Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Colonia Condesa and Its Sisters - From Past to Present, Part I: Transition to the 1920's

In our last post, Seeking Restored Vitality, we reviewed the colonias, neighborhoods, established at the end of the Porfiriato, at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. Our focus was on the question of what made for the varying degrees of success we have observed in restoring their century-old, shared heritage of stylish homes and in integrating them with all the changes they underwent in that one hundred-plus years. 

Our answer was that two things seem to have made the difference. First is their proximity to the major axis of Paseo de la Reforma with its dynamic fusion of the Mexican version of a 19th century European boulevard and pedestrian promenade with the skyscrapers of the contemporary global economy. Second is their having "good bones," public streets and parks inviting people to walk, sit and enjoy what is around them. We concluded that, among the colonias we have explored, Colonia Roma Norte, with its relative proximity to Reforma and its "good bones," was most successful in this endeavor.

End of the Porfiriato, Transition to a New Epoch

With that perspective, following the (mostly) charming Álvaro Óbregon Avenue west from Roma Norte, we cross Insurgentes Avenue and begin our amble through the last of the Porfirian colonias, the one known as Condesa. Actually, the area is comprised of four colonias, or parts thereof:
  • Condesa, 
  • Condesa Hipódromo (Condesa Racetrack), 
  • Hipódromo, and 
  • One part of Roma Norte that—located on the west side of Insurgentes—is physically more connected to Condesa than to its eastern side.
Gathering this group into one neighborhood are the major thoroughfares that mark its boundaries on four sides:
  • Chapúltepec Avenue to the north,
  • Insurgentes to the east,
  • Benjamin Franklin to the south, and 
  • José Vasconcelos to the west. 
Chapúltepec Woods is just to the northwest. We refer to all of them as "Condesa."

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

During the Colonial period, the land was a hacienda, a large estate, owned by a series of countesses, hence the name. The original mansion still stands on José Vasconcelos Avenue, in the southwest corner of Condesa Hipódromo. The U.S.S.R. Embassy throughout much of the 20th century, it is today the Russian Embassy surrounded by a high wall, which makes picture-taking a problem, even worse than the modern U.S. Embassy on Reforma.

In 1902, the owners decided to subdivide the hacienda into residential properties. The northern section was developed first as part of Roma. To the south, the Mexican Jockey Club opened a racetrack in 1910. In the 1920's, after the Revolution, it was closed, and the land was divided into residential lots.

Hipódromo of JockeyClub of Mexico as it was being converted into residential buildings in 1920s.
Larger, outer ring is Amsterdam Ave.
Photo: MXCity

The shape of the racetrack, however, was preserved, which accounts for the oval shape of Parque México and Amsterdam Avenue, which circles it, and for the name of that colonia, Hipódromo. We will find that this difference between pre- and post-Revolution origins in development of the colonias is reflected in their architecture.

The Two Hearts of Condesa

So let's begin with Condesa's "bones" and, extending the metaphor, its vital organs. Álvaro Óbregon leads us to a lovely, tranquil park virtually at the colonia's heart, Parque España.

Parque España 

From this serene core, wide spokes of tree-lined streets with shaded camellones, medians, spread out to the north, west and south.

Two short blocks to the southeast is Condesa's larger, and more active heart, Parque México. 

Art Deco clock points to the new architectural era in which the colonia developed

We will come back to Parque México, but first, let's stroll out some of the spokes, the "bones" radiating from Parque España.

The Bones of Condesa

Tuning north from where Avenida Álvaro Óbergon touches the park, we walk up Avenida Oaxaca. through what is actually part of Roma Norte.

Avenida Oaxaca is one of the few avenues in Mexico City with a row of palm trees

Along the way, we pass some old acquaintances:

Neocolonial home, now a restaurant

Amidst admittedly non-descript contemporary buildings, we have our first ecounter with a new, post-Revolution esthetic:

1930s-40s Art Deco

Oaxaca leads to a large traffic circle with a monumental statue at its center:

Fountain of Cibeles 

The Neoclassic Fountain of Cibeles [Anatolian earth goddess adopted by the Greeks and Romans] is an exact replica of one erected in Madrid, Spain, in the late 18th century. The copy, a gift of friendship from Spanish residents in Mexico City, but echoing the Colonial past, was installed here in 1980. The plaza around the statue was recently renovated and replanted with flowering plants.

Around the outside of the traffic circle are more Neocolonial and Neoclassic buildings. Housing cafes, restaurants and other shops preserve the Porfirian European ambience.

Continuing up Oaxaca to where it meets Insurgentes and Chapúltepec Avenues at the huge glorieta, traffic circle, we encounter other vestiges of the Porfiriato. They are, however, rather more down-on-their-luck than those around the Fountain of the Cibeles.

Second French Empire buildings on Insurgentes

Neoclassic mansion
(Sign indicates that current commercial tenant uses side entrance)

Reversing direction and heading back to the Cibeles Fountain, we angle southwest from Oaxaca and enter Calle [Street] Durango, the first of a chain of broad, shaded boulevards forming a semi-circle along the west side of Condesa, a kind of "ribcage" around the colonia's double hearts.

Camellón, pedestrian meridian down Calle Durango

And running north and south of Durango, on side streets named after Mexican cities such as Valladolid and Salamanca ...

...a quiet blend of tradition and definitely upscale, contemporary urban life.

Crossing Another Threshold

When Durango intersects with the wide Calle Veracruz, it bends more to the south and becomes Avenida Mazatlán. 

Neoclassic mansion at intersection of Durango, Veracruz and Tampico

Here we say goodbye to Roma Norte and enter Colonia Condesa proper.  We also find that we have crossed another threshhold, leaving behind the Neoclassic and Neocolonial of the earlier established La Roma for ...


... that nostalgic, eclectic hybrid we have met in other Porfirian colonias, California Colonial, with its spiral columns and ornate dooways. The architecture tells us that we have entered a neighborhood established in the 1920's and 30's.


But then there appears a 1930's apartment building adopting formal Neoclassic elements. 

Followed by more 1920's fantasy:

Medieval mixed with California Colonial, and
Moorish Revival

As Mazatlán approaches the southern limit of Colonia Condesa at Avenida Michoacán, we find ouselves moving into an area of predominately utilitarian, unimaginative Post-World War II construction, where the ornamentations of pre-war fantasies are left behind.

Seeking to uncover more of the early 20th century "dreamed city" in Condesa, we turn northeast, up Michoacán, and walk towards its heart, Parque México, and our next post.

Other Posts on the Porfiriato Era

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)

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