hospitable, warm, welcoming, without protocol, pure kindness; he was very patriarchal and, on the other hand, she was very matriarchal.
Memories come lazily, little by little, until enthusiasm overwhelms them without concert. Felipe, Olga and Cristina, 3 out of the 5 siblings (Jorge and Roxana the youngest are missing, who did not belong to that time), lived there with their grandparents until the year 50, but from then on they interspersed their house in Tres Ríos with the one in Barrio Amón, where they even had bedrooms. “For example, I spent all my time at university here”, says Felipe.
The Lara Montealegre family did not build the house that is now a hundred years old, but rather bought it, “we believe that more or less in 1939 or 1940”, say the grandchildren. “It is just saying, we can’t be sure, but they said that the iron sheets on the roof were left over from the Metallic Building, because they look alike”, Olga begins to unravel memories.
There is no deed of purchase and with respect to who built it they know of the rumor that attributes it to a Mr. Pirie. “The house hardly changed for many years, the big transformation happened when they bought it”, says the older brother. The family left the house in 1964, renting it to the Alliance Française the following year.
A house always full of people
Once headed towards the past, a couple of endearing figures reach out to them: that grandmother, petite and active, owner of the household, and the doctor grandfather -he was head of minor surgery at the San Juan de Dios Hospital-, always waiting to take care of the grandchildren.
There where we are talking, in the attic, the grandmother had her sewing room and even a bed, because she was very cold and when the ice hit her downstairs, she went to sleep in the warm attic. When they were children, they used to go up there a lot. “From that window you could see a beautiful landscape, it was mysterious to be here because it was used to store things and one would hide to search things…”
“The house had 5 bedrooms,” they remember, “and a big patio in the back that was horrible,” says one of the sisters, and the other defends it: “not so much, it had a lemon stick in the middle.” “The benches in the corridor are the original ones; the boys would arrive and they would stay there talking, the one with a boyfriend…”
That is when we discovered the true spirit of this house: «it was so big that the whole world could fit in it. An uncle and a great-uncle lived, and my cousins. There were always about twenty people at lunchtime, my great-aunts came for lunch, to eat, to drink coffee; during the day it was like a restaurant, everyone went in and ate what was available, here they cooked all day, the house was always full of people, friends of ours and family. There were fixed subscribers to lunch, it was crazy and the meals were in batches ». Olga assures that Grandma Montealegre was the authority in the midst of that small thing but she was in charge. “She performed miracles with the money to feed so many people”.
There was a permanent employee and another who came to iron or wash. They remember some names: Margarita la Gorda, the Sánchez, María Cuqui… «They ironed on the doorstep of the stairs that went up to the attic».
«We studied sometimes like 6 within a room. The way of life in this house was very informal”, notes Felipe. There was a “serious” room, the one in front, with rugs and decorations; Grandma kept it locked for the kids and only opened it very rarely, when they had visits from “big bangs”. The couple rarely went out.
When he retired, his grandfather took care of the house and paid people in kind: chickens, eggs, “Silver was the least there was,” says Olga. And she adds: “My grandfather was very traditional: a white shirt with a bowtie, and that’s how he sat down to eat.” He was very special with the grandchildren: already retired he waited for them when they returned from schools and colleges. «Every day he made us refried beans and delicious bread; he loved to shine shoes: we have never seen a more doting grandfather; he was the one who took care of us, he cared a lot about us».