Buenos Aires and its fabulous 'palacios'
Updated: Mar 24
In my book, An Argentine in my Kitchen, the two main characters, Catherine and Pedro, visit Palacio San Martín in Recoleta. The palacio was built during Argentina's golden years. Here is a brief snapshot of the times, and of three palacios - or mansions - of the era that can be visited by the public.*
'As wealthy as an Argentine'
One hundred years ago in Europe, it was common to hear the phrase, 'As wealthy as an Argentine,' when referring to a person's spectacular wealth. The phrase arose some time between the 1880s and the 1920s, when many Argentines involved in agricultural exports became extremely rich.
But unlike the wealthy classes of many other countries, these new oligarchs wanted to live in Buenos Aires rather than to settle in Paris. They wanted to bring Paris to Buenos Aires, and so they built mansions that reflected Parisian architecture, particularly the Beaux-Arts style.
Over the years, many of the mansions were demolished. Here is a description of three of the palaces that survived, and that can be visited.
The most authentic interiors
The Palacio Errázuriz Alvear, designed in 1911, has the most authentic interiors. The furniture and even the wall-paper patterns have been retained and/or restored in line with original photos and architectural plans. The owners were avid collectors of European and Oriental art. The fireplace in the great hall was initially designed by Rodin, and a small model of it remains. But the owners decided that the design was too modern for the hall, and bought a different one. In 1936 the mansion - with its artworks - was sold to the government under the condition it become a museum. It became the Museo de Arte Decorativo, and is open from 12.30pm to 7pm every day except Monday, with free entry. In the past it has been closed over the Christmas and New Year holidays. It may also be closed when an exhibition is being set up.
The biggest mansion
The biggest mansion is Palacio Paz. The media baron, José C. Paz, owned the newspaper La Prensa. He aspired to be President. In those days the house of the President became the presidential palace, and Paz wanted a house worthy of the office. But Paz never became President, and died in 1914, the same year the house was finished. The mansion is huge, with extravagant and rather overwhelming interiors, and apparently has thirty-five bedrooms. It was sold in 1938 to the Circulo Militar, an army club. Access is via guided tours, advertised on their site. Once you arrive in Buenos Aires, ask a Spanish speaker to check the site for you in case of cancellations. Currently, English tours take place on Thursdays at 3.30pm. Going on a tour in Spanish will mean that at least you get to see the interior. There is a charge for entry.
The best story
The best story belongs to the Palacio San Martín, now owned by the Cancillería or Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The story goes that an enormously wealthy Irish landholder, Corina Kavanagh, fell in love with the son of the Anchorena family who lived in Palacio San Martín. But his mother forbade the marriage to the 'upstart, nouveau-riche' Corina. The mother loved looking out of her window, across the square, to a church whose construction she had financed. Corina wanted vengeance, and decided to block the mother's view of the church forever. She bought a large plot of land between the mansion and the church and built the Edificio Kavanagh, the tallest reinforced-concrete structure in the world at that time. There are free tours of the Palacio San Martín in Spanish, listed on the Cancillería website. The mansion is used for ceremonial and other occasions, and tours can be cancelled without notice, so it is worth checking before setting out - find a Spanish speaker who can phone up for you.
And there is a lot more about Buenos Aires in my book, An Argentine in my Kitchen. Read it to discover Buenos Aires and Patagonia through the eyes of the main character, Catherine.
*Please note that this website is not a travel advisory site, so you should check all of the information with other sources before making any travel plans.