By Sabrina Hummel

The period from just beyond the mid 1800s to the early 1900s marked Argentina’s “belle époque”. At its height in the 1920s, Argentina was the seventh richest country in the world. Buenos Aires became a melting pot of wealth, cultural creativity, and innovation, which fostered a climate in which private residences and historically important buildings were commissioned with zeal.

With its strong ties to European culture and heritage, almost all of these buildings boast French patrimony and design, as their respective architects aimed to emulate and indeed embody their affluent European counterparts in an era of brisk economic expansion.

The ‘top 5’ selected below represents a cross section of opulent stately homes, architectural tributes to legendary poets, and important government buildings, all of whose architecture and patronage tell an intriguing story…

Palacio Barolo (built 1919-1923)

This imposing building on Avenida de Mayo was commissioned by Italian immigrant and cotton magnate, Luis Barolo. He was the first person to cultivate the crop thanks to the spinning machines he brought with him upon his arrival to Argentina in 1890.

Aside from this patron’s peculiar claim to fame, the building itself boasts a number of impressive accolades: it was the tallest building in Latin America up until the construction of the Kavanagh building in 1935, and was also the first building in Argentina to be built using reinforced concrete.

The aftermath of World War I brought with it a fear of aesthetic loss. Prompted by the desire to conserve distinct European styles, architect Mario Palanti incorporated a number of different types of European architecture into the building, including Neo-Gothic and Neo-Romantic. A Dante aficionado just like Barolo, Palanti envisaged the building as a safe haven and final resting place for Dante’s ashes, out of reach of war-torn Europe.

Palacio Barolo along Av de Mayo. (Photo: Julie Catarinella)

The Palacio Barolo represents the physical embodiment of the content of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The building is made up of 22 floors (plus two more underground), which sit atop a ground floor that is set out in accordance with the ‘Golden Ratio’. The 22 floors also correspond to the number of stanzas in each of the poem’s verses; each floor in turn is split into 22 offices. The building is 100m tall, which represents the 100 cantos or songs that make up the poem. The number nine, as in the Divine Comedy, is also repeated. The nine columns in the main hall represent the nine circles of hell described in the Inferno. And, on 9th July, Argentina’s Independence Day, the small spire atop the Indian-inspired cupola lines up perfectly with the Southern Cross constellation.

The building, like the comedy, is divided into three parts (in ascending order): hell, purgatory and heaven. The basement and ground floor represent hell, floors 1-14 purgatory, whilst floors 15-22 represent heaven. Thus as you ascend the staircase you are invited to metaphorically (and physically) climb your way up to redemption. The still functional lighthouse at the top (which contains 300,000 light bulbs) was intended to greet incoming ships as they entered the Rio de la Plata Estuary, in a nod to the Pillars of Hercules in the Mediterranean.

Palacio Barolo, Av de Mayo 1370, is now exclusively dedicated to office rentals. Guided tours are offered Monday to Thursday from 4pm to 7pm beginning every hour and last approximately 45 minutes. Night tours are available Wednesdays and Fridays at 8pm and Thursdays at 8:30pm. For more info, visit the website.

Museo de Arte Decorativo (1911-1917)

Previously known as the Palacio Errázuriz Alvear, this opulent French style mansion was architect René Sergent’s (1865 -1927) answer to an affluent young couple’s need for somewhere to house their growing art collection.

Sergent was originally famous for his luxurious private residences executed in the neo-classical style. In the first 15 years of the 20th century Sergent worked in Paris, New York, London and Buenos Aires. Highly celebrated, he also designed and decorated landmark hotels such as the Savoy Hotel and Claridge’s in London, the Grand Hotel in Rome, as well as designing the headquarters for Rolls Royce Limited.

Sergent’s patrons were a young couple both from highly influential backgrounds: Josefina de Alvear and diplomat Matías Errázuriz Ortúzar. Both families were 18th century Spanish émigrés. The Errázuriz’s settled in Chile and their heritage includes presidents, politicians, businessmen and university professors of great prestige and influence. The Alvear’s on the other hand, settled in Argentina and became highly embroiled in the country’s politics. Josefina’s grandfather, Brigadier General Carlos María de Alvear, fought in the Independence Wars. Her uncle, Torcuato de Alvear, was the first mayor of the city of Buenos Aires in 1880, and her cousin Marcelo T de Alvear, became president of Argentina in 1922.

Museo de Arte Decorativo on Libertador. (Photo: Stephanie Halovanic)

The couple were married in April of 1987. For a time they lived in the traditional neighbourhood of Monserrat, where their two children were born. Matías’ diplomatic work, however, meant that between 1906 and 1916 they lived in Paris, during which time works for the Palacio Errázuriz Alvear were carried out. Keen art collectors, they took advantage of their time in Europe to amass a sizeable collection of artwork and antiquities from both Europe and the Orient.

The couple returned to Buenos Aires in 1916 and, as their precious goods arrived by sea, set about decorating their new abode. On the 18th September 1918 the house was officially opened with a grand ball, and it became the centre of an intense and highly prolific social life. However, when Josefina passed away in 1935, her husband and children offered to sell the house and its collection to the state on the condition that it be kept open as a museum. It was bought on the 18th December 1937, giving birth to what is now known as the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo.

The building itself is an architectural feast. Barring the stonework, it was made entirely from materials imported from Europe. The panelling, marble, woodwork, mirrors, latches, and mouldings arrived in perfect working order. For some specific tasks such as the preparation of stucco (plaster), craftsmen were brought over from Europe.

Its external façade was inspired by 18th century neo-classicism, in particular the works of Louis XV’s court artist, Jacques A Gabriel. The four levels that make up the building are clearly visible from the outside. The rooms on the main floor are decorated in various French styles from the 17th and 18th century, except for the Great Hall which was inspired by the English halls from the times of the Tudors. The private apartments on the first floor reflect the tastes of King Louis XV and Louis XVI, with the exception of the Art Deco room, modelled by the Catalán artist José María Sert.

This palace-come-museum is the only French mansion open to the public. It contains an impressive permanent collection that focuses of porcelain and Eastern pieces.

From February to December, the Museo de Arte Decorativo(Av del Libertador 1902) is open Tuesday-Sunday from 2pm to 9pm. Tickets cost $10. Entrance is free on Tuesdays, and free all year round for the retired and those under 12 years old.

Palacio Duhau (1934)

It is fitting that this third palace, a provocative symbol of the old Argentine aristocracy, was restored and converted into the luxurious Park Hyatt Hotel back in 2006.

Designed by French architect Leon Dourge, his first task was to demolish another palace that already occupied the site: the Palacio de Bary. This was where the Spanish princess la Infanta Isabel de Borbón stayed during her trip to Buenos Aires to mark the country’s 100th anniversary. Having cleared the way for the Palacio Duhau, work began in earnest.

The palace was built in the style of Louis XVI, using the French Chateau de Marais as a reference point. Unlike the lush greenery that surrounds its French counterpart, the Duhau Palace was to be built in the middle of a sprawling city. Barring practical considerations, the palaces are virtually identical.

Palacio Duhau in Recoleta. (Photo: Stephanie Halovanic)

The main façade is symmetrical and is organised into three parts. The central part provides the main access point, with a portico defined by four Tuscan columns framed by three openings. Behind these modulated spaces is a semi-covered area where a staircase made up of two branches which leads up to the main floor.

Divided into four sections, the façade adheres to the classical architectural precepts of order and symmetry. The three large windows on the ground floor are repeated on the first floor or piano noble, and a traditional pediment with a dental course (the teeth-like line of moulding which outlines it) sits on top, partly obscuring the attic that lies behind.

For all its sense of propriety, its original owner, Luis Duhau, is most famously associated with his part in a bloody assassination. The then Minister for Agriculture, Duhau, was under investigation by the progressive democrat sentator Lisandro de la Torre. De la Torre attempted to charge Duhau and the minister of Finance, Federico Pinedo, with political corruption and fraud.

On the 23rd July 1935, a heated discussion about the investigation in the National Congress turned violent. In a fit of passion, Duhau started a fight among the senators. This ended calamitously with Duhau’s bodyguard who, attempting to murder De la Torre, instead killed his friend and political ally, Enzo Bordabehere. De la Torre later committed suicide in 1939.

This magnificent palace is now an award winning five star hotel. The hotel offers two distinct restaurants: the Duhau Restaurant & Vinoteca and the Giogio Restaurant and Terraces. It is also home to Los Salones del Piano Noble, which, facing the garden, is an ideal place to nibble an elegant snack or to take afternoon tea. There is also a bar called the Oak Bar.

The Palacio Duhau is at Av Alvear 1661

Palacio de la Legislatura (1926-1931)

Also in the neo-classical style is the stunning legislative building or, the Palacio de la Legislatura. This striking building was constructed between 1926 and 1931 for the then city council, and was designed by architect Héctor Ayerza.

Since its inauguration, the building has played host to a number of noteworthy government agencies. Former president Juan Domingo Perón established the Secretariat of Labour and Social Insurance there following his coup in 1943. Later, having gained power legitimately in the elections of 1946, he declared the building a National Historic Monument. His legendary wife and fist lady Eva Perón later used the labour bureau wing as the headquarters for her foundation (previously housed in the central post office), where it remained until Perón’s ousting in 1955.

Architecturally speaking, the building is most famous for its 26 cornice caryatids (stone carvings of a draped female figures used as a supporting columns of Greek or Greek-style buildings) and bell tower. The caryatids are allegories representing urban life and were created entirely by Argentine sculptors or naturalised foreigners. Each statue is separated by two interlocking parts. The range of subjects symbolised includes: navigation, social order, commerce, the sciences, music, history, sport, aesthetics, justice and industry to name but a few.

Another of the building’s most striking features, the clock tower, stands 95m high. Arranged around an octagonal base, it is comprised of four clock faces of Germanic origin. These clocks in turn control five bells which, for any Londoners nostalgic for the sounds of home, chime out the same melody as Big Ben. The five bells all have names: Santa Maria, La Pinta, La Niña, La Porteña, and the largest, Argentina. These clocks control the workings of 80 more clocks distributed throughout the building.

Palacio Legislatura on Peru street. (Photo: Julie Catarinella)

The clock tower is also home to a carillon (musical instrument) that is made up of 30 cast bronze bells brought over from Germany in 1931. Together they weigh over 27 tonnes.

The inside of this architectural delight is equally gobsmacking. The lavish Golden Salon was inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in the French Castle of Versailles. As the name suggests, there are large quantities of golden objects, adorned with gold leaf. The floors are made from the finest Slovenian marble and arranged in a checkerboard configuration. Not to be outdone is the Escalera de Honor or Staircase of Honour, situated in the main hall. Made from Boticcino marble, its design is similar to that of Paris’ Palais Royal. It is crowned with dome encased in white rosettes and topped by a stain glass window depicting the image of a bright sun.

The Palacio de la Legislatura can be found at Peru 130.

Palacio Paz (1902-1914)

In the words of their website, “if Buenos Aires was once Paris, the Palacio Paz is the clearest example of this.”

A successful and ambitious character, José Camilo Paz entrusted the construction of this gargantuan private residence to the prestigious French architect Marie Henri Sortais. Paz was the founder of one of the most influential Argentine papers, La Prensa, and was Argentina’s ambassador to Paris between 1885 and 1893.

The construction of this elaborate palace took around 13 years to complete and neither Sortais, who died in 1911, nor Paz who died the following year, lived long enough to see the completed work. His family of nine plus 60 servants enjoyed the palace and embraced a life of decadence and splendour.

Palacio Paz on Santa Fe near Plaza San Martin. (Photo: Julie Catarinella)

The building is four stories tall and comprises of approximately 12,000 square metres, 140 rooms, and seven lifts. The façade is based on loosely on the front of the Louvre that faces the river Seine, and, thanks to Paz’s fascination with French culture, it was also inspired by contemporary French châteaus, in particular the Château de Chantilly.

This Beaux Art mansion contains a mix of the French Renaissance style and the regency style of Louis XVI. The awe-inspiring circular reception room is over 21m high and contains a ceiling fresco dedicated to Louis XIV, the Sun King, topped with an equally impressive cupola.

Various historians have suggested that Paz harboured political aspirations of one day becoming president. It is likely that this grandiose desire is reflected accordingly in his choice of home, which, some say, he hoped to use as his presidential residence.

The former palace is currently home to the Military Officers Association, a social club maintained by the Argentine military, following its sale to the state for $2,750,000 in 1938. It also houses the National Military Library and the National Firearms Museum. Aside from the construction of a sporting area on the site of the old garages, the building has survived virtually intact.

Palacio Paz is at Av Santa Fe 750. For tours and more information please see the website.

This article was originally published in The Argentina Independent