Current text and photography: Carlos Villasana and Ruth Gómez
Web design: Miguel Angel Garnica
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A few meters from the busiest —and most strategic— pedestrian crossing in the city, surrounded by marble palaces, quarry buildings or iron and glass towers, is one of the most emblematic sites in the capital: a blue and white house of unquestionable beauty. .
In colonial times, the Casa de los Azulejos served as the residence of the family of the Count of Valle de Orizaba. According to popular legend, the Count sentenced his son by telling her that he could never have "a house of tiles" because he had a lifestyle full of luxuries and did not seek his future. Time later, when the son succeeded him to the title, he ordered to dress it with hundreds of talavera tiles that have managed to survive countless modifications that the years have brought to the city.
The interior of the House is a clear example of the "churrigueresque" baroque architecture of what was then called New Spain, whose main characteristic was to make the excessive decoration on walls, doors, ceilings, columns and stairs complement each other in an ideal way, achieving in this case, a residence with an elegant and warm atmosphere.
Guardiola Square; Escandón and Azulejos houses and San Francisco street, now Madero, towards the Zócalo of the capital. Villasana Collection - Towers.
Throughout the 19th century, the Casa de los Azulejos had several owners and uses, until in 1881 the City Council decided and sponsored that it would be the headquarters of the Jockey Club of Mexico City.
Its birth was liked by some and repudiated by others, since it was a place that legitimized the social difference of the time in the heart of the capital; however, it opened its doors and inspired dozens of stories and verses, such as those of Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera who wrote in his poem “La Duquesa Job”: “From the doors of Surprise to the corner of the Jockey Club, there is no Spanish, Yankee or French, neither prettier nor more mischievous than the Duchess of Duke Job.”
Its initiators were General Pedro Rincón Gallardo and Francisco Somera, who was elected as president of the Club. Shortly after, Manuel Romero Rubio, father-in-law and Secretary of the Interior of Porfirio Díaz, took over the reins of the site and remained in that position until the year of his death, in 1895.
The Jockey Club of Mexico City brought together the Porfirian elite, including politicians, businessmen and intellectuals. It is said that alliances were formed within its walls, businesses were negotiated, marriages were decided and issues of national importance were discussed, while the partners played cards or bet on horse races.
The patio, which today is full of tables and which, seen from above, looks like a stage where the waitresses perform a dance choreography accompanied by pitchers of coffee and trays, was once adorned with hydrangeas, camellias, azaleas, gardenias, roses, whose ends they were guarded by potted trees.
This is how the patio of the Jockey Club looked in 1897, today the corridor from which the photograph was taken is closed, as is the access to the arch that can be seen in the lower part, since today it is the entrance to the kitchens of the sanborns restaurant
The halls amazed for their ornament, since some parts of the walls had carved details, which contrasted with the gold of the Venetian mirror frames or with the colors of the stained glass windows of the doors that led from one room to another.
Likewise, the ceiling of the stairs was a mixture of cedar beams with the tile of the exterior, which at that time was more expensive than all the iron and silver with which the balconies or railings were made.
Shots of the interiors of the Jockey Club in 1897 and today.
It only remains to imagine what kind of music accompanied the talks and board games, since surely unlike today, the halls did not play traditional Mexican songs sung by the violin, the piano or the jarana.
Being an "unofficial" headquarters of supporters of the Diaz government, every time there was a national or significant celebration for the General, the facade of the Jockey Club was dressed up with tricolor fabrics and decorations.
A little known fact about the Casa de los Azulejos is that before 1905, the building did not reach the corner of 5 de Mayo; a report reported that "in the new construction the ancient style of the old is followed, that is, the tiles up to almost half of the façade, and then stone without ornate decorations but with a simple, elegant and severe drawing". The expansion included a restaurant room with five windows on the upper floor, a dining room for members, while a reading room was added on the ground floor.
Facade of the Jockey Club in 1900, decorated for a national parade and how it looks today.
With the arrival of the Revolution, the site ceased to function as a center of coexistence for the national elite and became the Casa del Obrero Mundial, which stayed on the property for a few years before falling into disuse. By 1917, the owners of the Casa de los Azulejos decided to rent the property to the American Walter Sanborn, who, along with his brother Frank, left their pharmaceutical businesses in California to try their luck in Mexico, where they already had a couple of drugstores open.
The idea that the Sanborn brothers wanted to develop in what is also known as the “Palacio de los Azulejos” included, in addition to the pharmacy, a soda fountain, restaurant, gift shop —with exclusive brands— and candy store, one of the first venues for Sanborns stores. After a period of remodeling, the building reopened in 1920.
Undoubtedly, the sum of this new concept and the beauty of the construction served to consolidate and "do away" with the competitors in the area, such is the case of the "Lady Baltimore" restaurant-cafe that was on the other sidewalk, inside of the Hotel Guardiola. Since then, the Casa de los Azulejos has ceased to be a trunk of Porfirian secrets and its tables have become the cradle of dozens of narrations, talks and stories of the vibrant life of the capital.
Photograph from the Casasola Archive titled “Waitresses from Sanborns serve Zapatistas.”
In those years, the Casa de los Azulejos was considered one of the first soda fountains in the country's capital and one of the most elegant restaurants and shops in Mexico. According to the official Sanborns Group website, after the 1920s Frank Sanborn sold his stores to an American company that managed them until 1990.
This store concept was so successful that branches began to open. In 1949 the one inside the Hotel del Prado, called “Café del Prado” was inaugurated and five years later the one on Reforma and Lafragua opened its doors. Between 1958 and 1962 three more were built, one on Calle de Salamanca, another in Niza and the emblematic Insurgentes street.
In the 1970s, the company carried out a marketing study and made the decision to buy the chain of coffee shops "Denny's" and convert them into Sanborns, thus increasing the number of branches to 27. In 1978, the owners of Casa de los Azulejos definitively sold the property to the restaurant chain.
The arrival of 1985 marked a new stage for these restaurants, since Grupo Carso acquired most of its shares and with it, came a restructuring of the original concept, the renovation of the pre-existing stores and 14 years later the official birth of Grupo Sanborns. Currently, Sanborns has branches in more than 50 cities in the country.
Over time, new departments were added to the stores, such as magazines, books, jewelry, cigars and handicrafts. Currently, there are also those dedicated to video games, clothing, bags, glasses, movies, records, alcoholic beverages, household appliances —mainly televisions and sound systems— and, of course, mobile phones.
The store concept that began in the Casa de los Azulejos managed to become one of the most popular restaurant chains in the country, whose characteristic owls, the song that accompanies its slogan, its products and the peculiar uniform of its waitresses are engraved in the Mexican imaginary.
In its bowels, the House of Tiles has two murals of great importance: the one entitled "Pavorreales" by the European artist Pacologue that dresses the main patio and another called "Omniciencia", made in 1925 by José Clemente Orozco, one of the characters important in the history of Mexican art, with a more discreet character and media presence than that of his contemporaries.
On the heights of the stairs that connect the upper floor with the lower floor of the Casa de los Azulejos, nude male and female figures can be seen, with a very ocher color range (beige, red, orange and brown) that seem to be meditating. .
According to Laura González Matute, a specialist in the work of said painter, he sought to reflect in his works his deep knowledge of Greek mythology, relating it to all the stages of national history that he "happened" to witness. González pointed out that this “is the only mural in which he wrote on the wall the title: Omni- / science (all knowledge). The hands that give and receive fire, the flashes in the background of the central woman, the closed eyes of both women, the sword wielded by two male hands add an irreducible iconography to any interpretation”.
A couple of years ago INBA authorities assisted in its restoration and declared that the company that owns the Sanborns restaurant chain has given it the care and attention that a mural of these characteristics needs.
View of the José Clemente Orozco mural from the first floor of the Casa de los Azulejos.
It is not crazy to say that there is no character or personality that has not passed through the House of Tiles. The building generates immense curiosity and upon entering it transports us to a time when the hustle and bustle is not made by the cars or the crowd that is making their life outside, but by the talks, the clink of the tables, the "click" of the cameras and the disparate chords of different songs that if we pay attention to them, could make us remember a moment in our lives when we had a good time.
Main patio of the Casa de los Azulejos, which is currently part of the restaurant.
Old photograph: Villasana-Torres Collection.
Sources: Book “Picturesque Mexico” by Marie Robinson Wright, 1897. Article “José Clemente Orozco, the artist who, through his work, showed the condition of man in the 20th century” from the Ministry of Culture.