Situated on Iquique’s central Plaza Prat, the historic Teatro Municipal is one of the city’s most spectacular heirlooms from the nitrate boom at the end of the 19th century, which transformed the former sleepy desert port into one of Chile’s leading cultural centers.
The imposing white building was built in 1889, designed by a team of European architects and constructed with timber specially imported from North America. The period’s best operas, zarzuelas, operettas and actors crossed its stage, including the French actress Sarah Bernhardt.
The nitrate boom died almost as abruptly as it began, and Iquiqueños saw their lifestyle and wealth evaporate back into the sands, leaving them with a few outstanding relics – the theater being one of the most notable.
The Teatro Municipal was declared a national monument in 1977, and underwent a two-year restoration in 1987, but Mayor Myrta Dubost told local daily El Mercurio that “since 1992…nothing has been done.”
In 2007, the theater’s years of disuse and neglect caused Mayor Dubost to close it indefinitely. The theater sat on the plaza, an abandoned relic, until this year, when the local government took the initiative to begin restoration.
Architect Patricio Gross of the Architectural School at the Universidad Arturo Prat said the building faced “termite damaged wood, decay on the main facade and the southern cupula, and obsolete electric wiring and plumbing.”
Gross won a contract totaling almost US$8 million to restore the theater, and has been hard at work ever since, painstakingly remodeling the building with the recycled materials and recreating the beams and pillars to match the stage’s original grandeur, but with the addition of cutting edge illumination and acoustic technology.
The restoration of Iquique’s architectural gem was funded in part by the Collahuasi mining project, as well as the Chilean Ministry of Culture and the municipality of Iquique.
For more information about Iquique’s golden age, be sure to visit the nearby ghost town of Humberstone, another fascinating relic that was founded in 1972. Or, visit the regional museum in the city of Iquique itself, which chronicles the local history from the time of the indigenous Chinchorros (4,000 BC to 2,000 BC) through the present.