Monday, August 31, 2015

Seeking Restored Vitality: Colonias of the Porfiriato Have Varying Success

Perambulating through the various colonias, neighborhoods, initiated at the culmination of the Porfiriato epoch at the end of the 19th century, we have observed a process of architectural evolution that reflects the changes in Mexican upper-class values across the 20th century. In our last post, we revisited these changing "dreams of the city", or at least, dreams of what its prosperous enclaves should be.

In our walks, we have also seen—in well-worn, even abandoned buildings on one hand, and repurposed and restored ones on the other—how these once-imagined neighborhoods have experienced and now reflect the realities of a century of time, the impacts of economic ups and downs, with the resulting fluctuations in the income levels of their residents over the last century.

They share in common having a significant number of late 19th and early 20th century buildings in distinctive Euopean styles that give one the sense of being in some Continental city, but with tropical vegetation and plenty of sun. Thus, each colonia has the potential for, and manifests efforts to be restored, integrating its historic batiburrillo, hodgepodge, into a vital, architecturally rich, contemporary neighborhood.  However, they evidence different degrees of success in this process of rebirth and integration.

Seeking Renewed Life and Identity

Santa Maria la Ribera, the most northerly of the group, appears to be struggling with the greatest difficulty to restore the faded beauties of its Porfirian beginnings while integrating them with post-World War II Functionalist buildings and adding the modern buildings of urban renewal.

Partially rehabilitated Neoclassic building in Santa Maria la Ribera

San Rafael, the next colonia to the south along Insurgentes Avenue, seems further along in its resurgence and integration of styles. While there are still abandoned French Empire and Neocolonial buildings, others are restored into upscale condominiums that sit next to well maintained Post War Functionalist apartment buildings or across the street from contemporary, glass cube office buildings.

Both Cuauhtémoc and Benito Juárez, dominated as they inescapably are by the architectonic thrust of Paseo de la Reforma [Boulevard], seem to have found their individual equilibria in balancing contemporary vitality with restoration of and continuity with the past. Cuauhtémoc is more a quiet, yuppie neighborhood with a good number of California colonial homes mixed with modern apartment buildings. Sometimes, the two are literally married.

Modern Apartments Built Behind California Colonial in Cuauhtémoc

In Benito Juárez there is a dynamic, rhythmic counterpoint between Zona Rosa nightlife and quiet streets named Londres and Praha, with their Neoclassic, French and California colonial houses.   

Restaurant Occupies Neocolonial mansion in Benito Juárez

Roma Norte is probably the architectually richest of these colonias, with many well-preserved Neoclassic and Neocolonial mansions and some Second French Empire examples, To that are added the contrast of—and even combination with—the latest in glass and steel. All this is centered around Avenida Álvaro Obregon, with its enticing fusion of tranquil 19th century European promenade and bustling hip cafes. It appears to have "arrived" at a fairly well defined and vital identity that integrates its historic foundations with the contemporary style of upscale urban life.

Contemporay Glass Pavilion atop Neo-classic Base
in Roma Norte

What Makes Revival Possible? 

"Location, Location, Location"

Two factors basic to all real estate value seem to contribute to the varying levels of revival and achievement of a sense of integration across these colonias that share a common ancestry and similar raw materials. First, as they say in the real estate business, "location, location, location".

In this case, closeness to the economic and cultural power of Paseo de la Reforma is critical.

Paseo de la Reforma,
Where 19th Century Tradition and
 21st Century Globalism Meet

Insurgentes Avenue, the north-south axis connecting all the colonias, is less dramatic but increasingly potent economically, especially south of Reforma.

New Skyscraper Going Up
at Intersection of Insurgentes and Chapúltepec Aves,
where Colonias Benito Juárez and Roma Norte meet

Santa Maria la Ribera is far from Reforma and separated from its southern neighbors by Ribera San Cosme, a wide, heavily-trafficked commercial avenue catering to lower middle class and working class customers. San Rafael is south of San Cosme, closer to Reforma, and its southern end is now under "development". 

Cuauhtémoc's and Benito Juárez's more up-scale development is inextricably tied to their eje central, central axis, Reforma. While Roma Norte is farther south of the grand boulevard, it isn't far away, across narrow Benito Juárez and, like its northern neighbors, it is close to Chapultepec Woods, so it can feed from their attractions to add to its own potential.

"Good Bones"

The second factor that drives Roma Norte's attractiveness for restoration and development lies within itself. In addition to its large number of historic homes, it has Avenida Álvaro Obregon, with its spacious, shaded camellón, promenade, and the north-south axis of tree-lined Calle Orizaba, with plazas near each end.

Promenade on Álvaro Obregon
Plaza Río Janeiro near nothern end of Orizaba

Plaza Luis Cabrera near southern end of Orizaba

These two streets, which invite people to walk, sit and relax, establish the colonia's core "X" or "skeleton". As real estate agents say of an older, somewhat neglected but still solid house: "it has good bones." Around these communal bones of streets and plazas—and the many homes with "good bones" on or near them—the body of a vital neighborhood has been reborn.

In comparison, Santa Maria la Ribera has the spacious, tranquil Alameda Park at its center, with its Romantic Moorish Revival pavillion. But while this attracts people and has drawn, in turn, a few small cafes and triggered the restoration of some buildings around it, it has not developed enough weight to drive sustained renewal. The architectually interesting Neoclassic Geology Institute on one side of the Alameda has potential, but it seems under-used and semi-forgotten. It is no Casa Lamm or Casa del Libro.

Moorish Pavilion in the Alameda of Santa Maria la Ribera

San Rafael lacks any park or boulevard to serve as a center of attraction for people traffic and provide a core around which to build a sense of coherent identity, but its proximity to Reforma seems to transmit to it both commercial and residential vitality.

The Colonia That Has It All

So Roma Norte seems to "have it all" for attracting the people and money that produce restoration and renewed vitality: a large number of handsome historic buildings with "good bones", proximity to major urban axes, Reforma and Insurgentes, and, an internal "skeleton" of inviting public spaces for gathering and enjoying what the neighborhood has to offer: a revitalized and reimagined "dream of the city".

Modern Art "dreams"
in the Courtyard of Casa Lamm

Delegación Cuauhtémoc

The "Porfirian" colonias line the west side of Delegación Cuauhtémoc
From north to south they are:
Santa Maria la Ribera (violet)
San Rafael (medium pink)
Cuauhtémoc, (medium blue triangle)

South of Paseo de la Reforma
Benito Juárez (horizontal triangle with three adjacent pink sections)
Roma Norte (light blue) (Doctores is a separate colonia)
Roma Sur (darker blue)

And to the southwest (lower left):
Condesa (medium pink)
Condesa Hípódromo (dark pink)
Hípódromo (pale pink)

Centro, and its five sub-divisions (Historico, north, east, south, west)
 is to the right center (almost white)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Colonia Roma Norte - Part II: Dreams in Stone, Glass...and Paint

“I Speak of the City”
A novelty today, tomorrow a ruin from the past, buried and resurrected every day,
lived together in streets, plazas, taxis, movie houses, theaters, bars, hotels, pigeon coops and catacombs, . . . 
the city that dreams us all, that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream,  . . . 
I speak of the buildings of stone and marble, of cement, glass and steel, of the people in the lobbies and doorways, 
I speak of our public history, and of our secret history, yours and mine.

(Octavio Paz, “I Speak of the City” in The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957-1987,
ed. and trans. Eliot Weinberger, New York: New Directions Books, 1987, 511-517)

Octavio Paz's prose poem portrays with words how the buildings and streets of any city reflect the urban human condition. But each does so embodying the historical and cultural character that makes it unique. Octavio Paz's city was Mexico City. This blog of perambulations through the streets and neighborhoods of his city is our effort to make it ours.  

"A novelty today, 
tomorrow a ruin from the past, buried and resurrected every day,. . . 
the city that dreams us all, 
that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream" 

Aztec Templo Mayor
CLICK on any photo to enlarge it and open a gallery of all photos.

Mexico-Tenochtitlán, the city dreamt by the Mixeca/Aztecs, was literally buried by the Spanish conquistadores to create the city they dreamed, colonial Ciudad de México, now the Centro Histórico. We have wandered those ancient streets and observed how they have been redreamt by subsequent sojourners up to the present moment.

Palace of the Blue Tiles
Now a Sanborns Store and Restaurant

Then we saw how Porfirio Díaz and his late 19th century companions dreamt a European city of boulevards, Neo-Renaissance and Neoclassic palaces and French Second Empire homes for the bourgeoisie of modern industrialism.

Reception Hall, Palace of Communications,
now National Museum of Art

French-style Mansion
in Colonia Benito Juárez

Our walks through the colonias [neighborhoods] created under the Díaz regime have led us to discover how that Continental vision was continued and modified in the first half of the 20th century, after the Mexican Revolution, adding a re-imagined Mexican past embodied in neocolonial and California colonial imagery, among others.

California Colonial in Colonia Cuauhtémoc

Into those earlier Romantic dreamscapes we have witnessed the intrusion of late 20th century functionalism, with its puritanical vision that presents itself as a modern "realism" free of all dreams—and memories—of the past.

Functionalist Apartments in Colonia San Rafael

That ideal is now carried even further by postmodernity's steel and glass castles rising into the air.

Torre Mayor, on Paseo de la Reforma
a play on Templo Mayor

The city that dreams us all, that all of us build and unbuild and rebuild as we dream" 

In the first part of our perambulation through Colonia Roma Norte, in the Casa del Libro and Casa Lamm, and other homes on and near Calle Orizaba, we encountered other examples of the Porfiriato and post-Revolutionary dream of recreating a neoclassic European city, or, at least, its wealthy neighborhoods.

Leaving Casa Lamm, walking along Avenida Álvaro Obregón and down Orizaba as it continues south, we encounter additional embodiments of this nostalgic wish.

Neocolonial Hotel Colonia Roma
on Avenida Álvaro Obregón

Neocolonial House

Neoclassic Mansion

French Second Empire Mansion,
now Universidad Londres

on Plaza Luis Cabrera

More Dreams,  From an Increasingly Muddled Past

However, just west of Casa Lamm, on Avenida Álvaro Obregón, we meet a rather more fanstastic vision than those more classic dreams: El Parián. It is a market named after one that stood in the Zócalo, in the Centro Histórico from the beginning of the 18th until the middle of the 19th century.

El Parián Market

It is a kind of wedding cake confection of Moorish arches, Baroque spiral columns, crenellated Gothic towers and crests, and Spanish colonial elements—a quintessential dream castle. 


It reminds us of the even more fantastic architecture of Porfirio Díaz´s Palacio del Correos, with its medley of Spanish Plateresque, Elizabethan Gothic, Italian Renaissance Revival, Moorish Revival, Neoclassical, Baroque and Art Nouveau styles. 

Here and there, on other streets, we run into less ostentacious but similarly fanciful daydreams.

Art Nouveau Fountain and Rainbow

A man's home is ....

Baroque Columns with Art Nouveau Stained Glass ...
and Asian Bamboo.

All these are, of course, the dreams of the wealthy, or of those who aspired to be so—dreams they could afford to turn into the relative permanence of stone and glass.

With their increasingly ornate elaborations and mingling of historically disparate styles, you feel that they were reaching for some lost or, perhaps, new cultural and personal identity, but were always seeking to find it in a romanticized past—one that would slip completely away over the next few decades.

Another Type of Dream

But there is another part of La Roma, without the wealth, but with a different kind of permanence and with other dreams, expressed in a far different manner. La Romita, Little Rome.

Semi-secluded in the colonia's northeast corner, La Romita was originally the indigenous Nahua pueblo of Aztacalco on an island in Lake Texcoco. With the arrival of the Spanish, came conversion to Catholicism, and, of course, the building of a parish church.

Santa Maria de la Natividad de Aztacalco,

In front of the church is a traditional Mexican plaza that could be in any traditional provincial pueblo anywhere in Mexico—nowhere near upscale, cosmopolitan Roma.

Aztacalco kept its name and retained relative social and cultural autonomy until the beginning of the 20th century, when it was incorporated into the expanding Mexico City and subsumed as part of the new subdivision, La Roma. It became known as La Romita.

As a "popular", i.e., working class, indigenously-based barrio, it kept itself apart from the new La Roma of los de arriba (those from above)—as those from above stayed away from La Romita. The delightfully independent and keenly observant boy hero of José Emilio Pacheco's “Las batallas en el desierto” (The Battles in the Desert), who lives with his upper middle class family in La Roma, speaks of the danger of entering La Romita. 

Lacking the means to express their dreams in stone or glass, residents have turned to another medium to express theirs, by drawing on a long-standing tradition in Mexico.


Using the featureless walls of their houses, they express themselves with paint. Wall painting is one of the ancient Mexican arts, going back to the indigeous civilizations of such cities as Teotihuacán, Cacaxtla, Bonampak and Tenochtitlán.

Even Telephone Poles Become Visions

But there is also a more individual and modern note written on these walls:

"A Mexican never devastates me"

And with them, the universal, anonymous dream of the modern urban streets: the dream of an individual identity. 

We will come back to wall art and graffiti in our perambulations, but first we have to explore one last Porfiriato colonia, La Condesa. Then we'll move on to the next epoch in Mexico's history, the Revolution and the artifacts it has bequeathed to the City.

Colonia Roma Norte is bounded on the
North by Ave. Chapúltepec
East by Ave. Cuauhtémoc
West by Ave. Insurgentes.
South by Calle Coahuila (not shown)

Delegación Cuauhtémoc
The "Porfirian" colonias line the west side of Delegación Cuauhtémoc
From north to south they are:
Santa Maria la Ribera (violet)
San Rafael (medium pink)
Cuauhtémoc, (medium blue triangle)

South of Paseo de la Reforma
Benito Juárez (horizontal triangle of three adjacent pink sections)
Roma Norte (light blue) (Doctores, to the east, is a separate colonia)
Roma Sur (darker blue)

And to the southwest (lower left):
Condesa (medium pink)
Condesa Hípódromo (dark pink)
Hípódromo (pale pink)

Centro, and its five sub-divisions (Historico, north, east, south, west)
 is to the right center (almost white)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Colonia Roma Norte Part I: Houses—and a Culture—That Survived a Revolution

As we have walked through the colonias west of the Centro Histórico inaugurated toward the end of the Porfiriato (1876-1911), we have become increasingly puzzled by an apparent contradiction; that is, much of the construction in these colonias occurred after the overthrow of Porfirio Díaz in 1911 and even after the conclusion of the Mexican Revolution, into the 1920's and 1930's.

Yet, curiously, they continued to adhere to the same conservative European aesthetic as during the Porfiriato. Evidently, the overthrow of Díaz did not mean the overthrow of his era's tastes or, by deduction, of the upper social class with the money to build in those styles. At least in these neighborhoods, the Mexican Revolution does not seem to have taken place.

In Roma Norte, the Porfirian colonia immedately to the south of Colonia Benito Juárez, we encounter grand houses that are very clear examples of this apparent contradiction. Their histories, literally written in stone, attest that the Revolution—to whatever extent it gave political voice and power to peasants and industrial workers—did not mean the overthrow of the wealthy or, at least, those based in Mexico City.

Entering Roma Norte from Avenida Chapúltepec on the north and walking down its north-south axis, Calle Orizaba, you come to the first manifestation of this anomaly at the corner with Calle Puebla, a mansion now called the Casa del Libro, the House of the Book, a culture center run by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). 

Casa del Libro
House of the Book,
cultural center of
National Autonomous University
of Mexico (UNAM)

Sepia stained glass window
at top of entrance hall stairs.

CLICK on any photo to enlarge it.
A galley of all photos will appear below it.

Glassed-domed entrance hall

The mansion was built in the early 1920's, after the Mexican Revolution, to be the home of Joaquín Baranda MacGregor and his wife, Dolores Luján Zuloaga, wealthy hacienda (large farm) owners, the very types from whom Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapate seized lands to return them to indigenous and meztizo peasants. The Constitution of 1917 spoke of government expropriation of such lands, but little of this occurred in the first governments after the Revolution. It wasn't until the mid-1930's that President Lázaro Cárdenas undertook major expropriations to give land to peasant farmers. Among these were the lands of Don Joaquín. 

Losing the foundation of its wealth, the Baranda MacGregor family left the house, renting it in 1940 to the Brazilian Embassy. In 1945, the Centro Asturiano de México, the Asturian Center of Mexico, purchased it. Asturias is an autonomous region on the northwest coast of Spain, next to Galicia or Gallego, but we'll get to that shortly. Obviously, a group with pure-blood Spanish identity that buys a mansion for its headquarters is not part of what, in Mexico, are called the "popular" classes. Evidently, members of the Asturian Center so prospered that, in 1985, they decided to build larger quarters and could afford to donate the house to the National University.

Leaving the Casa del Libro, we continue down Orizaba a short block to where the road divides to incorporate the Plaza Río de Janeiro, a tranquil, arbolado, tree-filled, park. At its center, stands a very large reproduction of Michelangelo's David. What more quintessential representation of classical European culture could there be?

"David" in Plaza Rio de Janeiro

As you stroll around the plaza and along adjacent streets, you find another of those early 20th century potpourris of Eruopean architectural styles we have seen in other colonias of this epoch:


Art Nouveau

French Second Empire 

Neo-colonial and Neo-classic home,


Centro Gallego, Galician Center of Mexico,
occupies Neo-classic mansion built in late 1930's

Returning to Orizaba and continuing south three short blocks, you reach the core of La Roma, Avenida Álvaro Obregón. Although it is now named after the Revolutionary general and president (1920-24), it is a wide, European-style boulevard, with a tree-lined, camellón, a walkway down the middle, studded with classic Greek statues—the very epitome of Porfiriato Neo-classic taste.

"Doryphoros", "Spear Bearer"
copy of statute by Policlitos, 5th Cent. BCE
The boys out for a stroll.
Discophoros, Disc Bearer
copy of statute by Policlitos, 5th Cent. BCE

At the corner of Orizaba and Obregón stand two large, quite palatial edifices:

The Balmoral (As in Queen of England!) Apartments

Casa Lamm

Casa Lamm, the Lamm House, embodies the history of Colonia Roma. In 1903, Porfirio Díaz gave the Calzada (Avenue) of Chapúltepec Company permission to subdivide the area of land known as Potrero de la Romita. The land was owned by the Lascurain family. 

Pedro Lascuráin, a lawyer, had formed the Calzada de Chapúltepec Company with a group of investors that included Cassius C. Lamm, an American engineer, and Edward Orrin, British owner of a circus that performed all over Mexico. Company and land were then divided in two. Lascuráin, Orrin and Porfirio Díaz Jr. (yes, the president's son), formed the Colonia Condesa Company. In partnership with Cassius Lamm and his sons, Óscar and Lewis, they formed the Colonia Roma Company. The streets in Roma were named after cities and states in Mexico where the Orrin Circus had performed.

Original plan for subdivisions of Colonias Condesa and Roma,
Avenue of the Centenary, now Insurgentes, 
runs north to south down the center. 
Roma now is to the right (east)
Condesa is to the left (west)

Pedro Lascuráin withdrew from active participation in the companies when he became mayor of Mexico City under Díaz and then Secretary of Foreign Affairs under President Madero, after Díaz was overthrown in 1911 (Mexican politicians are very flexible in their affiliations). When Victoriano Huerta overthrew Madero in February 1913, he had Secretary Lascurian convince Madero to resign. Under the Constitution, Lascurian became president; he then appointed Huerta next in line for the office and promptly resigned, all in less than one hour.

Lewis Lamm, an architect, designed the house at the corner of Orizaba and what was then Jalisco Street to be his family´s home. It was completed in 1911. With the turmoil of the ouster of Díaz and subsequent civil war, the family did not occupy the home. Instead, they rented it to the religious order of Marists who used it as boys' school. With the repression of Roman Catholic religious groups in the 1920's by the new post-Revolutionary government, Lamm took the house back. When he died in 1939, his widow sold it to another family, who owned it until 1990. It was then purchased by a not-for-profit group that restored it as the Casa Lamm Culture Center.

Entrance stairs to Casa Lamm
Inner courtyard

Casa Lamm, together with Casa del Libro and similar elaborate homes in Roma Norte and the other Porfirian colonias, bear witness that the Mexican Revolution was not such a complete revolution as its counterpart in Russia. The peasants and proletariat did not overthrow the capitalist bourgeoisie. The post-Revolutionary period was, instead, focused on finding a more or less stable equilibrium between these socio-economic classes. How that stuggle came to be represented in the landscape of Mexico City will be the subject of a later series of posts. 

However, before we move on to the new epoch, we will take strolls through other parts of Roma and through its neighbor, the last of the Porfirian colonias, Colonia Condesa and its little sisters.

Colonia Roma Norte is bounded on the
North by Ave. Chapúltepec
East by Ave. Cuauhtémoc
West by Ave. Insurgentes.
South by Calle Coahuila (not shown)

Delegación Cuauhtémoc
The "Porfirian" colonias line the west side of Delegación Cuauhtémoc
From north to south they are:
Santa Maria la Ribera (violet)
San Rafael (medium pink)
Cuauhtémoc, (medium blue triangle)

South of Paseo de la Reforma
Benito Juárez (horizontal triangle of three adjacent pink sections)
Roma Norte (light blue) (Doctores, to the east, is a separate colonia)
Roma Sur (darker blue)

And to the southwest (lower left):
Condesa (medium pink)
Condesa Hípódromo (dark pink)
Hípódromo (pale pink)

Centro, and its five sub-divisions (Historico, north, east, south, west)
 is to the right center (almost white)