APRIL 25 is the only day of the year when the Prime Minister throws open the door of his official residence to the general public. This year was no exception, with the Palácio de São Bento receiving the public from 3pm on Tuesday, reports The Resident’s Chris Graeme.
The people, who formed an orderly queue outside the 19th century mansion, sporting the red carnation, a symbol of the 1974 bloodless coup, were allowed in to tour the official state rooms on the ground floor, the gardens and enjoy live entertainment.
At 4pm, José Sócrates appeared and began the traditional walkabout, chatting to well-wishers about the beauty of the gardens, signing autographs and answering questions from schoolchildren. Slapstick entertainment was provided by clowns and jugglers, courtesy of the Chapitô Dance and Theatre Company, who amused the crowds until 5pm, when the Prime Minister disappeared upstairs to an area that was off limits to the public.
For such a compact and modest mansion, its history is more interesting than the residence itself. It was originally built in 1877 for Joaquim Machado Cayres as his own residence.
The residence must be seen in the light of the overall complex, which includes the Portuguese parliament building. Situated in a lush two-acre park, the grounds once formed part of the late 16th century São Bento Convent, which remained a religious order until it was closed in 1834. The convent was then transformed into the Cortes Palace (the senate of the Liberal monarchical governments), later becoming the National Assembly from 1910 and the Assembleia da República from 1974 onwards.
During the ‘New State’ of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, the mansion was refurbished in 1938 and Salazar made it his official residence in 1939. The work carried out included a monumental staircase leading directly from the residence down to the parliament building below.
In 1971, when Marcello Caetano headed the last undemocratic government, the palacette underwent its greatest transformation, which left little remaining of the original buildings apart from the four walls.
Today, the official residence consists of the Prime Minister’s office, the audience room, the Prime Minister’s meeting room (Cabinet Room), a dining room that can seat around 30 people comfortably and various offices and private apartments on the second floor.