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Behind the façades

USP inventory calls attention to the loss of historic structures in the state’s first coffee-growing region

Poorly preserved house in São José do Barreiro: exposed walls, as found in other cities of the Vale Histórico Paulista

EDUARDO CESARPoorly preserved house in São José do Barreiro: exposed walls, as found in other cities of the Vale Histórico PaulistaEDUARDO CESAR

A white mansion with blue doors, once the home of wealthy men, a public school and city hall, and later abandoned for 18 years, now reigns elegantly, showcased under nighttime floodlights, on a plaza in Bananal, a city in the state of São Paulo near the border with Rio de Janeiro State. The restoration of sections of walls as well as the 16 doors and 32 windows of its façade, and the renovation of its interior—which required hauling away 11 truckloads of debris mixed with rat and bat excrement—were spearheaded by three city residents. In 2001, Reinaldo Afonso and Margarida Duarte Afonso, who are husband and wife, along with Vera Lúcia de Paula Antunes da Silva, voluntarily took on the task of reviving the building in which they learned to read. Much remains to be done. The interior is a woeful sight—gloomy, doors falling off their hinges, holes in the floor. Twenty eucalyptus columns, installed temporarily in 1985, hold up the fragile ceiling beams. A broken piano at the foot of the staircase hints of music lessons of a bygone era.

The lights and shadows of the Vallim Mansion illustrate the contrasts, uncertainties and difficulties of preserving the cultural and architectural heritage of the Vale Histórico Paulista [São Paulo Historic Valley], the region where coffee plantations were first established in the state of São Paulo in the early 19th century. The mansion is named after its first owner, Manoel de Aguiar Vallim, who had it built in 1855 as a place where he could welcome English traders and government officials. In Bananal and its neighboring cities, many historic structures have now been restored, including the São José do Barreiro City Hall, a mansion that once served as the city jail. Other buildings have only their façades preserved, in front of run-down or modernized interiors, and some are being renovated. Several houses, empty or undergoing renovation, have sections of plasterless walls that expose red earth and tree trunks, calling to mind the bones and veins of a skinless body. Locals tell the story that several old houses were consumed by rain, tumbled into ruins and disappeared back into the earth from which they were built.

“The loss is never-ending,” says historian Sílvia Helena Zanirato, a researcher at the School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities at the University of São Paulo (EACH-USP). From February 2013 to December 2014, Zanirato and her team of historians, environmental managers, microbiologists, biologists, chemists and climatologists inventoried 195 urban and rural structures from the coffee period in five cities in the region—Bananal,  São José do Barreiro, Areias, Silveiras and Queluz. All of the structures were built during the colonial period along the old road between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The survey indicated that 78 houses, or 40%, are at risk of collapse or in need of urgent repair. According to the findings, 36 houses need repair because the roof is falling in, 16 because the walls have cracks, and 8 because their proximity to hillsides makes them subject to landslides or flooding in the event of heavy rains and overflowing rivers.

Interior of the Vallim Mansion in Bananal: nearly everything behind the restored façade needs renovation

Eduardo CesarInterior of the Vallim Mansion in Bananal: nearly everything behind the restored façade needs renovationEduardo Cesar

Ubiquitous termites
The researchers documented a steady loss of historic heritage. Queluz, with 10,000 residents, has only 11 urban houses and one farmhouse from the coffee period. Silveiras, a town of about 6,000, has only seven. Bananal, the region’s largest city at slightly over 10,000 residents, has a more extensive heritage, with 65 historic urban and rural houses from the coffee period within the city limits, and nine in the rural area. São José do Barreiro, population 4,000, has 52, and in Areias, with 4,000 residents, there are 42.

“None of the houses here are in bad condition,” says Cláudio Carvalho Costa, head of Areias’ cultural secretariat. He says there used to be only two houses of historic value in critical condition with collapsing roofs, besides the mansion that houses the cultural secretariat, but they were sold and renovated. In Areias, says Zanirato, the biggest problems are with the buildings on the farms. In each city, most of the historic structures have modifications or adaptations that raise questions about their authenticity. “Along the streets in historically designated central Bananal, we see buildings that were or are being rebuilt and heavily modified, without the proper communication with the agencies in charge of historic heritage protection,” she points out.

Zanirato thinks the top priority should be to eradicate termites, which eat away at the wood in the ceilings, walls, floors, doors and window casings of the 78 houses at risk. “I saw a child sleeping in a house with a ceiling that looked like lacework from so much termite damage; it could easily collapse,” she notes. “In São José do Barreiro, the city as a whole would need to be treated for termites because the roofs and walls of the houses in the center of town are continuous, so it makes no sense for the homeowners to treat only their own house.” The findings of the field work and proposals for a plan of action were to be presented to the State Secretariat of Culture in early August 2015.

The outlook for preservation of the area’s cultural heritage is cause for concern, in view of the present circumstances and the regional climate scenarios drawn up by meteorologists Rita Ynoue and Rosmeri Porfírio da Rocha, both of whom work at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences (IAG) of USP. An analysis of data collected at five meteorological stations in the region, as well as computer simulations, have indicated a probable increase of 3oC in the maximum and minimum regional temperatures in the closing decades of this century (2070-2100). Theoretically, said Zanirato, the more intense heat could step up the activity of the already-feared termites.

Slave cemetery in São José do Barreiro: abandoned

Eduardo CesarSlave cemetery in São José do Barreiro: abandonedEduardo Cesar

The projections indicated that there is also likely to be a 3% drop in relative humidity and a slight increase in precipitation. “Precipitation is harder to forecast because the results vary greatly from one climate model to another,” says Ynoue. The teams headed by José Marengo of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and Tércio Ambrizzi of IAG-USP converged in their forecasts for rising temperatures and heavier, more irregular rainfall in the Southeast.

Microbiologist Felipe Chambergo Alcalde, along with his team at EACH-USP, collected 2,317 air samples inside the historic structures and identified 34 species of fungi and 74 species of bacteria, promoted by humidity as high as 80% in the early months of the year. Most of these microorganisms produce enzymes capable of digesting cellulose, so they could colonize and eat away at door posts and ceiling beams. Andrea Cavicchioli, who is also on the staff at EACH, and Alejandra Fazio and Dalva Faria of the USP Chemistry Institute, identified 14 fungal species—some of which were reported for the first time—that had colonized the earthen masonry of the historic urban and rural structures of São José do Barreiro and Areias, causing them to deteriorate through the release of acidic substances. According to Cavicchioli, this is one of the only areas in São Paulo that have the three types of earthen structures, namely, wattle and daub, adobe and rammed earth. “Unbaked earthen architecture, prior to the use of tile and cement, is quite characteristic of the heritage of the state of São Paulo, and it is at risk of being lost.”

Distrust and resistance
Preservation of public or private buildings is not easy, even when there is money to pay for renovation and a desire to follow the restoration standards set by the Council for the Defense of the Historical, Archaeological, Artistic and Touristic Heritage (Condephaat). Many properties are abandoned and deteriorating—like the Hotel Brasil, built in 1847, and the Vallim Mansion—because of estate distribution and impoverishment of heirs. The USP team observed that “people have a great deal of distrust in the state and national agencies responsible for heritage preservation,” as indicated in one of the project reports.

Contrasts: Catadupa farm, in the early stages of restoration, and chapel of the Loanda farm, restored over a 10-year period

Eduardo CesarContrasts: Catadupa farm, in the early stages of restorationEduardo Cesar

“Despite the constant presence of technical specialists on-site and the open channel for dialogue, the general populace exhibits a lot of resistance to following the technical guidelines and carrying out the plans required in order to get formal approval,” comments Lara Melo Souza, director of the group in charge of preservation and restoration of buildings designated as historic landmarks by the State Secretariat of Culture. “There is a myth that restoration is expensive and that Condephaat does not approve interventions, but no one bothers to find out what reasons might have led Condephaat to reject them.” According to Souza, because the buildings designated as historic heritage sites have specific architectural features, they require a careful restoration plan to retain their original features. “This doesn’t necessarily mean they are expensive procedures; oftentimes the materials can be found locally, but these are tasks that require more attention during the planning stage.”

“This isn’t a tourist spot?” asked Lauro Maia Cavalcanti, standing before a collective grave in what is known as the slave cemetery, in São José do Barreiro. The inscription on the gravestone reads, “Here lie the mortal remains of the last slaves. We are not children of servitude and scorn; rather, we are the inheritors of freedom and the benevolence of the Church and Jesus Christ.” Cavalcanti and his wife, Joseane Paes Leme Fontaine, residents of the municipality, where they have a farm, were shocked at what they saw: “There are entire tombs missing,” she says. Since the cemetery has gotten little attention from government agencies, there have been constant thefts of plaques and marble statues from the graves of other residents of the city who are also buried there.

In 2012, Lauro Cavalcanti, the grandson of a farm owner in the area, who studied law and environmental management at USP, and Fontaine bought and started restoring the Catadupa farm, which is representative of the coffee era. The first task, which took 25 days, was to restore the bridge over the Formoso River by using 96 railroad ties. “This stone wall had been partly restored using soil from termite nests and ant hills, plus lime,” he says, standing alongside the farmhouse. We’re still looking for the best soil mixture, along with the researchers at USP.” Their diligence contrasts with the haste exhibited by other restorers, who mix cement with earth. “Cement can function as a plaster, but it eventually heats up and breaks down.” There are many plans for the farmhouse: change the wood and plaited bamboo of the ceiling, restore the original paint on the walls, redo the floor. “The house was falling down when we got here,” he says. We’ve now been able to get rid of the leaks.”

Chapel of the Loanda farm, restored over a 10-year period

Eduardo CesarChapel of the Loanda farm, restored over a 10-year periodEduardo Cesar

Pedro Teixeira, a physician who moved to Bananal in 1996, spent 10 years and about R$2.5 million to restore the Loanda farm, which was established in 1790 and has belonged to the Teixeira family since 1940. The restoration exposed impeccable salons with French mirrors, an English gramophone and a German piano. “Today the house is like it was in 1860,” he says. Near the house, he is building a museum, a restaurant and a store for local products, which he intends to open in late 2015. His farm only receives tourist visitors, but other restored and equally luxurious farms have been turned into inns and served as scenarios for soap operas and films.

The Mother Church
At the Mother Church of the Good Lord Jesus the Redeemer, built in 1811, Father Tiago Augusto Pereira Vituriano is uneasy. The chapel, with its paper-based paintings of the apostles, has been restored, but one of the altars is collapsing because of termite damage, and termites have also attacked the ceilings of the main nave and the monastery, beneath which he says Mass. Using restoration plans submitted to Condephaat, Margarethe Boesing, a restoration specialist, intends to restore the ceiling, altars and statues of saints and reinstate the paint from 1939, which is more characteristic of the church than was the later paint from 1979. To pay for the renovations, the priest is initiating collection campaigns or raffles, like the car raffle planned for August 2015, with tickets going for R$250 each (in some cases paid in as many as 10 installments). “Our resources come from the people,” he says. “All of our achievements come through struggle.”

Staircase of the historic mansion once occupied by the Areias cultural secretariat of Areias: example of government efforts

Eduardo CesarStaircase of the historic mansion once occupied by the Areias cultural secretariat of Areias: example of government effortsEduardo Cesar

The Vallim Mansion’s three custodians have also raised renovation money through donations from residents, proceeds from the gift bazaar, which attracts 50 to 100 people every Saturday and Sunday, and through a percentage of sales at the craft shop that is housed in a ground-floor wing of the mansion. The city government contributes by not collecting payment on the electricity bill and helping clean the mansion. Reinaldo Afonso has not forgotten a conversation he had in 2001 with the then-mayor, when he and a group of friends organized to restore the building: “The mayor had two requests for me: ‘Don’t ask me for money’ and ‘Don’t bring me any problems.’”

The three custodians were somewhat reassured in 2014 when they learned that a São Paulo architectural firm, VD Arquitetura, was drawing up restoration plans—approved by Condephaat in June 2015—with an estimated cost of  R$8 million, to be covered in part by the city government. “We won’t leave here until the construction work begins,” says Afonso. At the age of 69, he and his 66-year-old wife and 69-year-old Vera Silva come in every morning at 9:00 to open up the craft shop, which sells sweets, needlework and cloth dolls. Vera Silva recently opened a second-hand shop in an adjoining room. Part of the income goes toward renovation of the old school. “Our memory,” she says, “is still very much alive.”

Cultural heritage in the Vale Histórico Paulista: analysis of the vulnerability to climate changes (nº 2011/51016-9, FAPESP-Condephaat Agreement); Grant mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal investigator Sílvia Helena Zanirato (USP); Investment R$229,276.56 (FAPESP) and R$69,884.44 (Condephaat).

Scientific article
FAZIO, A. T. et al. Towards a better comprehension of biodeterioration in earthen architecture: Study of fungi colonisation on historic wall surfaces in Brazil. Journal of Cultural Heritage. May 2015 (in production).