BUENOS AIRES — Entering Harrods — the luxury store in Buenos Aires, not London — one feels as one might have felt boarding the Titanic. The comparison is not far-fetched: both were built with British capital, and before World War I. And just like the Titanic, the Buenos Aires store also displays the plush splendor of the Belle Époque, still alive today: with ample spaces, a carousel on the second floor, countless lamps, typewriters and chairs, and the use of materials like cast iron, marble, bronze and oak that are meant to last.
The Buenos Aires Harrods, closed for over two decades, is no longer just a memory. It is set for a full restoration and a revival as a department store, but with a contemporary touch. The new space is to include gourmet eateries, apartments and offices with public terraces. The traditional barber shop, which remains one of the building's best-preserved sections, will be opened up again. The restoration project, which is being reviewed by the city government and waiting for approval, would last over three years and cost $60 million. The building is also up for sale.
The facade of Buenos Aires' Harrods — Photo: Diego Cerviño via Instagram
Harrods opened here in 1914 occupying an entire block in the city center, the only foreign branch of the London department store founded in 1849. After decades of splendor and some decadence, it closed in 1998. Several revival plans over the years failed to prosper.
Today there is renewed movement inside: cleaning, plumbing and initial repairs to "certain elements of great architectural value," says chief restorer Ángel Piccolo. These are necessary maintenance measures for a building that is more than a century old, with seven floors, a basement and a total surface of 48,000 square meters.
The Buenos Aires store also displays the plush splendor of the Belle Époque.
Thousands of miles away in New York, a U.S. fund is negotiating the building's purchase through the investment bank Goldman Sachs. Sources close to the store's historic owners say a deal is imminent. A restoration project has been presented to the city government, consisting of a mixed-use plan that follows the city's new Urban Development Code. It is to be carried out by architect Rodolfo Miani of Bodas-Miani-Anger Architects, in partnership with Norman Foster.
According to the plans, the premises will contain the department store, as well as boutiques and a food market on the lower floors. On the upper floors there are plans for facilities like co-working but also co-living spaces and terrace gardens, which will be open to the public. A traditional barber shop and beauty salon in the basement have been perfectly preserved and will resume activity.
Inside Buenos Aires' Harrods — Photo: Diego Cerviño via Instagram
A good deal of the exterior was restored in 2015, under Piccolo's supervision. Unfortunately, thieves have since tried to steal bronze sculptures from the building front and windows have been broken. The exterior is now protected by a metal screen and a security agent.
Several restoration projects were proposed soon after the store closed. In 2003, there were plans to install 80 luxury brand outlets inside the building, with a café and a bookstore. In 2011, the Financial Times reported the store would reopen if a UK investment fund were to close a $280-million deal. And in 2012, there was an idea to create a shopping mall dedicated to the LGBTI community.
None of these projects prospered, in part because of the ups and downs of the Argentine economy. Paradoxically, the peso's latest devaluation has made the building an attractive investment option, and may contribute to a definitive recovery of this architectural emblem in Buenos Aires.
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