The church where sages dreamed of a modern Brazil

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Neighbors from surrounding apartment buildings toss empty beer bottles through a gaping hole in the roof of the once-majestic church. Pigeons roam the cavernous nave, their excrement piling up on the floor. A watchman guards treasures from the thieves who prey on the city’s derelict buildings.

The neoclassical Positivist Church of Brazil, with its soaring columns and a cryptic sign above its entrance proclaiming, “The Living Are Forever and Increasingly Governed by the Dead,” was long a captivating sight on Benjamin Constant Street near the old city center.

These days, the crumbling, graffiti-tagged church, whose freethinking founders helped modern Brazil rise from the ashes of an empire, is just another emblem of how Rio de Janeiro neglects its past, allowing grandeur to fall into ruin.

“Congregants once gathered here to debate incendiary ideas originating in Paris, the holy city for the positivists,” said Christiane Souza, 48, the church’s heritage director. “Tragically, our institution now finds itself in a state of neglect, as if history is something Brazil should disdain.”

Read the rest at NYT

Builders of the City – 1921

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May 28, 1921

The announcement that the city government plans to excavate the Morro do Castelo to make an artificial inlet in Glória provoked a wave of protests, as violent as the undertow, the irreconcilable enemy of the wonderful Beira Mar. The city ordinance to earmark a violently conquered space to the Guanabara Bay was of no use as a mitigating crime of counter-aesthetics : an idea that seemed extravagant in a city that possesses a backdrop of forests and mountains, a huge natural park in comparison to the panoramas of the man-made gardens that are deplorably modest. A city friend, more exalted by anger in the face of a sacrilegious attempt, reduced his indignation to a rigorous maxim, exclaiming: Na bahia não se toca! (One doesn’t mess with the Bay!)

What weighs on a friend of the Guanabara Bay, the truth is that Rio de Janeiro wouldn’t exist if the prohibition of messing with it were a law since the times of Mem de Sá. One can say that the entire lower part of Brazil’s capital is an achievement of our ancestors over mangroves, grottos, swamps, lakes and marshes that covered, 400 years ago, the city where automobiles pass by today.

When the third governor of Brazil, anchoring in the bay in January of 1567, disembarked in the fortified village that the heroic Estácio, his nephew, built between the cliffs of Sugarloaf and the São João hill, he soon thought the hostile cradle and future capital of Brazil should be transported in the laps of the warriors to the hill, initially denominated as São Sebastião, which would be its throne, capital and reliquary for thee and a half centuries.

On the hill overlooking the Coligny fort, the bronze cannons, transported from the ships to the barbarian seafront, stucco fort, dominated the valleys and commanded the bay.

After his valiant nephew was buried, Mem de Sá started the construction of the city at the Piasaba port, near the Santiago stronghold, where the Misericordia church is today. Via the hill’s slope, the first steep and venerable street of the city of S. Sebastião began.

From the top, the navy, the soldiers and the indians, allies of Ararygboia, dug the fort’s canals, from parochial [], from the residence of the Government and the Parliament, walling the citadel with strong [pelissadas?].

Soon, however, the population felt that the mountain was small for them. Protected by the fort, they started going down the mountain side. Then man’s fight with the water started. At the foot of the hill, an extensive water-filled valley stretched out, which had to be dried out and landfilled. The colonizers and populators had to conquer, palm tree to palm tree, the lands of Rio de Janeiro. There still weren’t any aesthetic champions to defend Guanabara from the sacrilege of the landfills. From a salt water marsh, the inhabitants of S. Sebastião made a city. It was on the first conquered lands near the water that the streets and the maze of alleyways of Misericórdia aligned themselves – currently being demolished – and later Direita do Paço and do Cotovello streets. These formidable ancestors, who didn’t have dredgers nor automotive vehicles to excavate, managed to build, at the spot where they found mud and grottos, the Carmo convent and the S. José church.

They made a nation so that we today could create nationalism.

Among the hills of S. Sebastião (Castello), Carmo (Santo Antonio), Manoel de Brito (S. Bento), Paulo Caieiro (Formiga), Santa Thereza (do Pinto), da Lagoinha (Paula Mattos), Pedro Dias (do Senado) and Desterro (Santa Thereza), a plain of marsh and mangroves stretched out. In the spot where today are the Largo da Carioca and adjacent streets, was the Santo Antonio lagoon. Arcos street was opened on the Pedro Dias swamp. The current street Riachuelo was a trail that gave way from the Desterro to the Sentinella lagoon. Next to the Ajuda convent was the marshy Boqueirão lagoon, that was landfilled by order of the viceroy D. Luiz de Vasconcellos with land from the knoll of the Mangueiras ranch (today’s Largo da Lapa) for construction of the Passeio Público. Viólas street (today Theophilo Ottoni) and all the surrounding opening of streets were marshes fed by the tide. When, in 1600, Antonio Martins Palma and his wife D. Leonor Gonçalves started to build the first church at Candelaria, in fulfilment of vows, the bay waters reached the spot where Primeiro de Março street now is. All the large valleys from Gávea to Engenho Novo were marshes and sandbanks. In the current Largo do Machado was the Carioca lagoon.

Compared with these tenacious builders, who needed to landfill soaked plains so that in them they could improvise a city, government projects seem like simple engineering toys. Mr. Carlos Sampaio intending to landfill the Glória inlet, could invoke the cyclopic public works of those that came before as justification of his desires. Since the foundation of the city man has fought with Guanabara, ripping out land to build churches and houses. And the fight will continue, without truces.

Our grandchildren will see, possibly, avenue Rio Branco extended til Villegaignon. The Passos, the Frontins and the Carlos Sampaios of the future will continue being like our ancestors, destroyers of hills, drainers of lagoons, landfillers of mangroves, conquerors of Guanabara.

To this conclusion one arrives examining any city plan and considering that, based on its geographic situation, by the ampleness of its port and by its demographic conditions, already impossible to correct, Rio de Janeiro will represent in Brazil the corresponding function of New York to the United States. The removal of the capital to the Goias plateau will be imperceptably influential in the solution to the extremely enormous problem that future generations will be faced with. Rio de Janeiro will be, in less than a century, a city with 3 million inhabitants and to accommodate this population and create the conditions in which it can exercise its activities, in accordance with the categorical imperatives of space and time, it’ll be necessary to impose a sacrifice of much of its natural beauty which we defend today, to landfill considerable areas of the liquid plains of Guanabara, to enlarge the scanty valley, still pregnant with knolls and hills.

There would still be time for the city government to entrust the study of the problem of Rio’s transformations to a commission made up of more competent figures of national engineering, adding to this technical commission some architects and artists, and asking them to prepare a project together which would represent an agreement of authorized opinions. Otherwise the future will be sacrificed to mere momentaneous desires and the discussion around each partial project will be renewed.

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Gloria Clock & Carioca Time

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Following the previous post on Rio’s old public clocks, I wanted to do a quick post on the German-made Krussman clock in Glória as it is not only the oldest free-standing clock in Rio but the most valuable (it still has all its original pieces). The four clock faces, by the way, allow the pedestrian to see the time from any cardinal direction and this created a relationship between the average citizen and the keeping of time. It’s likely this connection was a natural extension of the government’s preocupation with keeping time, stemming from the fact that doing so was essential to ship navigation.

Returning to the Glória clock, it was installed by the Pereira Passos government in April of 1905 as part of the process of landfilling the old Lapa beach. The electricity to make it run was uniquely supplied by the Botanical Garden Railroad Co., whose tram line ran past it.

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Above, you can see the transformation of Glória from the first years of the 1900s (left), when the sea practically brushed up against the clock, to the transformations that had taken place already by 1922 (right), the same year Hotel Glória was opened.

– Sources (one, two, three)

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We’re all familiar with Carioca time…that is, being late for meetings, appointments, and get-togethers. But what how was the Carioca’s relationship with time 100 years ago? Read on to find out.

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Is Your Clock Right?
The time difference in Rio de Janeiro
Each clock has its own

If there were a curious person stopping you on the corner and were to ask each person with a watch — “What time is it?”, they’d be a bit lost.

Each clock keeps its own time, like each individual has their own opinion about time zones. The proof for this inconsistency of time with clocks is proven by entering a clock shop: where there’s not a clock on the same time!

[…] Is the time inequality among us influenced by, and the cause of, the inequality we live in? Who knows?

On the Estrada de Ferro itself the clocks aren’t regulated. And there, they have someone specially put in charge of setting the clocks. This makes Mr. Dr. Morize, director of our Observatory, uncomfortable and thus he is always in favor of a means for which the pendulums regulate the time of the Castello.

leilao_rio09a(Now-demolished Morro do Castelo, where the National Observatory was located. The Observatory signaled the official time via a balloon; see link below)

Long ago, the correct time was a sure thing. The good regulators were like good talking parrots: they had the best asking prices. There was, for example, a house on Rua do Ouvidor, Ao Colosso de Rhodes, that possessed a balloon (rather like a time ball) to correctly signal midday. It was the Colosso and the Castello that offerred the Carioca public the right time.

This ended. Now there’s a new place on Rua Uruguayana that supplies the Observatory’s correct time. Despite this, the clocks are completely crazy. A quick look at the exposed clocks in the city gives us strange information. One can verify that the official clocks compete with the times at Central Station and the Light Co.

Taking the Castello time as a basis, we arrive at the conclusion that, when midday comes, the clocks below will say:

Relogio Hora Certa 08-26-11

That’s disorganized organization! Fortunately, time zones will come put all the times on an axis or will make it so that, once and for all, no one will know what time it is!…


1. Source (Newspaper A Noite, August 1911). 2/3. Untranslated articles, from A Noite in 1911, about when Brazil first started using time zones (click to enlarge). 4. A joke about time zones from the same source and date.

Relogio Hora Certa 08-26-11 copy  Hora Universal 08-24-11 Questao da Hora 08-23-11Fuso-Horario 08-24-11