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THE PUEBLA EARTHQUAKES

On June 15 1999, a 6.7 earthquake, centered in Huajuapán de León, in northern Oaxaca state, struck the Puebla region east of Mexico City.

Although human casualties were mercifully light, the quake and its aftershocks, including a severe temblor in September, exacted a heavy toll on colonial buildings in the area as well as modern stuctures such as offices, apartments and medical buildings

In general, although the 16th century buildings held up well, the later colonial structures sustained greater damage.

At Christmas time in 1999 we paid a visit to the region to assess the damage and review what measures are under way to repair and restore the stricken buildings. Here is our report, which we will update from time to time.

 

(the west front of Puebla cathedral, with scaffolding)

 

The City of Puebla

Some of the heaviest damage is in the historic center of the city of Puebla, where towers, cupolas, and sculptures were cracked or in some cases destroyed - notably the church tower of San Agustín, sections of which crashed to the street below. Many of the facades and church towers have now been buttressed by wooden scaffolding and several central streets remain cordoned off.

When we arrived we saw that work was feverishly being completed on the Cathedral in time for Christmas. Although there were long cracks, especially in the vaulting, damage did not seem especially severe. The vaults and tower were repaired and the scaffolding came down on Christmas Eve. We were privileged to enjoy a fine concert of viceregal villancicos in the Cathedral choir.

Although some colonial buildings survived unscathed, many others, especially the churches, sustained heavy damage to their stone vaults, towers and facades.

Notably hard hit were the churches of La Compañía (left & right) - still closed and cordoned off; San José, also closed, and San Agustín, whose dome had collapsed and whose ornate tower was heavily fractured. Even the Ayuntamiento, the colonial city hall, did not escape damage.

Overall, we were impressed with the restoration efforts undertaken throughout the city. Substantial funds and energy had clearly been directed to deal with the widespread damage. Although some remained closed - too dangerous to enter - many churches were now open while repairs continued inside and out.

Although the great monastic church of San Francisco (left) suffered numerous cracks and fissures, now mostly sealed, the beautiful tecali windows were luckily spared. (right)

Work was still under way at the nuns' church of Las Rosas, at San José (closed) and La Soledad chapel next to the cathedral.

It also appeared that long delayed maintainance of many buildings was also under way along with the repairs. Unfortunately, landmarks like the Casa del Deán, with its famous murals, and the colonial Palafox Library both remain closed, although damage was reported to be slight.


Outside the City

The quake proved especially damaging to the famous Puebla tiles that decorate the facades of numerous colonial buildings both in the city and its surrounding area: San Francisco Acatepec lost a cupola and its tower shows multiple cracks; the tower and dome were heavily damaged at nearby Sta Maria Tonantzintla, which is currently closed because of the precarious state of its fabric.

In nearby Cholula, the noted pilgrimage church of Los Remedios (left), built atop the ancient pyramid, was the worst hit. The church remains closed at this writing, its facade only held up by wooden buttressing. The towers of the Franciscan church of San Andrés (right) are cracked, although the rest of the 16th century monastery appears undamaged and habitable.

The facade and roof of the monastic church of Huejotzingo were also cracked, threatening water damage to the famous colonial murals. Restoration is well under way here. The 18th century parish church at nearby Calpan is also reported to have been damaged, although the 16th century monastery seems to have survived intact. The vault of the Franciscan church at Cuautinchan was also damaged, and is now under repair. The church at Quecholac was also hard hit.

Beyond Puebla, other prominent casualties of the quake include the monastic church at Teposcolula, Oaxaca, whose recently restored open chapel sustained damage. Elsewhere, the famous baroque church at the hilltop Sanctuary of Ocotlán, in neighboring Tlaxcala also sustained damage to its dome and one of its magnificent multi-tiered towers.


We welcome reports on other earthquake damage to colonial buildings in this region and news of the progress of repairs and restoration.