Buenos Aires: Palacio Álzaga Unzué: The most luxurious wedding gift in Argentina’s history
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On May 8th, 1916, there was a large party in Buenos Aires. Two offspring of the aristocracy, Félix Saturnino de Álzaga Unzué, 31, and Elena Peña Unzué, 24, were married with all pomp and ceremony in the Church of St. Augustine.
As corresponding to a wedding of that rank, the couple received innumerable gifts. But nothing was like the gift of the groom that he gave to his new wife: a superb palace a few meters from the exclusive Avenue Alvear, in the neighborhood of Retiro, which to this day still surprises many by its noble Porte.
The contrast between the red of the brick and the grey of the stone, in the English academic style; The Corinthian columns that Lord at the main entrance of Cerrito Street; The ornamentation reloaded from the Frontis, with vegetal elements, shields, and figureheads; The Apizarrado ceiling and its elegant attics. Everything on the facade of the building refers to abundance and ostentation.
“Architecture is a language of the city that counts on the political and social situation in a certain historical period,” explains Cynthia Acher, architect and tour guide of BArquitour, who organises pedestrian architectural tours in Buenos Aires.
The Álzaga Unzué Palace speaks of an Argentina from the beginning of the last century, which imagined world power: a society of impossible contrasts between the arrival of the poor European immigration and the Creole agricultural aristocracy that looked at the rich of Europe and dreamt of a new Paris on the banks of the River Plate.
Scottish architect, Robert Russell, was in charge of the construction, which took four years to complete. He managed to combine the English Edwardian style that pleased Felix with the taste of Elena with the French castles of the Loire. It has the typical structure of a hôtel particulier de la Belle Époque: A large mansion designed for a single family with four floors of well-defined functions.
“A lower floor, where the kitchens are and where the male service personnel lived, apiano nobile with the reception rooms, a private floor with bedrooms and the last floor with attics, where the female service staff lived,” says Acher.
Felix and Elena had a long and prosperous life, full of trips to Europe and Mar del Plata, staying in the pampas and other homes; Those who knew them swore they were very simple people despite their millions. They died without children; he in 1974, and she in 1982, after which the palace was uninhabited several years.
The heir’s nephews sold it to the Hyatt Hotel chain, which in 1992 built a modern tower with more than 150 rooms in a part of the large garden in front. In 2001, the Four seasons chain took over the business and in 2006 the palace was restored to new with the idea of recovering its original spirit. Seven maximum luxury suites were built there and the building was renamed “The Mansion”.
The piano noble, the public space
The majesty of the interior is predicted in the exquisite base-relief of the ceiling in the vault that precedes the main reception, with the floor covering in stucco of orange shades. They are restored stucco “by the same craftsmen who worked with those of the Teatro Colón”, details Gabriel Oliveri, marketing manager of the hotel and who serves as a guide during the tour.
Oliveri, a cicerone who visited the noble house for many years and wrote a book about it, says he still feels the same emotion that he did during the first time: “Every visit I see details or new angles, I never saw before.”
The architect Francisco López Bustos, whose study dealt with the interior of the mansion, explains the reasons for this singularity: “Many palaces were built in Buenos Aires, but few kept many details inside as they did in their exterior. This, like the Ortiz Basualdo, also had high-quality interiors. ”
Interestingly, both buildings, distant by only one hundred meters from each other, were about to disappear in the Seventies, with the extension of the Avenue 9 de Julio, as happened with the mythical passage. They were saved only thanks to the hardened opposition of the neighbours of the district united with the Government of France, whose embassy is based at the Ortiz Basualdo.
The salons of the piano nobile of the Álzaga Unzué each one with its distinctive ambiance: English, French, Oriental. They have bedecked spaces with the best raw materials of Europe: floors of Slavonian oak, Parisian paneling, marbles from Italy and the French massif. The mastery of the artisans is reflected in the meticulously polished wrist, the frescoes on the lintels, the original chandeliers, the alabaster lamps and the exquisite details of the marble on the chimneys.
“They are spaces designed to show the Buenos Aires Society, the rest of the aristocratic class,” explains Acher. They were the places of the big meals and the big social gatherings, where the men talked about public affairs and the women put together charitable collections. Also where Elena took painting classes and received her confessor. Today, the hotel rents those rooms for cocktails and élite feasts.
“Everything you see is painted in Gold,” describes Oliveri, pointing to one of the walls by the French salon, painted green with gold accents. And he says that when the restorers went to retrieve those moldings they discovered what they thought was purplish was actually 18 carat burnished gold.
The rooms, the private world
The first floor rooms are reached through the main staircase, which is opened between two imposing ionic columns and is built entirely in Carrara marble. Felix and Elena slept in different rooms, though connected to each other. The decoration of the walls here is less charged but no less luxurious and is complemented by period furniture purchased at Sotheby’s in London.
While walking briskly, Oliveri reveals palatial intimacies. From the list of guests who rented the entire building for their stay; Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston, the Duke of Edinburgh, among others, to details that seem tiny but say a lot, like the various Louis Vuitton trunks of the original wine bar that ended up in the street after the renovation because they could not be restored.
The most sumptuous of the three suites on the first floor corresponds to the wife’s chambers: it is the Presidential Suite, with 180 m2, one bedroom, one living room and one used as a dining room or for meetings. The cost of a stay averages $10,000 USD per night. And it’s hard to find it available.
Elena’s two-story dressing room, with a small wooden staircase, is particularly curious: the second floor was designed only for its extensive collection of gloves and hats. But the best-kept jewel is without a doubt the bathroom, with the original bathtub and the walls covered with beautiful marbles in shades of green, grey and white. The arborescences of the veins give it a mystical and imperial air, which is completed with the basin and the taps made entirely of gold.
“I could be at Buckingham Palace because it’s a real bath,” says Lopez Bustos. With a slightly more mundane detail, Oliveri confirms that exclusivity: “When Madonna saw it, she almost died.”
The tour continues on the top floor, where there are four other suites and a deliciously hidden terrace to sunbathe or enjoy a private breakfast and ends with a brief walk through the underground, the only place that was completely refurbished. Here used to be the kitchen, laundry and the private wine cellar of the Álzaga Unzué; Today there is a room in tone, with white columns and black walls, with a corridor that connects the mansion with the tower of the Four seasons.
Suddenly appearing in the modern lobby, where several executives are waiting for a business meeting, immersed in the screens of their cell phones, is like abandoning a magical world and advancing at light speed in time. That’s where Oliveri says goodbye, not without sharing a last anecdote.
In 2012, the chain made a great renovation in the tower and decided that the restaurant of the hotel would be called “Elena” in honour of the old dweller of the mansion. Neighbouring to this, where every morning guests eat breakfast, is a large meeting room that also had no name. The manager had an idea.
“Felix and Elena were very happy and they were really in love. So I asked the next room to be called after him: so that they are together forever,” he confesses. The distinguished couple came back to find themselves in the same place where more than a century ago they had met for the first time.
Source: La Nacion
Photos: credit: Silvana Colombo and others