What's happening with El Salvador's National Palace?

National Palace of El Salvador

News that the government was tearing up part of the National Palace, located in San Salvador's historic center, started with pictures circulating on social media of piles of broken hydraulic tiles being removed from the National Palace.

This is criminal. 100-year-old Victorian tiles destroyed in the National Palace

Then came an article written by journalist Gabriel Labrador at El Faro describing how the refuse was being unceremoniously dumped into a canyon outside of the City.  

The piece in El Faro described the architectural significance of the tilework in the National Palace:

The hydraulic tiles were unique in their style: they were made of marble dust pressed into cement and today their production is unlikely due to the cost of replicating them in series. “The National Palace was the most important building at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and obviously it had the most special floors you could have,” says Carlos Ferrufino, professor of architecture at the UCA, who has 12 academic publications on Salvadoran architecture, five of them related to the National Palace. The tiles were laid between 1905 and 1911, during the construction of the building. They were installed by the Italian Alberto Ferracuti, whose company was founded in San Salvador in 1902 and which after more than a century is still dedicated to the import of natural stones, granite, quartz and marble. The more than 60 designs and molds of the hydraulic tiles on the floor of the palace were made by Ferracuti and spread 'like a carpet of fantasy and color' throughout the 105 rooms of what was the first two-story building in the country.

In 2015, an article in Conde Nast Traveler called the National Palace a "landmark of design" and explained: 

San Salvador's most imposing building is an unexpected destination for design inspiration, thanks to its interior of intricate and diverse tilework....[T]the National Palace is also home to some of the most beautiful tilework this side of Lisbon, with each room home to different floor and ceiling patterns. 

Construction of the National Palace, which had been funded with a tax on the country's coffee production, was completed in 1911. With 101 rooms inside, there are four main halls: the Red Hall, for ceremonies; the Yellow Hall, as the president's office; the Pink Hall, which housed the Supreme Court of Justice; and the Blue Hall, where the Legislative Assembly was housed until 1974.  

The Palace was declared a National Monument (patrimonio nacional) in 1980.  The current Ministry of Culture issued a press release just last year on July 10, 2023, celebrating the palace -- “The National Palace is the most emblematic building that El Salvador has." 

Photos of some of the tilework from a tour I took through the Palace in January 2023:

Today, much of that beautiful tilework lies in a refuse heap at the bottom of a river canyon.

But more history has also been unceremoniously pulled out of the National Palace. In the inner garden courtyard of the National Palace stood five tall araucaria trees, more than a hundred years old.  Each tree represented one of the five Central American countries which gained independence from Spain in 1821.  However, one of the trees was recently dug up and removed from the palace courtyard.

Photos from drones published by La Prensa Grafica showed that the tree which had been removed was the tree which actually symbolized El Salvador, in the representation of the five countries.  Outside, the tree looked damaged and forlorn standing in a recently demolished city block.

This leaves us with the question of why?  The government, however, has offered no explanation of the work being done inside the walls of the Palace.  A reasonable suspicion is that it has something to do with Nayib Bukele's upcoming inauguration to an (unconstitutional) second term in office on June 1.

Bukele has used the National Palace as a backdrop throughout his years as president of El Salvador.   His inauguration to a first term as president took place in front of the Palace.   

He used it as a backdrop for swearing in new soldiers.   

Most recently, he appeared at the central balcony of the Palace to declare victory on the night of his election in February to a second five year term.     

We will probably see on June 1 some of what has been done to this piece of Salvadoran political and architectural history.  Expect to see changes dedicated to enhancing the image of the head of state as opposed to changes dedicated to preserving a work of national heritage.

For more information on the National Palace, this article offers a description of the Palace and its history.

This video follows a recent guided tour of the interior of the Palace before the most recent demolition work.