We publish below a slightly abridged and revised version of an official English translation of a piece in Portuguese by Lina Santos that appeared in Lisbon’s daily newspaper Diário de Notícias (DN) under the title O que se passa dentro do Palacete Mendonça? (What’s happening inside the Palacete Mendonça?). The piece includes a selection of photographs that appeared in DN as well as some images of the gardens that occupy the Palace’s property. We are indebted to Iqbal Motani of Ottawa for assisting us in preparing this article.
The Seat of the Ismaili Imamat
What’s happening inside the Palacete Mendonça?
By LINA SANTOS
(Author of original Portuguese article published in Diário de Notícias)
We entered the Henrique de Mendonça Palace to observe the restoration work taking place there. Once the restoration is complete, the Palace will house the Seat of the Ismaili Imamat. The first phase of the restoration is expected to be completed in July 2018, in time for the conclusion of the Aga Khan’s Diamond Jubilee anniversary, as Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.
Henrique Mendonça Palace, designed by architect Miguel Ventura Terra in the early 20th Century, appears to be temporarily converted into a construction site during the building’s rehabilitation project that should restore it to its glory.
For the moment, in the front of the mansion overlooking the Eduardo VII Park with the river in the background, there is a huge hole. When asked what will appear there, the architect leading the project, Frederico Valsassina, cognizant of Forum Citizenship Lx questioning the rehabilitation plans since the acquisition of the property, in 2016, stated that “I do not do projects to please the Citizenship Forum, we do projects to address the principles of our client and, in compliance with the regulations.”
The client is the Ismaili Imamat and this is where the global headquarters of the Ismaili Imamat, (the Institution or Office of the Imam) will be housed. The closing celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee of the present Imam, Prince Karim Aga Khan, will take place in Lisbon, between July 5 and 11, 2018.
By that time, the grand hall and the former dining room of the Mendonça family, which remain as noble zones of the building, will be ready, promises Nazim Ahmad, Diplomatic Representative of the Ismaili Imamat, in Portugal. Standing before the peeled walls, frameless windows and tiles under restoration, it may seem an impossible task. But Nazim Ahmad remains confident.
“We don’t do anything, without the support of the technicians involved.” An investment of between 10 to 20 million euros, depending on the course of the project, is estimated.
Frederico Valsassina explained that his task simply stated is: “My role is to ensure the least intervention possible”, and went on to explain: “This is a national monument, it was in a very good state, but had undergone a very heavy utilization load, because it had been used more than was expected, by the MBA of the Nova University”.
Completed in 1909, and recipient of the Valmor prize in the same year, the Mendonça Palace was bought two years ago by the Ismaili Imamt for Euros 12 million.
Frederico Valsassina ensures that the adaptations, in response to the Ismaili Imamat’s plans, are minimal. “That is why it was approved, almost unconditionally, by the DGPC (General Cabinet of the Cultural Heritage), and subsequently by the Lisbon City Council”. These plans include a parking space and two lifts.
The architect explains: “The only thing we are creating inside the Palace, is a column to fit a lift”. Doing this from the exterior “would be a more economic and more interventive solution. What we are doing is giving us more work; it was necessary to understand, from the art historians, which were the least important rooms, to be able to implement these lifts”. The original lift in the house, one of the first in Lisbon, will be kept, but will not be used. “It is steam-operated, and there aren’t technicians who can make put it in working order”, Valsassina states. “The cabin will be restored, and permanently parked on the first floor, as a museological area”. He notes that “Another, more simple solution, would be to use the original lift column, but that would also depreciate the building’s character”.
We return to the large-scale excavation site, which is the future parking space. “Above all, what His Highness intended, is that the vehicles should not have a dominant presence. We had to identify an area in the gardens, considered as the least sensitive. Within the next two months, this area “will be fully covered with the initial quota of the garden”. He adds: “And I really think that, had Nova University been able to afford it, they would have certainly done this intervention. I remember visiting some times, and seeing the grounds full of cars. It is the opposite of what we intend to do”.
The easiest of the answers for Valsassina is, what is being recovered — “Everything”.
“The stonework is being restored, the original plaster and all the frescos, woodworks and interior paintings are being carefully recovered”. The facades, everything will remain intact. “We have subjected the building to thermal conditions”.
Put in a different way, “we are not installing double glazed windows, or substituting the window frames. The iron frames will remain iron frames, and the wood frames are being recovered; in terms of the luster works and the hardware, we were able to contact the French company, Remy Garnier who originally supplied these, and is currently in operation ”.
It is very interesting to understand that when Mr. Henrique Mendonça built this house, after returning to Lisbon from São Tomé with his wife (who was from São Tomé), he wanted to make a statement to society. There are seven or eight buildings in Lisbon, of former landowners, and all these buildings showcase the best architecture in Lisbon at the time. Henrique Mendonça hired the best architect at the time.
Miguel Ventura Terra (1866-1919) studied in Paris, and worked with the Victor Laloux atelier, one of the most prominent French architects of the time. It is for this reason that he “works with French companies, namely in the details”, states Frederico Valsassina.
A three hectare garden with a space for events related to religion and culture
Iñaki Zoilo, Proap landscaper, joins the conversation to talk about the almost 3 hectares surrounding the palace: “It is an opportunity for the recovery of a historic garden”. They began by understanding in which point the garden was. All the natural elements, paths, fountains, sculptural elements were inventoried. “The maintenance that has been given over the last 50 years has led to a state of the garden being of spontaneous growth,” he summarizes. The project is “dynamic and has a time strategy”.
Iñaki Zoilo adds that, in the surroundings of the Palace, programs, which are tied to the events requested by the client, related to their religion and culture, will be implemented. “These will take place in the rear end of the grounds, on a grassy patch destined to host the celebrations, with a water cascade, instead of on the current area of spontaneous growth. A water mirror for the front of the Palace, reflecting the vegetative surroundings, is being prepared”, says the landscaper.
Textiles on Demand
Before entering the Palace, duly fitted with reflective vests and boots, as mandated by the security rules, Nazim Ahmad comments that the works are being filmed on a 24-hour basis, to create a film, and leads towards an improvised atelier of woodwork, in the gardens, where a craftsman is finishing a new window frame. It is a solution for those situations, where there is no remedy, explains Conceição Amaral, Director of the Ricardo Espírito Santo Silva Foundation (FRESS). “The commitment is that everything that has to be substituted, be crafted”.
Such is the case with the textiles. “We believed that some (textiles) were from a manufacturer in Lyon, however they do not exist anymore”. Therefore, they are in touch with a manufacturer in England. “We are waiting for the samples”, refers Conceição Amaral. “It will take a year to produce” she foresees. “In the meantime, we will use a similar fabric, in order to restore dignity to the rooms”.
At this stage, around “60 pieces are under the Foundation’s care”, and this will also include the chandelier in the grand hall. All of the Foundation’s teams are involved – in consolidating the tile work by Manuel Gustavo Bordallo Pinheiro, the wood panels, bronze fixtures, decorative painting, plaster work, textiles. The Palace is a manual of the 20th century Portuguese decorative arts”, emphasizes Conceição Amaral.
“The Foundation [FRESS] is completing its 65th anniversary and has a portfolio of great works; Seteais [a neoclassical Palace in Sintra, Portugal] was an enormous challenge however, in terms of quality and variety of techniques, I believe that we have never had a project like this”.
Date posted: April 7, 2018.
A MUST visit post, if you have not yet read it: To Ismailis of Portugal — We are now preparing to be with you in Lisbon to celebrate the “highest point” of the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan
Credits: Palace image in featured photo at top of page was taken on March 21, 2017 by Marco Verch. Creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
For location of palace and nearby attractions, please click Palacete Henrique Mendonça: Mapa – Portugal – Mapcarta.
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