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ELEVATORS OF VALPARAÍSO
With its labyrinth of interconnecting stairways, cobblestone alleys, pedestrian plazas, and vistas, Bellavista Hill is one of the most distinctive of Valparaíso’s 45 hill neighborhoods. The majority of the houses in the neighborhood were constructed between 1880 and 1940 of oak and Douglas Pine with sheet metal façades. A series of sharply inclined cable cars, called the Elevators of Valparaiso, transport people and goods along the steep topography.
The once vibrant, commercial city began to decline after the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century. As ships changed their routes, the city’s economy was damaged and many houses were abandoned. Much of the original architecture has been slowly deteriorating. The mechanical failure of the elevators due to neglect or insufficient maintenance budgets had especially negative effects, as whole neighborhoods became isolated through a lack of accessible public transportation.
HOW WE HELPED
Following inclusion on the Watch in 1996, WMF aided a local organization in the restoration of the elevators through the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage and a grant from American Express. The restoration of the elevators helped foster the rehabilitation of nearby public spaces and proved to be a sustainable model for the city and its historic transit system.
Civil engineers confirmed that while most of the structures elected for restoration were in stable condition, precautionary reinforcements were recommended. WMF’s involvement spawned several projects including the restoration of a once dilapidated 1898 house with typical features of the local style, the upper station house of the Espiritu Santo elevator, and house facades along Rudolf Street and the Guimera Promenade. Construction was executed with the same wood as found on the original structures to further protect the historic character of the city.
WHY IT MATTERS
During the late 19th century, the city of Valparaíso was a major port between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, however in the early 20th century when the Panama Canal was opened and the Straits of Magellan were no longer the preferred nautical passage, the port city suffered. Its former years of import left a permanent impression on the city’s urban planning and architectural styles, particularly visible in the elevators and winding passageways between structures built into the steep hillsides along the Pacific. The city’s beauty and historic past was recognized by UNESCO in 2003.
The Elevators of Valparaíso have been included on the 2014 Watch to emphasize the continuing need for the restoration of the city’s most picturesque feature and an important vehicle for social interaction. The elevators have served as the main method of transportation along the city’s steep topography and were fundamental to its urban development. They symbolize Valparaíso’s preeminence as a maritime center, a position it lost after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Of the 31 original elevators, only 15 remain, of which just 7 are operational. The loss of these vital transit arteries has had negative impacts on the city. A plan unifying community, municipal, and private entities in a collective effort to protect and maintain the elevators is needed to ensure their long-term survival and the revitalization of important neighborhoods in Valparaíso.