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Vainglorious Towers – Guatemala

Vainglorious Towers: An Essay on Guatemala’s Town Hall Towers
Guatemala

“Creamy and eclectic” is what fittingly describes Guatemalan town hall towers.

Town halls, usually the most well maintained structures situated in the central plaza, are one to two-storied depending on the importance and size of the town, and provided with wide arcaded corridors to protect the exterior walls from the tropical sun, then finished off with these towers. They can give a lot of punch, which make them totally special and eye-catching.

In general, town halls can do away and survive without towers but what’s their reason for being?

Solola's Town Hall Tower
Solola’s Town Hall Tower
For some reason, towers play a practical role. Do they just exist for a show? Towers may function as look out decks for town barons to count their blessings or to scan and survey the horizon and get a vantage view of their realm aiding whatever decisions they may make. They may not serve the same purpose as church belfries do, functioning as lookout structures to the inhabitants they serve using bells as a communication system or more specifically as an alarm device for an impending danger but these town hall towers dispense with those. Moreover, they may provide extra space to the town’s proverbial “crown jewels” and records, serving as archival storage to precious documents, stacked way up high to where they cannot be easily reached by unauthorized hands, and hence eventually forgotten.

But the most important function these towers do hold is advertising the town’s omnipresent majesty and omnipotent power over its inhabitants, more of a vanity structure. As symbolic pieces of architecture, depending on the town’s strength and importance, towers may soar up high and glorious lording over the plaza and even surpassing the church’s high and mighty presence nearby, provoking a cold war clash between church and state and announcing to all the neighboring towns its patron’s formidable economic status at the time it was constructed. Just like any grand dame, its matriarchal presence may look overbearing and controlling but its soft architectural treatment and colors may make it pleasantly tolerable, comfortably reassuring, and motherly endearing.

Huehuetenango's Town Hall Tower
Huehuetenango’s Town Hall Tower
Visitors may see them as locator landmarks, easily visible from the fringes as they enter or if ever lost, as orientation points if the sun is hidden beneath the clouds. With its reliable clock, they remind everybody of the time.

My first view of a strongly visible Guatemalan town hall tower is at the town of Solola, next to the town of Panajachel as I exited out of Lake Atitlan on my way to western Guatemala. It is an eye-catching structure easily holding me captive for a few minutes, even yet on a still sleepy dawn. It can be easily mistaken as the town church’s bell tower. Massed in three tiers of blocks capped with an oriental cupola, this tower peculiarly couldn’t fit in any style classification. The massive two-storied orange block is surmounted by two soft red brick blocks diminishing in size and decorated in Neo-classical ornaments. White trims alternate the red brickwork. Functioning clocks are installed at the top tier on all four sides trimmed at the top by a circular molding.

The unique stupa-shaped soft surfaced cupola is finished off by a thickly spindled spire. There are various inscriptions around but the most easily readable one is a date at the top of the base bearing the year 1914.

The next town hall tower more easily captivating is at Huehuetenango at the northern mountain range end of western Guatemala. The structure may not be a municipal building but a departmental administrative office. Unlike the freestanding Solola tower, this structure is surmounting a two-story building. It is tall and imposing, softened by light pastel and white trim. The building itself is in a charmingly provincial style surrounded by a typical thick arcaded ground floor and a colonnaded balcony hall. The eclectic tower is three-tiered in Byzantine-Spanish colonial proportions with a cocktail of architectural features copied from everywhere in Europe – pseudo Venetian windows topped by a French roof and Italian Renaissance balustrades then finished off by an east German cupola. Synchronized clocks are installed on four sides of the top tier reminding everybody to be punctual, wherever angle they may be. The corners are softened with composite columns, finials and sculptures especially tastefully done on the topmost tier.

Chiantla's Town Hall Tower
Chiantla’s Town Hall Tower
In the suburb of Huehuetenango is the town of Chiantla, another town hall tower caught my attention. Smaller in scale but very eye-catching, it is surmounting a two-story building in the same arrangement as that of Huehuetenango. The line of thick-walled arcade is just as predictable. Surmounting it is a line of a light colonnaded balcony, the columns linked by wrought iron grilles and intercepted by waste can-sized plant boxes. The top parapet is lined with Italian balustrade. Interplay of fresh paints in tones of greens matched with flesh while brown provides contrast. The short Neo-Gothic and Neo-classical style tower stands out with its twin, tall-balconied windows topped by clocks. Escutcheons marked the centers on all four sides and the final piece on the tower is birdhouse-like with vents.

In Cuidad Vieja south of Antigua, the town’s police headquarters has a nice clean tower interrupting a fortress wall, gracing the road fronting the church. The three-tiered short tower is arched at the base and installed with clocks at the octagonal top, terminated with a cupola.

Guatemalan town hall towers resplendently stand tall beaming an outward vainglory of inward grace.

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