Cartagena’s Town Hall is virtually on the seafront, at one side of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, opposite the Roman Theatre.
Today, it is commonly known as the Palacio Consistorial and is well worth a visit, following its painstaking restoration. You can hardly miss the building – a unique and imposing triangular structure with distinctive cupolas crowning each of its three corners. It is normally open to visitors from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10.30am to 1.30pm and in the late afternoon except on Sundays. There is a minimal entry charge.
Construction began in May 1900 and it was opened in 1907, with King Alfonso XIII and King Edward VII present. Unfortunately, construction was neither straightforward, nor sound. Defects in the building saw a continuous process of repair from the day it opened. Built on piles of wood on unstable land reclaimed from the sea, the building suffered major movements with large cracks in the structure soon becoming apparent. Rehabilitation work began in October 1995 with huge amounts of concrete initially being pumped below the building to shore it up. However, it was soon discovered that the state of the building was worse than the most pessimistic of initial estimates. Another company took over the restoration, but with the budget now in excess of 6 million euros, some 60% more than originally allocated.
It proved impossible to reinforce some structural elements and these had to be demolished and replaced. Internal items which were removed were, where possible, restored by craftsmen with the aim of slowly restoring the building to something approaching its original state. Plasterwork on the ceilings was redone to exhibit the original pattern of decoration. The original wooden windows were restored and new marble flooring was laid to replicate the original pattern, but with a greater thickness (as in the main vestibule) and wooden flooring which could not be saved was remade to the original design. Even so, new electrical systems and air conditioning especially, were incorporated to bring the restored building into the 21st Century. The roof required particular attention as the wood frame had to be completely replaced as a result of its advanced state of decay almost to the point of collapse. Even the zinc cupolas had to be remade, together with their support structure, as a result of the ravages of erosion caused by the maritime environment and pollution. There is a fascinating exhibition of photographs with explanatory texts (in Spanish) in a room to the left of the entrance area. It is well worth spending some time looking around this to appreciate the scale and nature of the restoration work which had to be undertaken.
The first thing to strike you when you walk through the main entrance is the magnificent main staircase. The main construction material is one of Spain’s finest marbles, Macael, together with forged iron pillars. Particularly notable at the side of the stairs are the impressive electric light fitments. These are original – note the four small circular containers around the sides which were to house candles in the event of a power failure! The ceiling/roof of the stairwell is also extremely ornate with a major part occupied by stained glass, exhibiting the Coat of Arms of Cartagena.
The main room on the first floor is the large council meeting room, the Salon de Plenos, now restored to be much as it would originally have been. The chandeliers consist each of some 2500 pieces of crystal and each weighs 300kgs. The coffered ceiling gives the impression of being wood, but is in fact plaster. Exquisite wood carving is to be found in the chairs and seating in the room. You will also see various wall hangings reflecting Cartagena’s history and various Coats of Arms, while at one end are paintings of Captains General of the Armada (Navy), reflecting Cartagena’s long and continuing military importance.
On our last visit, we were unable to go into the mayor’s office on the first floor as it was in use. However, it is a superbly decorated room. One feature highlighted in the guidebooks is the cylindrical canvas attached to the ceiling of the anteroom and known as the Allegory of Cartagena. The central figure of an elegant lady represents the city itself and the two flanking men the sea and the mines.
Another important room on the first floor is the Secretary General’s office. This is now furnished much as it would have been at the beginning of the 20th Century. We particularly noted the very old Underwood typewriter! Various paintings adorn the walls and the ceiling has again been restored to its original splendour, appearing like intricately decorated and carved wood, but in reality, being plaster. One addition to the ceiling has been modern electric lighting. Originally, this office did not have the luxury of electric light, which was restricted to the Mayor’s Office and the Salon de Plenos. The Town Hall, perhaps predictably, was the first building in the city to be lit by electricity.
Around the walkway surrounding the main staircase outside the first floor offices and rooms, you will see portraits of modern mayors of Cartagena, together with an 1895 painting of the shipwreck of the Reina Regente, a Spanish cruiser built by Thomsons on Clydebank, which disappeared off Cadiz in March of that year with the loss of the entire 420 crew. Half of the crew were from Cartagena.
On the next level of the Town Hall are offices for the various municipal groups and it is possible that you may be able to ascend steps to the base of the main cupola. Another location to visit if you can is the toilets! When we first saw inside the newly restored building in late 2006, we were absolutely astonished at the Five Star appearance of shiny stainless steel and white marble!
Spend some time also looking around the outside of the building. Great care was taken during the building’s rehabilitation in the cleaning of the façades, after the cracks between the stone blocks had been repaired. All the façades are different. Observe the intricate carvings on the façades including stone faces which are meant to represent the original native population of the area with one very much in the style of the Dama de Elche.
Article by Clive and Rosie Palmer who have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia. Their book, “Exploring Murcia, Days Out” is available to buy from the CHM/Costa Cálida Chronicle office on Camposol B, Best Wishes (who also stock other of their books, or phone Patti on 968 433 978. All their books can be viewed at and obtained from www.lulu.com, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.