20 November 2012

The Republican Urinal

Visitors caught short in Alcalá will search in vain for a public convenience, but ´twas not ever thus.  During the short-lived Second Republic of the 1930s, the town's socialist administration provided the good people of Alcalá with a number of facilities previously lacking: a museum, a covered market, a library, and a public urinal.  However, it was nearly as short-lived as the Republic itself.

Here is its story (an abridged translation of an article by Jaime Guerra Martinez on the Historia de Alcalá de los Gazules blog).

The hexagonal public conveniences, a short hop from the bus stop

What disappointment was suffered
By the sons of our city
Over the public urinal
Built opposite Bernal's

This verse, sung by a band of street musicians during Alcalá's Carnival in the 1930s, reflected the popular reaction among the less prudish citizens to the introduction of a charge for using the recently-opened public urinal in what was then the Paseo de la República.

The urinal was a symbol of liberty for some, offering an essential public service and demystifying a natural physiological necessity, while for others it was affront to decency, bringing into public view something which should be done at home. But one has to wonder how many houses had adequate facilities for such functions, apart from the tin bucket in which the “doings of the stomach” were kept until nightfall, zealously protected from the flies.

Either way, what is certain is that our public convenience was born, lived and died during the most hazardous decade of 20th century Spain, the 1930s. Today it survives only in the memories of the elderly, a few photographs and the not insignificant records held in our Municipal Archive, which I choose bring to light to indulge my curiosity over what went on in that ill-fated hexagon, what was written on its walls, what comments and presumptions were ingrained in its encrusted yellowing basins .... 

The work was part of a group of construction projects carried out under the local Republican administration to improve the infrastructure and facilities of the town. It was agreed to build a “lavatory” opposite the house of Don Domingo Bernal on the Paseo de la República [now the Paseo de la Playa]. It was built in the spring of 1932, in the form of a hexagon whose sides corresponded with the six urinals inside. It was finished with decorative brickwork, in a reasonably harmonious vernacular style.

Nevertheless its location wasn't ideal, and the level of cleaning wasn't up to scratch, provoking irate protests from various citizens, some of whom regarded as too public certain things that ought to be more private. The objections came to a head when users were obliged to pay a charge towards its maintenance and the cost of an attendant.

So in September 1933 Don Andrés Jobacho, master builder, wrote to the council offering to demolish it and replace it with an underground one nearby, in exchange for the materials used for the original. The reasons given were the lack of hygiene, the loss of visibility from the Paseo, and the unaesthetic appearance and layout of the hexagon. The new location would be underneath a house he was building, which later became a shop [today it is the Cafeteria Siglo XXI].

Andrés Jobacho's proposed underground loos
The council appointed a Committee to report on the proposal, which found some important details were missing.  Jobacho was given the opportunity to revise it, and in February 1934 he delivered a new plan of the underground toilets, with separate cubicles for men and women, using the existing materials, sewerage disposal and water supply.

On 7 February Jobacho's proposal was approved, with just one opposing vote, a local builder called Gaspar Muñoz, who had pointed out the shortcomings in the original proposal.

By September Jobacho had all his permits, including the approval of the National Body of Engineers for Roads, Canals and Ports of the Province of Cadiz, and the Town Hall gave its authorisation on 26 September 1934.

The new toilets would have been underneath the
building in the foreground, now Siglo XXI

Nevertheless, the hexagonal urinal was not pulled down and neither was the underground one built. The reason was the change in Alcalá's [socialist] municipal government after the victory of CEDA [Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right] in the October 1934 elections.

In March 1938 it was proposed to build a new installation on the corner between the bull-ring and Calle Sánchez Flores, on a plot where a ruined house had been demolished. It would have six toilet compartments and the tiles from the original construction would be re-used. The budget rose to 1407 pesetas.

The 1938 plan, which never came to fruition

But this project did not go forward either, temporarily prolonging the life of the much-maligned hexagon.  On 9 June 1938 it was agreed that the “kiosk of necessities” should instead be turned into a bar or cafe, and the proceeds from its lease would contribute towards the planned indoor market. But the resolution was not well received and there were no takers for the lease, mainly because they would have to refurbish the building themselves.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Juan Cubo Cid, the attendant, requested retirement (not before time - he was 87). His request was approved,  the Management Committee abolished the post and the facility was closed.

On 29 December 1941 it was agreed to proceed with its demolition, a job which was given to Gaspar Muñoz Márquez, the builder who had voted against the original construction, who bought the materials for 450 pts.

This finally brought an end to the controversy, breaking definitively with that symbol which at that point in history had to be removed at any cost – the Republican urinal.

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