[Photos by WritersClearinghouse News Service]
Won the War, Lost Their Hearts
By Richard Carreño
Argentinians have had a love-hate relationship with the British as long as memory (history) can serve. From invasions in the 19th century (twice) to the awkwardness of a 1982 war over a constellation of rocks (islands) known as the Falklands to the Brits and the Malvinas to the Argies (they lost), tensions have often run high between the two countries. Conversely, nowhere -- aside from in Britain's kissin' cousin, the United States -- has the popular culture of the United Kingdom reigned with such alacrity as in this capital city.
It came with the railroads, built by British engineers with funding from the City, London's Wall Street. In a horse-oriented culture, polo followed. English-styled clubs (the sporting Jockey included) soon appeared. As did English-styled fashion with a Savile Row cut, popularized by the city's male elite.
Even a version of Big Ben (the British Tower) rose up, a favorite meeting site for Porteños, as citizens of this port city are known. Until 1982, that is.
It was known as Torre Monumental afterward. Before 1982 Torre de los Ingleses (Tower of the English) is a clock tower located in the barrio (district) of Retiro, Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is situated in the Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina (formerly Plaza Británica) next to the Calle San Martín and Avenida del Libertador. It was a gift from the local British community to the city in commemoration of the centennial of the May Revolution of 1810. .
After the Falklands War in 1982, the tower was renamed Torre Monumental, though some still call it Torre des Ingleses.
Established in 1914 on 877 Florida Street as the only overseas branch of the renowned Harrods of London, the department store was expanded in 1920, and grew to occupy almost an entire Retiro-area city block. Following its expansion, the 47,000 m² (500,000 ft²) landmark was crowned by an eight-story cupola overlooking Córdoba Avenue, and featured marble steps and cedar flooring throughout, as well as wrought-iron elevators with a riding capacity for twenty, valet service, and a jazz orchestra. The store was purchased by competing local retailer Gath y Chaves in 1922, and the two Florida Street institutions were, in turn, acquired by the Italian-Argentine holding company, Almacenes Argentinos, in 1970. These latter owners closed Gath y Chaves in 1974, and in 1977, sold their interest in the remaining store (Harrods) to a consortium led by Pérez Companc, a prominent local conglomerate. By 1983, the store was controlled by Atilio Gilbertoni, its former general manager under Pérez Companc, and Swiss venture capital firm CBC Interconfianz.
The purchase that year of the flagship Knightsbridge store by Mohammed Al-Fayed led to conflict after Gilbertoni refused an offer from the Egyptian shipping magnate for the local Harrods license. The ongoing legal struggles and faltering local economy led to the closure of the store's top floors after a 1989 currency crisis. Fayed's lawsuit was ultimately dismissed by the British House of Lords in 1998, and though it continued to receive 80,000 customers a day and average a million US dollars in daily sales, lingering debts then resulted in the historic retailer's closure, at the end of that year. Gilbertoni narrowly avoided its auction, and rejected numerous offers for the ailing store, among them from Chilean retailer Falabella, Madrid's El Corte Inglés, and Paris' Printemps, among others.
The interior was partially restored and reopened in 2003 to host periodic art festivals and other cultural events, and among the more notable events hosted at the location were the 10th and 11th Buenos Aires Tango Festival, in 2008 and 2009.
Representatives from CBC Interconfianz announced in March 2009 that permits had been filed with city authorities to fully refurbish Harrods Buenos Aires (which can presently operate under that name only in Argentina), and to reopen the landmark department store.