South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
El Ateneo Grand Splendid is one of this city’s most remarkable landmarks, a sprawling space whose history mirrors the cultural development of Argentina. The grandeur of the former theater belies the rather prosaic merchandise provided by the bookshop chain that owns the current incarnation: The open interior is surrounded by tiers of balconies that, especially when lit in the evenings, make it easy to imagine the ballet and opera and tango performances of a century ago. Later it became the first cinema in Buenos Aires to show “talkies,” and some films were accompanied by live tango orchestration. It even had its own radio station, LR4 Radio Splendid, which began broadcasting in 1923.
The building had been falling into disrepair when it was converted into a bookstore by the El Ateneo chain in 2000; the work was carried out by the studio of the Buenos Aires architect Fernando Manzone, which was careful to leave the majority of architectural flourishes intact. The second and third floors, once balconies and boxes that held an audience, are still supported by ornate pillars and are now lined with books and dotted with comfy chairs for reading. The domed ceiling, frescoed by Nazareno Orlandi, remains. On the ground floor at the very back of the store is the stage, still bedecked with red curtains, and now supporting tables and chairs: This has become a cafe and a good place for foot-weary tourists to down an espresso. The books include works carried by chain bookstores (there’s a small English language section) but the music selection is excellent, a small reminder of the heritage of the Grand Splendid.