Restoring an Old Sugar Town...and Trying to Stymie Art Thieves

The white churches are blackened, and the once sturdy houses are crumbling, but to André Pina, the little colonial town of Olinda is as beautiful as its name. For three years, the architect has been developing a restoration plan to help Olinda, which means "how beautiful" in Portuguese, recapture its lost charm--and some of its economic might. Once the center of Brazil's sugar trade, Olinda has been sidelined for the past 200 years as its former port, Recife, grew into a city of 2.7 million. "Olinda was once the capital of the country. It drove the economy of this region," says Pina, Olinda coordinator of Monumenta, a renovation program run by the federal government.

But now, only the 3,600 houses and churches built by Portuguese colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries remain of Olinda's heyday. The town subsists on a meager diet of tax revenues from small business and tourism, and what little it can collect from its 360,000 mostly poor residents. With the majority of the $51 million budget devoted to providing services to the favelas, or slums, that make up most of Olinda, little money is left over for preserving the rundown colonial center. "Our restoration work is always cut during tough times. It's the first thing to go," laments Cláudia Rodrigues, director of the Institute of National Historical & Artistic Heritage (IPHAN).

That may all change if Monumenta, a $200 million renovation program backed by UNESCO, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Brazilian government, succeeds. Monumenta was born in 1997, partly inspired by renewed interest in historic preservation throughout Latin America. Olinda, declared a World Heritage Site in 1982 by UNESCO, was picked for the three-year project along with Ouro Preto, Recife, and Rio de Janeiro. The town was allocated $3.9 million, and work began in March. Under the program, cities receive funds not only to renovate their historic districts but also to promote tourism, educate locals about preservation, and train restorers.

BOOMING NIGHTLIFE. Monumenta aims to do more than renovate buildings, though. It also wants to attract enough investment to ensure that the project will continue to grow once funding ends. To help kick-start the process, Monumenta offers low-interest loans for restoring private residences and starting small businesses. "Incentives like these will help increase property values and attract more investors," says William Bernardo Sampaio Mendes, an architect and Recife technical coordinator of Monumenta.

In nearby Recife, that reasoning has proved sound. Already, an investment by the city council into restoring Rua do Bom Jesus, a rundown neighborhood of 19th century buildings, has turned the district into a center of nightlife. The flood of new bars and restaurants has caused property values to soar by 60%, convincing many people that restoration is worth the effort and "can be as good as the new," says Mendes. If Olinda can follow Recife's lead, it just might have a shot at a better life.

In Olinda's church of Nossa Senhora do Bonfim, a team of restorers funded by Monumenta is busy clearing away rubble from around the altar. Once one of the richest churches in Olinda, the 16th century Bonfim ("good end") is now an empty shell. The paintings, statues, and crucifixes that used to decorate the altar are all gone, either stolen or protected in local museums.

Renovation may save the colonial churches of Brazil, but it will be tough to save their sacred art. Since the 1970s, crime has been increasing at churches around the country as religious art became more popular among collectors. With little security at churches and no specialized police force, art thieves have been able to work relatively unhindered. But in 1997, alarmed at the number of Brazilian sacred art objects appearing at European auction houses, IPHAN teamed up with Interpol, the federal police, and the International Museum Consortium to send out global alerts to stem the tide of thefts. Already, Brazil has been able to recover more than 200 pieces, says Danielly Martins, cataloguer of stolen sacred art at the Recife branch of IPHAN. "When we recover this art, we're regaining not just stolen property but our own heritage," she says. So more publicity about stolen art may help restore Brazil's old churches to their former glory.

By Kristina Shevory in Olinda

Edited by Harry Maurer

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