History

lasebastiana6“I feel the tiredness of Santiago. I want to find in Valparaiso a little house to live and write quietly. It must meet certain conditions. It can’t be located too high or too low. It should be solitary but not excessively so. Neighbors, hopefully invisible. They shouldn’t be seen or heard. Original, but not uncomfortable. With many wings, but strong. Neither too big nor too small. Far from everything but close to transportation. Independent, but close to nearby trade. It also has to be very cheap. Do you think I could find a house like that in Valparaiso?

This was the request Pablo Neruda made in 1959 to his friends Sara Vial and Marie Martner. It seemed impossible to find a house that satisfied the wishes of the poet, but after a long search, they found the main frame of a mansion located on Cerro Florida. It was built by the Spaniard Sebastian Collao, who had used the whole third floor of the building as a bird cage. Sebastian died in 1949 and the unfinished house full of stairs was abandoned for many years.

The poet went to see the building. Among other things, he liked the silly way it was constructed, but he found it too big, so Neruda decided to buy the house with sculptor Marie Martner and her husband, Dr. Francisco Velasco. They kept the basement, patio and the two lower floors, while Neruda took possession of the third and fourth floors and the tower. “I lost,” he used to say in jest. “I basically bought stairs and terraces.” The truth is that he had a privileged view over the bay.

The poet took three years to finish construction and the interior design of the house. He decorated the house with old pictures of the port and a great big portrait of Walt Whitman. One of the workers asked him once if the person in the portrait was his father. “Yes, in poetry,” answered Neruda.

lasebastiana4Some of the house's windows were made like a ship’s skylights. The largest terrace was converted into a dining room. From there, he could hear the soundtracks to the movies at the Teatro Mauri, located next to the house. Dr. Velasco recalled that once Neruda walked downstairs to recommend the movie that was on. Judging from the amount of shooting they could hear, it seemed to be a good one.

The house was inaugurated with a memorable party on September 18, 1961. Each person invited was included in a “list for unforgettable merits,” which highlighted the contributions of each guest in transforming that abandoned frame into “La Sebastiana”, named in honor of its first owner and constructor.

For that occasion, Neruda wrote the poem “La Sebastiana,” which was later included in the book Plenos Poderes (Full Power). The first lines of the poem say: “I built the house. / First I made it of air. / Then I raised the flag in the air / and I left it hanging/ from the open air, from the star, from/ the light and the darkness...”

lasebastiana5Neruda also took his guests up for tours to the tower, where they could see the entire port through his telescope. Then he would incite his guests to look another direction, towards the roof of a house where a woman liked to suntan in the nude. Nobody ever did see her. Perhaps she only appeared for the poet.

Neruda liked to bring in the New Year in Valparaiso. “La Sebastiana” was a privileged balcony for the port's traditional firework show. This was where he spent his last new years' eve, in 1972, and brought in 1973.

Dr. Francisco Velasco said that after the death of the poet, when he arrived to “La Sebastiana”, he found all the people in the neighborhood agitated. They told him something strange was happening inside the house. He cautiously went upstairs to see what was going on. He found an eagle in the living room. He opened a window to let it out, but he never could explain how the eagle got in, because everything was closed. “I immediately remembered the time when Pablo confided in me that, if he were to return in another life, he would like to be an eagle,” wrote Dr. Velasco.

“La Sebastiana, looted after the military coup in 1973 , was restored in 1991, thanks to the support of Telefónica de España, who also made possible the purchase of the lower floors owned by the Velasco Martner family. In December 1991, the museum house was inaugurated. In 1994 the square was built, and in 1997, again with the support of Telefónica de España, the Cultural Center was opened.

The house contains collections of antique maps, seashells and paintings, among them a portrait of Lord Cochrane and an oil painting of Jose Miguel Carrera just before being executed. There are many other port relics and unusual pieces, like music boxes and an old merry-go-round horse, carved in wood.