San Francisco Square (Plaza)
THE PLAZA de San Francisco Asís, named after the convent next to it, used to serve as a stockyard for vital goods arriving by ships from the harbor. Residences of the Captain Generals were built around the plaza. The Square was once the most vital and busy commercial district in Havana, with locals buying and selling a variety of goods.
One of its architectural beauties is the domed Lonja del Comercio building, a former commodities market erected in 1909. It was restored in 1996 to provide office space for foreign companies with joint ventures in Cuba. Lonja del Comercio’s dome is best viewed from inside.
The Lonja del Comercio building, a former commodities market, was erected in 1909 and today provides office space for foreign enterprises.
Terminal Sierra Maestra holds a prominent position in San Francisco Square.
Across from La Lonja is the white marble Fuente de los Leones [Fountain of Lions] carved by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Gaginni in 1836. In front of the basilica stands a bronze life-size statue by famed Cuban sculptor José Villa Soberón of José Maria Lopez Lledin known as El Caballero de Paris (1899-1985) who is buried inside the Basilica.
Church and Monastery of Saint Francis of Assisi
The most important building on the plaza is the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asís. The building where the current church and convent of Saint Francis of Assisi stand dates back to the 16th century. It is the location main Catholic orders established themselves in Havana. Since 1842 the Third Order of Saint Francis ran it. The order dates from the first half of the 17th century when Augustinian monks first arrived in Cuba.
Original construction began in 1580 to create a home and headquarters for the Franciscan community. This is one of the most extraordinary convent and church complexes of the colonial era. The plan of the church originally was divided in three naves in Latin cross with a dome in the crossing section that was destroyed in the year 1850. Between 1717 and 1738 the façades and interior were altered to reflect the baroque style of the day.
The church served as a place of worship by the British during the eleven months of the year 1762 when they occupied and ruled Havana (though some historians claim the British used it as a barn and stable for military horses). Finally, in 1841, it ceased to serve as a church and was taken over by the Spanish state as part of a political move against the powerful religious orders of the day.
The most significant element of the Church is its bell tower. At 42 meters (138 feet) high, it is the tallest in Havana, second on the island after Trinidad de Cuba’s Manaca Iznaga tower at 45 meters. Originally a statue of St. Francis of Assisi stood on the top of the bell tower but it was destroyed by a cyclone in 1846.
The stunning front façade of the church is significant due to its fluted and trumpet shaped arch. However it is difficult to appreciate its magnitude because the facing street is so narrow.
The central nave is hold up in arcades supported by pillars in cruciform section. The lateral vaults are of great interest with skylights intercepting perpendicularly to the main cannon vault.
The convent is of great interest due to its two cloisters with perimeter galleries connected by an original staircase and the exterior front of the second one facing Teniente Rey Street formed by Tuscan columns superimposed in three levels finished by a Baroque motif.
Today the church is a concert hall for classical, chamber and choral music performances. It is home to the world-renowned Camerata Romeu, an all female string ensemble founded by Zenaida Romeu in 1993. The basilica is said to have the best acoustics in Havana.
Its two large cloisters house a museum of religious artifacts and holy art. Displays include many old paintings, some of which come from abroad. There are a number of religious statues and exhibits, and thanks to excavations near the main entrance, visitors can now see the catacombs that lie beneath the church. There are two items in the collection deemed of prime importance: a crystal statue of Jesus given to Fidel Castro by Mother Teresa, and a set of chairs used by president Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II when he visited Cuba in 1998.
Basilica San Francisco de AsÌs was begun in the year 1580.