Notes on the Geography of Uruguay: Montevideo's Ciudad Vieja
Back in the 1880s, the Mulhall brothers--Michael George and Edward Thomas--founded the Buenos Aires Standard, the first English-language newspaper in South America. Somehow they found time (likely with help from Michael's wife Marion) to write the massive Handbook of the River Plate . The book introduces Montevideo like this:
"This city has a most attractive appearance, whether seen from a vessel entering port, or on the land side from the Cerrito, nor is the favourable impression removed on nearer examination. Standing as it does on a tongue of land between the bay and the Atlantic, its streets are swept by cool sea-breeezes, and it enjoys pre-eminently the pleasantest climate in South America" (p. 583 of the 1888 edition).
The Montevideo they describe is the section now called the Ciudad Vieja, a tiny sliver of the city as it has grown to be.
Here's the hill a few miles west of town from which Montevideo gets its name. The summit is only about 400 feet above sea level, but, as we carelessly say, everything's relative. The road or track here, by the way, is called Artigas Pasaje, which means it's named for the man who pops up in Uruguayan place names more than any other. General Artigas, as he is usually called, is universally understood to be the father of the country, though he fought not for independence but for autonomy within a greater Argentina. As if that's not irony enough, Artigas spent the last 30 years of his life as an exile in Paraguay.
The neighborhood, Casabó, is a good reminder than the median per capita income in Uruguay is about $10,000 a year, apparently enough for evaporative coolers and a media feed.
Security has always been a worry, with fighting between Spain and Portugal until 1770, then fighting until 1814 to break free from Spain, then fighting until 1828 to break free from Argentina, then fighting against fellow Uruguayans for much of the rest of the 19th century. There was a golden period from the late 19th century to about 1950, but security is back as an issue now, mostly as a matter of street crime. People employ whatever defensive measures they can afford.
The fort atop the Cerro de Montevideo was built at the beginning of the 19th century to protect the first lighthouse anywhere along the Rio de la Plata. Later in the 19th century, the fort became a handy prison for political opponents. Since 1916 it's been a military museum.
There's a fine view across the fine harbor to the "tongue of land." Three ship-to-shore cranes stand at the tip of the tongue, a peninsula chosen in 1724 as the site of the Fuerte Grande or "big fort."
A town grew around the fort, and by 1829 the fortifications were ordered demolished as an unnecessary obstacle to the city's growth. Montevideo then grew quickly, from 58,000 people in 1860 to 300,000 in 1908 and 1.2 million in 1962. Since then, low birth rates and emigration have put a lid on growth: in 1962 the city had 1.2 million, and fifty years later, in 2011, it had 1.3 million.
Montevideo now extends, as it has for decades, about five miles in all landward directions from the Ciudad Vieja except along the coast, where the urban fringe extends perhaps 20 miles. The airport lies about 10 miles in that direction.
The wall is gone, but the Ciudad Vieja still comprises 124 square blocks, each of two acres and oriented in a grid aligned as much as possible with the shoreline. It extends almost as far as the trio of highrises just right of center here.
Nearer the left edge is the dark Antel Communications Tower, completed in 2002 and still the tallest building in the country. Montevideo's very own Death Star.
A zoomed view reaching beyond the next bay to the golf club and the city's better (that of course means richer) residential districts. The slim tower on the peninsula is the post office, completed in 1925 on the peninsula's modest ridge. The hulk behind the freighter houses the national ports administration. The Mulhalls in the 1880s lamented the delayed development of the port. "If a proper port had been constructed 50 years ago, a considerable portion of the world's commerce would have flowed hither, and Montevideo would to-day be another Singapore" (p. 583-4 of 1885 ed.). The Mulhalls might have been overstating the case, but Buenos Aires has no comparable natural harbor and was forced to build an artificial one.
We're walking up the peninsula and away from the harbor, which handles almost a million containers annually. Small potatoes maybe (Singapore handles well over 30 million), but the country only has three million people and, unlike Singapore, is not a way station.
Disappointed by the buildings? You aren't alone. The very helpful Guía Arquitectónica Y UrbanÍstica de Montevideo, published by the municipality, writes at length about the Ciudad Vieja and recognizes that in the latter half of the 20th century a "process of deterioration, demolition and inappropriate substitution resulted in a degradation of its fabric and public spaces" (p. 28). Can't say they're mincing words.
See also a building-by-building survey, at http://inventariociudadvieja.montevideo.gub.uy/
We've come over to the far side of the tongue. That's the post office tower again, and in the foreground is the Holy Trinity Church, an Anglican church built in 1844 but demolished in 1934 and rebuilt, more or less as a replica, slightly inland. The move was necessary to accommodate the construction of the Rambla, a 17-mile-long coastal avenue constructed at that time.
The buildings that once hemmed in the church vanished, leaving the church with a fine view of the water. Unfortunately, the church is also a long way from its congregation, which has moved miles east of the old city.
Speaking of the post office, here's Mercury delivering what appears to be a musical instrument or a building. Take your pick. Nice fibularis longus, if memory serves.
We've come back to the harbor for a more systematic approach. Swimming? Not in this water.
Behold the Central Thermoelectric Jose Batlle y Ordonez. Batlle is a famous name in Uruguayan history--the father of the country's famously progressive social policies, embedded during his presidencies around the year 1900.
Here's the Estacion Central General Artigas, a fine old station that closed in 2003 and is still waiting for somebody to do something.
Looking away from the station: that's the Antel Telecom Tower and some trackside warehouses.
The warehouses are waiting, too, though looking at their construction I'd say they're happy to wait for another century.
The station was built (1893-7) to a design by Luigi Andreoni, an Uruguay-born, Italian-trained engineer not content with building railroads. He also designed Montevideo's first electrical distribution system.
For old photos of this and other places, see https://montevideoantiguo.net/index.php/grandes-personajes/luis-andreoni.html
Pride of place goes to General Artigas, of course.
The secret of his posthumous reputation is that, marooned in Paraguay, he belonged to neither the Whites nor the Colorados, the contending poles of Uruguayan politics. Each of them had its own heroes, anathema to the other. Who could the parties agree upon? Answer: you guessed it.
New York City has an Artigas statue at Hudson Square's Spring Street Park. It arrived in 1997. Can you imagine a Latin American politician getting a statue in the U.S. today? Me neither.
Who else is on display? Volta and Stephenson. Stephenson, the British railway pioneer, makes sense, but Volta, the inventor of electric batteries?
And here in a characteristically thoughtful mood is James Watt. I like to imagine that he's lamenting the disappearance of steam engines.
The British were all over Uruguay in those days--and not just with railroads. They built the city's water supply, for example. The work was done by a company based at 61 Moorgate, London, but represented on the spot by the company's office in the Ciudad Vieja. The water came from Santa Lucia, 34 miles away. No gravity here: pumps pushed the water to a reservoir at Las Piedras. The system was sold to the government in 1948.
The British owned the Montevideo Gas Company and Dry Docks, too. From 1862 that company made gas from imported coal, then stored it in one of several gasometers like this one, obsolete since the arrival in about 2000 of natural gas pipelined from Argentina. The British company by then was long gone, having sold the gas company to the government in 1970.
Speaking of the government, here, back at the harborside, is the Montevideo Customs headquarters, designed in 1923 by Jorge Herrán but not completed until 1942. You'd think the tower would offer a tourist viewpoint, but think again. What part of "no pasar" don't you understand?
Yes, every country needs a navy, in this case grandly guarded by a trio of ship-to-shore gantry cranes.
Stacker cranes. The port is largely operated by a government agency, but outsiders are muscling in. There's not quite enough room for Maersk, which has built an inland terminal.
What do you expect to find around an old port? Well, to begin with, this. Any ideas?
Yep, army barracks once upon a time and for a long time.
And this old hotel. (What office building would have so many balconies?) And if it all looks a bit naked, that's because the Grand National Hotel of 1888 lost its mansard in 1912. Worse than that, a national crisis in 1890 meant that the hotel never opened. Instead, in 1912, it became part of UDELAR, the University of the Republic of Uruguay. The architect was Juan Tosi; the disappointed hotelier was the prodigiously talented and versatile Emilio Reus, who died bankrupt in 1891, age 32.
See http://inventariociudadvieja.montevideo.gub.uy/padrones/2433 Also, see photos in Ciudad Vieja. Loss, Preservation, Transformation, published August 2019 by Centro De Fotografia de Montevideo.
Here's something even earlier, the Mercado del Puerto, an iron barn cast by the Union Foundry of Liverpool and opened in 1868 by President Lorenzo Batlle. That name again, but be careful, there's a whole tribe of Batlles.
No stacks of fruit or joints of beef here today; think restaurants.
No flies buzzing, no handcarts bumping, but the ironwork's nice. The life preservers and floats give the tourist game away.
This fountain, from 1897, looks like it came across the pond.
The pedestal inscription is illegible, but the fountain is reportedly a Wallace fountain, a type common in France, where Richard Wallace lived.
We'll work our way up to the central square on the axis of the tongue. Lucky for us, the Calle Perez Castellano was pedestrianized in 1986, an important sign of the peninsula's recovery from decades of decline. The buildings, many restored, are as well behaved as an honor guard of dragoons.
The palms seem uncomfortable.
We're still on the same street but just above 25 de Mayo, a name that echoes the first attempt, in 1810, at escaping Spanish rule. The building is from much later in the century, when architectural clients wanted to look their best. No casual Fridays.
At the Bar Los Beatles, still on Perez Castellanos, the rectitude of the Belle Époque has yielded to a touch of Deco.
Worse for wear, there's a Deco apartment building on 25 de Mayo, at Juan Lindolfo.
A police station on 25 de Mayo is in better shape. Eclectic? A mashup of classical and Art Nouveau elements? (There, I've done it: used the word "mashup" for the first time ever. I'm quivering.)
We've landed at the Plaza Zabala, site of the fort built in the 1720s on the order of Governor Bruno Mauricio de Zabala. Based in Buenos Aires, he had been fretting about the nibbling Portuguese and their settlement upstream at Colonia del Sacramento. The Portuguese threat receded after the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1777, however, and Argentina gave up its claim to Uruguay in 1828. The fort was replaced by a government house which in time became a public library that was demolished about 1880 to create in 1890 this park. It's offset 45 degrees from the street grid because its footprint is the same as the old fort. Why was the fort offset 45 degrees from the grid? Dunno.
The Spanish sculptor Lorenzo Valera executed this monument to Zabala after a delay of a hundred years. The New York Times picked up the event on 20 December 1931 with a filler that Montevideo was paying "belated homage to the city's founder." The lady is Abundance, although I'm not sure what she's carrying. An elephant's trunk?
Bronzes on either side celebrate the country's archetypal industries. Sheep, alas, aren't what they were, here as in so many other places around the world. Uruguay as of 2019 had about six or seven million, down from 25 million in the 1950s.
Grain production and beef remain very important, though I can't tell what the man in carrying. The cow seems to be thinking something like "Can't I rest a bit?"
The monument carries martial sculptures, too, like this rendering of the arrival of Spanish troops in 1724.
This is the Palacio Taranco, which faces the square and looks official but isn't. It was built between 1907 and 1910 as the residence of three immigrant brothers named Ortiz de Taranco. (Notice how the connotations of the word "immigrant" have darkened in recent years?) Now a museum, the design was by Girault and Leon, French architects whose other commissions included the Arc de Triomphe (the one in Paris, in case you're unsure). Goes to show: nothing but the best would do for the wealthy residents of Montevideo at that time.
Peeping over the fence.
Here, across the street and still facing the square, is another house. It, too, is from the early 1900s but was renovated in the 1980s and now apparently houses the very low-key offices of a shipping company. All of which goes to the point that the neighborhood is no longer stylishly residential.
Did I speak too fast? Depends on your taste. Next door is the Edificio Raul Daneri, completed in 1952 by the architects Beltrán Arbeleche and Miguel Ángel Canale. Their client was the Bank Retirement and Pension Fund. László Erdélyi, a critic in El Pais, writes on 6 July 2018 that the building has "a modernity that still surprises today, because it does not look like a work built almost 70 years ago." You buy that?
Here's why I don't: it's the Edificio Jardin de Zabala, an office building across the street. I don't like it any better than 1952's bunker, but Brutaliam is so done. Finished.
We've jumped 700 meters or about six blocks to the east. We're standing just inside what was the old fort, and the open space in front of us is the Plaza Independencia, created in 1829 by an officer, José María Reyes, who was ordered to demolish the fortifications and survey a Ciudad Nueva. He did succeed in adding 160 new blocks, but he didn't quite demolish the fortifications: this gate survives and is now protected. Photographs from as late as 1962 show walls extending from either side of it. (See Historia Urbanística y Edilicia de la Ciudud de Montevideo by Carlos Altezor and Hugo Baracchini, 1971, p. 77.)
Reyes' market space was converted to a civic square by Carlo Zucchi, who was reputedly inspired by the Rue de Rivoli. Most of the arcaded buildings suggesting that inspiration have bit the dust, though one survives and can be seen here on the right: originally a residence, the Palacio Estévez became government offices and is now a museum.
Well, look who's here: it's General Artigas again. His body lies underground here and is accessible by a staircase for those of chthonic tastes. (I'm sorry, but I so rarely get a chance to haul out that word, and it's a crackerjack.)
The east end of the square also has this landmark, the Palacio Salvo, named for another immigrant who prospered. It was designed by Mario Palanti, who also designed the nearly identical but smaller Palacio Barolo, forty miles west in Buenos Aires. Opened in 1928 as a hotel, the Palacio Salvo now holds 200 apartments. The Salvo family sold out in 1964. By then the beacon up top was long gone, replaced by antennas which bit the dust in 2012. Still, the building dominates its surroundings in a way that, surrounded by still bigger buildings, its twin across the river doesn't.
Like it? Le Corbusier came by in 1929, walked around the plaza, and said, "This is the place." "For what?" someone asked him. "To aim the cannon," he replied.
Maybe he was right, maybe he was wrong, but the builders didn't pinch pennies.
Neither did some of the neighbors. This, from 1920, is the now-abandoned Jockey Club, designed by the architect José Carré. Here's a relevant extract from The Bulletin of the Pan American Union: "Another striking example of the result of an architectural competition is the magnificent building now in course of erection for the Jockey Club on Avenida 14 de Julio in Montevideo. The prize winner in this case was Prof. José P. Carré, who 16 years ago was brought from France by the Government to head the School of Fine Arts, then part of the College of Engineering, but now a separate school and still under Professor Carré's able supervision." There's more, if you look it up. (Volume 58, issue 1, pp. 390-391)
The Artigas statue, here since 1923, was by sculptor Angelo Zanelli, who also did the heroic images on Rome's Victor Emanuelle Monument. (I told you: Uruguay in those days was ambitious.) The crypt was placed in 1977. And the fine buildings behind General Artigas? The one on the left houses the offices of the president of Uruguay. The one on the right?
It's the Edificio Ciudadela, built in 1958 and designed by Raúl Sichero Bouret, who lived long enough (1916-2014) to see the light of Corbusier shine bright and then fade. For a time Sichero must have despised the Palacio Salvio, directly across the plaza. See them as two gunslingers ready to draw?
Compare the entrance to this building with that of the Palacio.
Next door is the Solis Theater from 1856 and by the same Rue de Tivoli-minded designer of the plaza, Carlo Zucchi. Old photos show only the core, because the wings were added a decade later as hotels flanking the theater. They both have lost mansards. The theater itself seats or at least sat 3,000.
We're going to poke around the district between the two squares. Here, at the corner of Zabala and 25th de Mayo, is the Itau Bank, which opened in 1910 as the Insurance Company La Franco Argentina. On the right, from 1890,is the Spanish bank BBVA, formerly the English Bank, popularly so-called. The architect was Luigi Andreoni. You remember him: a few years later he would design the central railway station, now fenced and forlorn.
Welcome to the Gandos Palace, alias the Gran Hotel Colón, opened in 1910 at the corner of Rincon and Bartolome. Here's the description from 1922's Album Guide for Tourism in Uruguay: "Sumptuous rooms with bathrooms. Unbeatable location with all trams at the door." (For more, see La Manana for 14 August 1919.)
No beds here today: it's the home of the Interamerican Development Bank. The conversion wasn't swift or pleasant: for a time the building housed pensioners.
Another corner block from 1910, this one at Uruguay and Rio Negro. It's the Marexiano Building, designed by Eusebio A. Perotti as Schiavo House for a seller of leather goods. Originally, the upstairs was apartments.
Here, at Ituzaingo and 25 de Mayo, is the former Liberty Hotel, as of 2019 enjoying a makeover.
Here's another corner building, this one bringing to mind Montevideo's unhappy 1970s.
Is there a hint of Art Nouveau here on Itazuingo between 25 de Mayo and Calle Cerrito? Designed by H. Ebrard and Camille Gardelle, when finished in 1914 the building had apartments and offices. Now it houses the electoral court.
The names of the architects come from the Guía Arquitectónica Y Urbanística de Montevideo. Could this be a typo, and could the architect be Ernst Hébrard, the very prominent French architect? A long shot, I know.)
What about this one, the Pablo Ferrando Building of 1917, designed by Leopold Tosi for an optician who moved out in 1999?
In 2008 it became the Más Puro Verso bookshop, for which it seems vastly better suited than for an optician.
You're not going to argue about whether this, the Casa Rodriguez Bartolomé, is Art Nouveau. The architect was Horacio Acosta y Lara, for a time dean of the college of architecture at the national university.
For ten years after its construction in 1907 this was a pharmacy. Isn't green majolica an odd choice for a shop selling medicine? Anyway, since 1917 it's been the Las Misiones Cafe at the corner of Misiones and 25 de Mayo. Well, not quite. It closed for a while in the 1970s, when the neighborhood was too dangerous.
Art Nouveau came and went. In the 1930s the public, at least for public buildings, ran to neoclassicism, as for example here at the Banco de la Republica Oriental del Uruguay (BROU). The architects were Juan (or Giovanni) Veltroni, Santos Genovese, and Raul Lerena Acevedo.
Easy to miss: this is reputedly the first building in South America, or at least the first building of this type, to be built of granite, presumably a material as symbolically suited for a bank as the columns of the facade.
The sculpture is by José Luis Zorrilla de San Martin, son of Juan Zorrilla de San Martín, Uruguay's national poet. Could the words have been composed by the father? An approximate translation: "The exodus of the eastern people was the affirmation of the sovereignty of their democratic genius, of their indomitable will to be free."
Kiplingesque, no? Which raises the question of whether we're hearing a noble sentiment or poppycock. Reminds me of a joke told by Pope Francis: "How does an Argentinian commit suicide? He climbs to the top of his ego and jumps off."
Once again it would be handy to have some explanation of the figures.
Speaking of allegorical figures, we've come about a mile and a half north of Plaza Independencia for a peek at the top of the Legislative Palace, begun in 1908 and inaugurated in 1925. The architects were Vittorio Meano and Gaetano Moretti. Meano, who also was heavily involved in the grand Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, was shot to death before either was completed. By whom? By his wife's lover, whom Meano found in flagrante delicto. The shooter got 17 years; the wife was deported back to Italy.
The allegorical figures are by Jose Belloni. We don't do allegory these days, and these figures don't even have labels, which makes them all the more enigmatic.
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