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Santos museum shares coffee history
The Miami Herald / January 4, 1999

By Larry Luxner

SANTOS, Brazil -- Santos is South America's biggest port -- over half of all Brazilian exports pass through it -- and the Bolsa Official de Cafe is by far the city's the most important building.

Inaugurated in 1922 on the 100th anniversary of Brazilian independence, the bolsa was a testament to the power and wealth of Brazil's coffee barons. Within its interior marble halls, coffee brokers would buy and sell the precious beans, while outside, the building's eclectic architectural style and ornate clock tower made it stand out along the Santos waterfront.

For the last 45 years, however, the building has gradually fallen into disrepair. These days, with most commodities trading done via computer, there's no longer any need for a physical Bolsa de Cafe. But there is a need to preserve history, and within a few months, Santos municipal and port authorities plan to dedicate the bolsa -- along Rua XV de Novembro -- as Brazil's first official coffee museum.

Known in Portuguese as the Museu do Cafe Brasileiro, the ambitious undertaking is the pet project of local architect Jaqueline Fernandez Alves. She says the museum was partially opened on Sept. 25, following substantial restoration work, and will be officially inaugurated in the first quarter of 1999.

"There's another coffee museum in Riberao Preto, which is administered by the University of Sao Paulo, but this one will be a national museum, for anyone who wants to learn about the history of coffee -- from commercialization to exportation," says Fernandez.

For most of its existence, ever since coffee trees were first introduced from French Guiana in 1720, Brazil has been the world's largest coffee exporter. But over the years, the crop's relative importance to the overall Brazilian economy has declined.

Before World War II, Brazil's share of world production was over 50%, and coffee accounted for 60% of the country's Gross Domestic Product. Today, its share of world coffee production is around 30%, and coffee brings in less than 3% of Brazil's GDP. Nevertheless, coffee is grown in 17 of Brazil's 26 states, with four of them -- Parana, Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo -- producing 98% of the total.

Eduardo Carvalhaes Jr. of Escritorio Carvalhaes, one of the most important coffee brokers, says the city has always been Brazil's leading coffee port. As such, the Bolsa Official de Cafe functioned as a coffee exchange from 1922 until the global stock-market crash of 1929. It was reopened in 1940 and continued to function in 1954, when trading activities ceased, even though other parts of the building remained in use.

Carvalhaes, president of the Associacao de Amigos do Museu do Cafe Brasileiro, said his organization began efforts four years ago to restore the building to its original grandeur. He enlisted the help of coffee producers, roasters and exporters, as well as the Associacao Comercial de Santos, the Associacao Centro-Vivo and other local civic groups.

The restoration itself cost $3.2 million and was funded by the state government of Sao Paulo, with the private sector agreeing to maintain the museum once it opens.

"The idea is to show how important coffee was to the economy in the beginning of this century, not only to the state of Sao Paulo but all of Brazil," says Fernandez, who studied at the Escuela Politecnica Superior Arquitectura de Madrid in Spain. "You can find many palaces like this in Europe, but not this kind of quality in Latin America."

Fernandez, who has helped restore other historic buildings in Santos including the A Tribuna newspaper office, says the museum will be filled with dozens of artifacts ranging from 19th-century farming implements to scales once used to weigh coffee sacks at the port.

Among the museum's treasures are rare and beautiful paintings, including a 1922 commissioned work by Benidito Calixto entitled "Fundacao de Villa de Santos 1545."

When finished, the museum will cover 2,500 square meters on two floors. The ground level will contain archives and a library, a museum cafeteria with Brazilian gourmet coffee for sale, bookstore, bathrooms and a reading room, while the second floor will have areas for permanent exhibitions and museum offices. On the building's third floor is the long-abandoned Restaurante da Bolsa, which once attracted the rich and famous of Santos. It'll be reopened for visitors, she says, as soon as additional funds become available.

"We intend to do programs with travel agencies, especially cruise ships that'll come beginning next season, bringing tourists from Italy, Holland, Argentina and other countries," said Fernandez. "We will also have a 'centro de preparacao de cafe,' where we'll train employees not only to operate coffee machines but also give open classes to tourists about Brazilian coffee."

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