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