Can Bogotá’s Teatro San Jorge be Rescued?

“Que buscas joven?”

The woman making the enquiry leant forward on to the damp window on my side of the taxi. Her heavy makeup was poorly applied, it was 8.30am and she looked as if she had been working all night. The security offered by the yellow taxi in which I was travelling felt about as effective as an egg-shell.

The Teatro San Jorge, Bogota on the edge of the Martires district

The Teatro San Jorge, Bogotá on the edge of the Martires district

Ahead of us the road was momentarily blocked by an individual scraping out the final remnants from a plastic container of boxer glue. I was en route to the famous Teatro San Jorge (Cra 15 between Calles 13 and 14) and instead of coming along the well-travelled Calle 13, my driver had seen fit to bring me along the perilous – if not fascinating – back roads of Santa Fe to this northern limit of Martires.

As we approached the Teatro San Jorge I was grateful for the police cordon at either end of the street. While this blockade limited the passage of traffic, a few indigents would pass by and hurl insults in our direction, seeing our presence as an intrusion on their turf.

The local area around the Teatro San Jorge

The local area around the Teatro San Jorge

Take the Teatro San Jorge and group her with the neoclassical Estacion de la Sabana (opened in 1917) and the Edificio Manuel M Pedraza (completed in 1921 and once the tallest building in Bogotá at seven floors and the first building here with an elevator), all located within a few blocks of one another and you have a collection of edifices indicating the past splendour and opulence of early expansionist Bogotá.

Marie Antoinette was the first film screened at the Teatro San Jorge

Marie Antoinette was the first film screened at the Teatro San Jorge

The Teatro San Jorge opened her doors to the public on December 7 1938 with the screening of Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke’s Marie Antoinette and was considered to be the most modern cinema in Bogotá at the time. Since then, her layered and blue-painted art deco reliefs have been an architectural reference point indicating the fall into decadence of this barrio known as Martires.

The entry of the Teatro San Jorge. Actors were employed to evoke a 1940s period cinema experience

The entry of the Teatro San Jorge. Actors were employed to evoke a 1940s period cinema experience

Imagine this, that in the early 1940s, the owner of the Teatro San Jorge, Jorge Enrique Pardo issued rules that all patrons of the cinema be 15 years of age or older and that anyone wishing to attend functions be dressed in long trousers, a white shirt, bow tie and a top hat. With frequent distinguished visitors including various ex-presidents it is clear that Bogotá and the members of the well-heeled high society aspired to create a cultural and civilized capital city.

What would the Austrian architect and early urbanist Karl Heinrich Brunner von Lehenstein (1887-1960) have to say about the social effects of the Avenida Caracas, the 28km of which he designed in 1933, combined with the events of the Bogotazo on April 9 1948, on the city?

the interiors of the Teatro San Jorge are in a terrible state. A cafe was set up for the event despite collapsing ceilings and period furniture was brought in as well

the interiors of the Teatro San Jorge are in a terrible state. A cafe was set up for the event despite collapsing ceilings and period furniture was brought in as well

All of the aforementioned buildings are found slightly to the west of the Plaza de Bolivar and below the Avenida Caracas. After the destruction of many of the stately homes in this vicinity on April 9 1948, buildings and businesses were abandoned, paving the way for the debasement of one of early Bogota’s most desired addresses.

By the 1950s the area slightly to the north of where the Teatro San Jorge is located, otherwise known as La Favorita, became a district of warehouses and factories. In short, the vibrant social and cultural scene formerly associated with this area had come to an end.

From a vantage point through the damaged rooftop of the Teatro San Jorge you can clearly see the Edificio Manuel M Pedraza

From a vantage point through the damaged rooftop of the Teatro San Jorge you can clearly see the Edificio Manuel M Pedraza

The Teatro San Jorge changed hands a few times until into the 1990s when it became a porno cinema. The seat upon which I was seated in the theatre’s inner circle, whilst absently listening to the presentation, is an original. I found myself trying to repress thoughts of whether the upholstery had been sufficiently deep cleaned.

In 1997 the theatre was bought to be used as a warehouse to house a recycling business. The owner destroyed much of what was still standing on the inside to jam in every sort of material and the once regal architecture of the Teatro San Jorge became a home for the basuco-smoking indigent population (referred to as Ñeros) so prevalent in this area.

The interior of the Teatro San Jorge was previously used to store scraps for recycling.

The interior of the Teatro San Jorge was previously used to store scraps for recycling.

The penetrating odour of urine is everywhere but in varying degrees of potency depending on where you are within the theatre. Where members of the Bogotá Escuela de Taller have set up a small cafeteria, rooftops collapsing notwithstanding, you cannot escape it. From 1997 until 2014 the Teatro San Jorge suffered this ignominy and the ammonia runs deep into the foundations. It felt gimmicky when, before taking a tour around the carefully cordoned premises, we were asked to put on 1940’s style cabaret masks. The caper was short-lived though as a guide then sprayed perfume on each cardboard mask to shield us from the visceral pungency of this environment.

Presentations about national heritage projects were given on the stage of the Teatro San Jorge

Presentations about national heritage projects were given on the stage of the Teatro San Jorge

The San Jorge may have been granted a new lease of life if the rescue plans drawn up by the National Heritage (Patrimonio Nacional) are followed. The district (IDARTES) purchased the building in 2014 and the dream is that she should reopen her doors to a theatre-going public in 2017. Alerted to the event by my friends at 5Bogota, I was fortunate enough to attend a National Heritage event here within the beautiful shell of a building in September 2015. Hopefully, a restoration project is not only in the works, but actually takes place.

Will the Teatro San Jorge survive?

Will the Teatro San Jorge survive?

Did you enjoy this piece? Perhaps you’ll like: “Bogotá, a City of Forgotten Histories”

14 thoughts on “Can Bogotá’s Teatro San Jorge be Rescued?

  • It should be mentioned that, in addition to the "state of the art" cinema venue, which was also fitted with all the facilities for live theatrical productions, the San Jorge included a smaller, adjacent "radio-teatro" where radio shows were taped and broadcast in the pre-video era.
    Also seldom mentioned that my father, Jorge E. Pardo who conceived and built the San Jorge, was a self-made, seminal entrepreneur of powerful intellect, who broke through the strict class barriers of Bogotanian society to create the first scheduled bus service in South America, as the famed "Flota Santa Fe", and generate the fortune that allowed him to build the San Jorge theatre.
    Unrecognized as well, that Jorge E. Pardo was an active conservationist who created – in the vicinity of the "Techo" international airport – a private garden retreat "a l'angloise" which served as a nature preserve.
    The carefully landscaped retreat, which was called "El Saucedal" (the Willow Grove) suffered analogous ignominy when the surrounding farmland was converted into slums after my father's death.

      • Not at this time, I reside outside of Washington DC, in Reston VA.
        I am so pleased these forgotten episodes and places of Santa Fe de Bogota are receiving new attention.
        I'll be happy to contribute whatever information I may have regarding the theater, the restoration of which as someone pointed out, will not be viable without doing likewise for the entire neighborhood.
        As an architect, I have been involved in urban renewal projects and know a bit about the obstacles.

        • I am so glad that you got in touch, i am currently studying for my PhD here in Bogota and will be focusing on the Estacion de la Sabana and then the surrounding area as an example of clientilism and politiking and how political party after political party has willfully overlooked this area.

          • Thank you for publishing my comments, and for your interest in Bogota.
            Your activities and research at the "Athens of South America" can only be of benefit to the city and the Country.
            Hope you are well treated by the locals and enjoy your stay.

          • Richard,
            It may be that your communication got filtered with spam.
            In case you did send, please try again and I'll respond soon with a more reliable address.
            Regards,
            Jorge Pardo

  • Great piece and one of my favourite on Bogota. I listened to the podcast on this and just looked up the post. The pictures are close to how I imagened them from the podcast. This is one to read again in the future.

  • I´m a bit perplexed, in one of my 1970´s trips I attended a movie at the San Jorge, however I do remember it being right across from the Las Nieves church on calle 20 and 7th. avenue, the mentioned address is a different one.

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