• Antigua Penitenciaria, during ChristmastimeGo to
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Location: Paso de la Vaca, San Jose
Date of construction: 1906
Current use: Museum

At the turn of the 20th century, this building was the primary detention center and prison in Costa Rica. It was built on european models, and has a neogothic style, which was popular during its design phase.

The main facade is more colonial than neogothic. It's designed to evoke the image of a castle (dungeon?) sitting on a hilltop, with watch towers and elements similar to those found at the Cuartel Bellavista.

The prison opened in 1907, and was seriously damaged by an earthquake that same year. It was rebuilt and operated normally until 1917, when a gunpowder explosion destroyed a large part of the building.

The 1920s saw a large increment in the detained population, which for the most part was sent to this central penitentiary. 1920 to 1950 were dark times at the prison, with overcrowding, lack of running water, human rights violations, and a series of epidemics that propagated quickly.

The situation escalated in 1948, when the political revolution and uprising generated large amounts of detainees, that only contributed to the overcrowding inside the prison. In 1979 the situation reached a critical point, and one of the worst prision riots in the history of Costa Rica left a great deal of prisoners and police dead, as well as many parts of the penitentiary burned to the ground.

That same year, the government shut down the prison, ending almost 80 years of violence and human rights violations. Many detainees were pardoned, others were sent to more modern and humane prisons.

The building was abandoned until the 1990s, when renovations aimed at new government offices were started. In 1994, the building reopened as an arts and cultural center, housing administrative offices, a science museum, and the national gallery and auditorium.

Several parts of the original prison were restored and preserved, and can be seen inside the National Gallery as well as in the main foyer.

Note: this is not a nice part of town. If you want to visit this building, take a cab from anywhere in the downtown area.

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