May 21, 2022 4:18 pm

Two old buildings in the center of Buenos Aires are declared a National Historic Monument

Two old buildings in the city of Buenos Aires, which represent the Spanish and Italian cultures in Argentina, were declared a National Historical Monument by presidential decree of January 14. It is the headquarters of the Spanish Patriotic and Cultural Association, located at Bernardo de Irigoyen 668, and the former headquarters of the Italian Workers Union Society, in Sarmiento 1364, a jewel of architecture Art Nouveau that was bought in 2011 by the Church of Scientology in Argentina to build its Buenos Aires headquarters, but the restoration project has been stopped for a long time.

Detail of the ornaments on the front of the former headquarters of the Societa Unione Operai Italiani, in Sarmiento at 1300. Work by Virginio ColomboPATRICIO PIDAL – AFV

Both declarations were promoted by the National Commission of Monuments, Places and Historic Assets, chaired by Teresa de Anchorena. “With Fabio Grementieri, member of the Commission, we have been behind this declaration for many years. They are like two secular temples of immigrants from Spain and from different regions of Italy and that can be seen in the iconography of the facades, in the interior paintings. In the case of Societa Unione Operai Italiani, which is the first sign of a trade union movement in the country, there are mentions and tributes to Leonardo da Vinci, Garibaldi, Dante, Galileo: a group of figures and cities that later constituted the Italian republic”, the official told LA NACION.

An interesting fact that Anchorena provides and that does not appear in decree 20/2022 is that these buildings were only built in Argentina. “That is the great originality and specificity that these constructions have,” he highlights.

The headquarters of the Spanish Patriotic and Cultural Association, founded on March 22, 1896 for welfare and cultural purposes, was inaugurated in October 1916. With a Spanish Renaissance-style front, “in its internal composition, the buildings stand out for their constructive quality. access and reception spaces: entrance hall, stairs, main hall and library”, as the decree highlights. It also has a double-height main hall, crowned with a stained glass window.

The building of the Spanish Cultural and Patriotic Association was inaugurated in October 1916
The building of the Spanish Cultural and Patriotic Association was inaugurated in October 1916

In the foundations, the declaration expresses: “The building is representative of the history and culture of the Spaniards in the Argentine Republic. It served as a place for socialization, education and dissemination of Spanish culture and, on certain occasions, as a place for reception and conferences of prominent personalities from the Kingdom of Spain and the Argentine Republic, such as Jose Ortega y Gasset Y Manuel de Falla”. And he adds: “These buildings are a tangible and unique testimony of this phenomenon and, therefore, cultural assets of very high heritage and historical value.”

The case of the Societa Unione Operai Italiani, one of the fifty works that the Lombard architect Virginio Colombo carried out in the city of Buenos Aires over twenty-one years, is more complex. It was built in the 1880s. In the recitals, the decree highlights the heritage value of the building, but does not clarify its current situation.

In a note from LA NACION published on November 27, 2020, Virginia Mejia diagnosed: “From being the most important building built by Italian overseas companies, the Unión Operai Italiani became a ghost of downtown Buenos Aires about to collapse. Added to the total lack of maintenance were fires, demolitions, landslides, vandalism and depredations. It is an imposing style jewel art noveau of 5600 thousand meters covered that today is in the hands of the Church of Scientology and waiting to be rescued”.

The former headquarters of the Italian workers society was sold in 2011 to the Church of Scientology and is still waiting to be restored
The former headquarters of the Italian workers society was sold in 2011 to the Church of Scientology and is still waiting to be restoredPATRICIO PIDAL – AFV

Later, Mejia explains: “The Sociedad Unione Operai Italiani, established in 1874, was the third Italian society founded in Argentina, after the Unione e Benevolenza in 1858 and the Nazionale Italiana in 1861. It was the first of its kind that founded free schools for girls in the Italian language shortly after it was established, challenging Sarmiento’s postulates that he was looking for a public primary school that would homogenize immigration and shape Argentine identity. Memory of this is the rear sector of the building that preserves the classrooms of said school”. And he adds: “The entire building complex is a unique testimony of two stages of Italian architectural and artistic culture transferred and reinterpreted from the other side of the Atlantic: the Risorgimento in the sector of the 1880s and the Novecentismo Liberty prior to the First World War in the sector of the renovation and expansion carried out at the beginning of 1900 by Virginio Colombo”.

According to Anchorena, who visited the building several times, the most important assembly hall in the country is located there, “it is larger than the White Hall of the Casa Rosada”. A few years ago, there was a big hole in the roof, through which rainwater entered. “That hall, which is wonderful, has been deteriorating for a long time. Later that gap was closed, but in a transitory way, urgently. The interiors are not so bad, but they need a lot of work, “he revealed. Inaugurated in 1885, past presidents such as Julio A. Roca Y Juan Domingo Peron and even the anarchist Severino Di Giovanni, according to the article in LA NACION.

About the hall, the decree details that “it boasts some of the best paintings of the late nineteenth century” and that “these allegorical paintings, on the ceilings, represent the Italian-Argentine union and different aspects of Italian culture.” Also, that “another part of the building is from the Centennial period and was made by the great Italian master of the Art Nouveau from the city of Buenos Aires, Virginio Colombo, who displayed all his talent on the façade and in the halls of the building”. The front, as in other Italian company buildings, seems “like a secular altarpiece that tells passers-by part of the history and works of the community.” The headquarters “served as a place of socialization, education and culture, but also as a builder of ‘Italianness'”, completes the resolution.

The declaration as a National Historical Monument protects the building from now on from collapse attempts or repairs that threaten the heritage value. As reported by the Basta de Demoler website, which followed the case from the time the building was abandoned until its sale, the owners (who in 2011 paid 1.5 million dollars for the mansion) had presented a reform project that put protectionists on alert because it added several square meters to the structure.

Detail of the facade of an art nouveau jewel
Detail of the facade of an art nouveau jewelLN file

Asked about that point in particular, Anchorena explained: “From now on, any reform or renovation project must be approved by the Commission, which is the body that has the superintendence over national monuments.” About the restoration project presented by those responsible for the cult, Anchorena says that he knows it and that “it is not bad”. “Now the question would be to make it a reality, that there is the will to invest in that project.”

The building in question is not the only privately owned building that has been declared a national historic monument. A known example is the kavanagh building, in Retirement; another is the Palacio Barolo, on Avenida de Mayo. For Anchorena, “it is to be hoped that the owners assume responsibility for their care. There are some incentives, such as the tax exemption that nationally declared buildings enjoy and that are intended for the maintenance of the building. The State, for its part, has the obligation to collaborate with the owners to reach solutions in the event of maintenance problems.”

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