Bits & Pieces

September 24, 2011

The Miramar & The Marconi

Located in Bella Vista on the beach of the Bay of Panama, at the intersection of Balboa Avenue and Federico Boyd Avenue, and in front of the Urraca Park, stood a magnificent building, within the walls of which much history happened and memories were created. This building made its debut as the prestigious Miramar social club, was later a Catholic elementary school and ended up housing government offices before it was demolished.

My story will cover mostly the years of 1940 through 1943. Those were the years I roamed the halls of this building as a student when it served as an elementary school. However, we can not tell the whole story without also including a bit of history about the Christian Brothers who operated the school of La Salle in Panama and the Miramar at Bella Vista.

The Christian Brothers In Panama

The La Salle Christian Brothers is a Catholic religious order dedicated to education.  When Panama got its independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903, one of the first acts that President Manuel Amador signed was Law No. 11, on March 23, 1904, addressing the education of the children of Panama.  Immediately, the La Salle Christian Brothers were contacted and on July 11, 1904, six Brothers arrived at Colon, the city at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal.  From Colon, two Brothers headed for Leon, Nicaragua and two headed for Medellin, Colombia, while the remaining two headed for Panama city across the isthmus.  Eight more Brothers arrived at Colon in August of the same year.  Among them was my father, who, at 17, was already a full-fledge teacher having graduated that year from the Ecole Normale Libre in Lembecq-lez-Hal, Kingdom of Belgium.

My father, pictured here standing on one of the Panama Canal lock gates, was one of the Christian Brothers arriving in Panama in August of 1904. He sent this photo to his mother in France around 1920. My father left home in France to attend the Brothers Novitiate in Clermont-Ferrand at age 13 and then the Ecole Normal Libre at Lembecq-lez-Hal in Belgium where he got his Teacher Certificate in 1904. He did not return to France until 1959. Photo from L.R. Celerier.

Not having any resources in Panama, the Brothers were housed by the Jesuits at their convent near Plaza Bolivar in Panama. Later, my father recounted, they were housed in a wooden building near the Church of St. Joseph, were the Golden Altar is located, and across from the facilities of the newspaper �La Estrella de Panama�.  In those early years, the drinking water for the residents in the city came mostly from cisterns, underground reservoirs for storing rain water, and as he told us many years later, it tasted awful.

In 1910, the Christian Brothers had a new school facility next door to the Church of San Francisco at Plaza Bolivar.  It was shaped as a �U� with its open end to the Bay of Panama.  It was called Colegio La Salle.  By the time I arrived on the scene to enter the first grade in 1938, the open end of the �U� had been closed with a temporary wooden structure to house the overflow of elementary students. The patio in the middle remained with an earthen floor and it was the area used for recess and other functions.  The same year I started school at La Salle, the Christian Brothers had bough the Miramar Club in the Bella Vista area of Panama for the purpose of establishing another elementary school to relieve the pressure on La Salle.  Called Colegio Miramar, it would become my school when I started the third grade.  I remained at Colegio Miramar through my third (1940), fourth (1941) and part of my fifth (1942) grades. The impressive building housing the new elementary school had been a favorite and exclusive club prior to its acquisition by the Christian Brothers.


Left: Colegio La Salle in the old section of Panama city. The size of the building cannot be fully appreciated here as the depth of the facility is hidden by the church next door. Photo by LRC, 2005.  Left: Colegio Miramar located in Bella Vista, a mostly residential district of sub-urban Panama.  Photo from Epocas, October 1985.

Club Miramar

On April 15, 1928, the Club Miramar opened its doors to �more than 2000 members and friends at 9:00 PM with a reception and dance�, according to the Star and Herald.  The Club, consisting of some 1122 square meters, included indoor areas as well as open air terraces and patios for the enjoyment of its members.  Eventually, the club added a sea water swimming pool just below the main terrace.

The building was considered one of the most beautiful of its class in the isthmus and ended up being one of the most popular recreation sites in the city.  With its high arches, solid columns, spacious terraces and a pleasant ocean breeze, the club had a steady clientele that came to enjoy the facilities and exquisite cuisine during afternoon parties as well as evening events.  My uncle Lucho Azcarraga and his band, which included my uncle Roberto (his brother) playing the drums, was one of the several celebrated bands that played regularly at the club.

The Club Miramar in Bella Vista around 1928. Photo from Epocas, October 1985.


Left: The Miramar Club terrace looking toward Panama City and Ancon Hill.
Right: The terrace looking toward Punta Paitilla.  The sea water swimming pool was added to this area sometime later.  These photos show how popular Bella Vista Beach was in earlier years before pollution took its toll. Photos from Epocas, October 1985.


Left: The magnificent arches and columns of the club.
Right: The club as seen from the beach before the sea water swimming pool was added. Photos from Epocas, October 1985.

This swimming pool could not withstand the pounding of the seas and, by the time the club was sold in 1938, only remnants of the battered walls and diving board steel framework survived.

However, by 1938, the faltering economy took its toll and the club was sold to the Christian Brothers.

While in operation, the club was organized with three categories of members:

  1. Active Members - The number of active members would be 400 and they would have to be shareholders with monthly dues of $2.50
  2. Associate Members - The number would not surpass 200. These would not have a vote and their monthly fee was $5.00. Admission was $25.00
  3. Transient Members - This category was reserved for officers in the U.S. armed services and the Diplomatic Corps. The monthly fee was $5.00. Admission was $25.00

Colegio Miramar

The La Salle School Christian Brothers were, by 1938, having a problem with too many students filling up the elementary school facilities in the city.  Many of these students were from the suburbs which included Bella Vista.  With the Club Miramar being up for sale at that time, it was an opportunity to resolve the problem of overflow and location.  On July 13, 1938, the brothers bought the Club facilities and proceeded to make the necessary changes to convert it into an elementary school.  It was named Colegio La Salle- Seccion Miramar.  Soon afterwards it was simply called Colegio (School) Miramar.  This elementary school would continue to serve until 1962 when a new and larger facility was built at El Cangrejo suburb which housed both the Colegio La Salle from the city and Colegio Miramar from Bella Vista.

Front view of Colegio Miramar. Note the students raising the Panamanian flag on the middle balcony. Every Monday morning we would gather in front of the school and sing the National Anthem while the flag was being raised. I don�t recall any similar ceremony at the end of the week in the afternoons.
Photo source unknown.

Third grade photo in front of Colegio Miramar, 1940. I am the first one on the left in the last row.
Photo from L.R. Celerier.

I had the privilege of being transferred from La Salle, at the completion of my second year, to the third grade at Colegio Miramar on May 19, 1940. I remained at Miramar for the fourth grade (1941) and part of the fifth grade (1942) when, some two months after school started, I became ill and was taken out of school for the remaining of the school year.

Miramar was great. It was new, more comfortable and cooler than the old school, and the terraces were great areas in which to play during recess. We could watch the sea with its great waves breaking over the old swimming pool walls during stormy weather, Pelican diving on the water, swimmers and all other activities that take place on a beach.  Playing Badminton was a favorite recess game, but another great entertainment was watching the unloading of cattle from a small ship.  This did not take place during every recess, but when it did, you could not get the kids away from the terrace railing facing the activity.

Artist�s memory as to how the unloading took place. Photo Epocas, modifieds by L.R. Celerier.

Artist�s view of the MARCONI (drawn in art class during the third grade) and actual method of loading and unloading the cattle. Note the row boat next to the ship on the drawing. It would act as a cowboy on horseback guiding the steers to the proper place on shore. Drawing by L.R. Celerier. Photo by W.J. Abbot.

The process of bringing cattle to the city for slaughter began in the provinces of Chiriqui, Veraguas and Los Santos mostly because of the grasslands in the areas and the port facilities available.  At least two small steamers carried the bulk of the cattle, but the one that I remember most clearly is the MARCONI.  I think because it was the one most likely to arrive while we were on recess.  Thus, when told to draw the little ship in our art class, we drew the MARCONI.  The loading was done right off the docks in the Provinces, but the unloading was done at sea off the beach at Bella Vista, as shown in the photos above.  One by one, the steers, ropes around their horns, would be lowered to the water where a waiting row boat, with two or three men acting as a marine cowboys, helped direct the beasts toward the right place on the beach.  Once in a while, a steer would refuse the �instructions� and head off towards a different part of the beach.  Reaching dry ground, it would take off running through the neighborhood streets with horse riding cowboys in chase and pedestrians running for their lives jumping over the fences surrounding the homes.

Accidents would happen also.  Fred Sill recalls being taken to Bella Vista by his father to watch the unloading of the cattle.  During the lowering process, one of the horns of a steer broke off plunging the animal into the sea with an awful-looking bleeding hole on the side of its head.  Mr. Sill told Fred that this did not hurt the animal, but Fred never did believe that; neither would I, for that matter.

On other occasions, we would watch steers drown and they would be towed and pulled ashore by the cowboys.  Our Christian Brother teachers would explain that the steers had probably suffered a cramp.

We, the students, always felt sorry for the cattle because we knew where they were headed and always cheered when one got away.

It all started on the grassland in the "interior" of Panama. Photo by W.J. Abbot, 1913.

Typical "finca ganadera" in Chiriqui Province. Photo by W.J. Abbot, 1913.

The MARCONI loading cattle at the Port of Aguadulce. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, 1913.

 The MARCONI again at the Port of Aguadulce loading cattle.
Note the steer hanging by its horns. Photo by W.J. Abbot, 1913.

I had hoped to have more information on the MARCONI.  Unfortunately, my request to several agencies in Panama went unanswered. This little ship made many trips while I was at school and it may have also carried passengers in the early 1900s.  If that was the case I think that would have been a terrible means of transportation with the constant moaning of the cattle and the stench.  I wish I had been able to find out what became of this little ship after my departure from Colegio Miramar.

Looking through my Report Cards from those years in elementary school with the Christian Brothers, I am amazed at the courses we had to take in those early school years.  For example -

Religion, Reading, Arithmetic, English, Art, Penmanship, Gym, Music, Inspection of Notebooks and Text Books (we did all our homework and classwork in notebooks and we would be graded on how neat we were.  Also, all our work was done in ink using fountain pens) and Recitation (we had to memorize poems and recite them in class). We were also graded on Conduct, Application (how we applied ourselves to classroom work and homework) and Courtesy.

Religion, Composition, Dictation (the teacher dictated and we copied and included punctuation, etc.), Reading, Arithmetic, History, Science, English, Art, Penmanship, Gym, Music, Inspection of Notebooks and Text Books, Recitation, Conduct, Application and courtesy.

Religion, Composition, Dictation, Grammar, Reading, Arithmetic, History, Geography, Science, English, Art, Penmanship, Gym, Music, Inspection of Notebooks and Text Books, Conduct, Application and courtesy.

We followed the same courses as in the Third Grade with the addition of Civics.

In Panama, school started in May and lasted until just before Christmas.  Thus, I started school before I was 6 and was placed in a sort of Kinder in order to comply with the law.  However, in August, I was transferred to the first Grade. That month I was rated 17th in a class of about 25. But by November, I had climbed to 8th place and from then on (they rated us every month) I was First once and Eigth twice, but the rest of the time I was among the top Six.  This was not easy to do and required a lot of study and loads of homework.  At La Salle, the first two years, we went to school from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM, with an hour for lunch, six days a week, but had Wednesday afternoons and Saturday afternoons off.  Sundays we went to mass with the school at 8:00 AM.  Once at Miramar, they changed the schedule and we went to class all day Wednesday and had Saturdays off.  That was great!

I took my First Communion at Colegio Miramar on December 8, 1940 at the Christ the King Church.  In those days, we had to fast starting at midnight before taking communion. So, having been to the Communion Mass, we were given a fine breakfast afterwards at the Miramar school.  It took place on the second floor and what I still remember vividly were the large black grapes among the fruits offered.  I had never seen, much less eaten, such beautiful grapes.  The breakfast was sponsored by the mothers of the kids receiving the communion and my sister, my cousin Dora and my mother were there to help.  In the photos below you can see my loving mother helping.  I am in there someplace.  That afternoon, we had to take part in a procession around several blocks near the church.  Holding the tall candles we had carried during the First Communion ceremony at church, we marched in the heat and watched our candles bend over as they melted in the afternoon heat.  We thought it was funny and a lot of giggling went on among the kids.

While I attended Colegio Miramar, my uncle David Azcarraga would drop me off at school in the mornings on his way to work.  My cousin Freddie Humbert was also attending and, being younger, was a year behind me.  He lived very close by on the corner of Calle Uruguay and Calle 47, very close to the beach.  So, at lunch, Freddie and I would walk to his house for lunch where my aunt, and godmother, Ester, always had a big lunch for us.  After a few moments of playing after lunch, we would be ordered to the bathroom to wet our hair and comb it before sending us back to school.  Our walks from and to school were interesting to me.  We had two routes to take.  The shorter one cut across empty lots on which very tall elephant grass grew. The sandy trail through this grass never failed to bring to my mind imaginary adventures of Africa as in the Spencer Tracy movie "Stanley and Livingston".  The longer route was on the edge of the beach and this was as going on a treasure hunt.  After a stormy night, the beach would be covered with all sorts of debris, from balsa branches to all kinds of seeds, shells and parts of vegetation. It was a collector�s paradise.


First Communion Breakfast on the second floor of Colegio Miramar on December 8 (Mother�s Day) in Latin countries), 1940. Photos from L.R. Celerier.

Map enhancd by L.R. Celerier.

Last view of Miramar as the extension of Balboa Avenue comes its way forcing its demolition
Some time in the 1970s. Photo by Epocas, October 1985.

Of course, there would also be storms during the day and we could watch the huge waves breaking over the beach. Many times the surf would come all the way up to the street and flow towards the houses.  We would stand by the curb watching the water run into the storm drains.  Several times in got into the yard of my aunt's house. The dark skies, huge waves and strong winds made for a very interesting day.  One Morning we arrived at school only to be sent home, because the waves were so big they were crashing over the wall of the school and the classrooms were flooded.

With the school day over, I would catch the street car across the street from the school and get off at the small station across the street from La Lecheria Central, a large ice cream parlor.  The street car I boarded at the school was on its way to the city, so I would have to transfer to the one going toward my house on the outskirts of the city.  There would be several boys in the group and we amused ourselves by placing stones on the track so that another city bound street car would crush them.  Sometime in 1941, the street car stopped running and, fortunately, a bus line took over and I was still able to get home by that means.

While school was hard as run by the Christian Brothers, we learned a lot.  And Colegio Miramar had the advantage of providing some great extra curricular entertainment in the form of the beach with its treasures and weather related changes, but also the unforgettable MARCONI.

Sources:  Fred Sill, BHS Classmate;  Epocas, October 1985; Panama and The Canal by Willis J. Abbot, 1914;  Americas Triumph PANAMA by Ralph E. Avery, 1913.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas