What is the history of Casa Gangotena?

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When you think of a hotel, you don’t instantly ask yourself “What is its history?” Really, all we usually want to know is if they have comfortable beds, good showers, and attentive service. However, the question inevitably springs to mind when you arrive at the front doors of the awe-inspiring Casa Gangotena and enter the lobby. With its intricately-designed, soaring ceilings and rich, tapestry-sized oil paintings, the clues of a long history and a good story can be sensed the minute you step through the door.

In fact, you can’t help but feel the walls of the house emanating its proud history as one of Quito’s first building blocks. Casa Gangotena has a rich history filled with despair, joy, vindication, and, of course, a well-known family behind it all.  As you begin to hear more about the history of this magnificent hotel, you realize that it is much more than just a place to stay – it is a fantastic opportunity to form a part of the Casa Gangotena family and witness the colorful history of Quito firsthand.

Casa Gangotena seen from Plaza San Francisco
Casa Gangotena has been part of Plaza San Francisco’s surroundings for hundreds of years.

When was Casa Gangotena first built?

Think back to what life would have been like in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Spanish colony of San Francisco de Quito At that time, Quito was only a mere whisper of what it is today. Currently home to nearly three million inhabitants, in the beginning, it was only a tiny town that consisted of 200 people. The colony boasted a few churches, private residences of the rich and, most importantly, many plazas. It was a major city in its infancy.

The History of Casa Gangotena

San Francisco de Quito and San Francisco Plaza (which happens to be the largest of its kind in Quito) was originally founded by Sebastian de Belalcazar in 1532, but it wasn’t until 1600 that Casa Gangotena (which was then another structure known as Casa de San Miguel) was built by the Ponce Castillejo family, right on the southwestern corner of the plaza. At that time, plazas were used as local councils, a place to conduct business amongst the citizens, and market places; therefore, a house on the plaza was often synonymous with good standing in society.

the history of Casa Gangotena
Map of San Francisco de Quito circa 1735. Photo by Jojagal via Wikipedia

Due to its close proximity to the enormous San Francisco church and convent, the house was named after Saint Michael, a Roman Catholic saint who was widely considered to be the guardian and defender of the church.

The very first occupant of the house, before it was even finished, was Francisco Ramirez de Arellano, a mineral prospector who discovered large mines in Esmeraldas and Santa Barbara. At this time the house was much smaller than it is today and didn’t have such an ornate façade.

Why “Casa Gangotena” and who were the members of the Gangotena family?

The building was known as Casa de San Miguel for its first 200 years, as resident after resident came and went. But in the 18th century a Basque Spaniard, Martin Gangotena, bought and moved into the residence, renaming it Casa Gangotena shortly thereafter.

Throughout history, the Gangotena family was consistently believed to have been a wealthy one but, according to historians, when the family first arrived in Quito they didn’t have a penny to their name. However, the family quickly flourished in the growing city due to their entrepreneurial spirit. The family then expanded into other areas, eventually becoming known as important industrialists, politicians, academics, and landowners.

San Francisco Church at Plaza San Francisco
San Francisco Plaza used to be decorated in a French style as seen in this picture from 1920. Photo from Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de Quito via Wikipedia.

The Gangotena family always played a prominent and influential part in society, and their names are mentioned throughout the history of Quito. They were benefactors of the San Francisco convent, and became widely known as friendly and welcoming people, hosting numerous gatherings at their house – that is, up until some of their personal items were stolen from them by a friend.

Despite its opulence, the building was called “Casa” which means “house” in Spanish. The luxurious mansion was and will always be a home in spirit, as Casa Gangotena continues to uphold its long tradition of hospitality and warmth in its exquisite food, impeccable service, and relaxing ambience.

What was Casa Gangotena like when it was a private mansion in the 18th century?

Casa Gangotena has sat on the edge of a very busy plaza throughout both colonial and modern times and, as such – it has always been a center of activity and action. As entrepreneurs, the family thrived in this atmosphere at every turn. Back in the day, the San Francisco Plaza was where the main commercial transactions in Quito occurred. Casa Gangotena was always open to friends and family, and from time to time they even held Catholic mass inside the house. On numerous occasions they set up shops and small dwellings for friends in the façade of the building.

San Francisco Plaza during a Sunday's market
San Francisco Plaza was used as a market during Sunday circa 1870. Photo from Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de Quito.

Consequently, the house became a chaotic space that was constantly filled with the babble of activity and the sharp smells of herbs and spices piercing the air. The colorful assortment of people in the various dwellings and the different shops led to an ever-changing atmosphere of constant movement – a veritable representation of a bustling, cheerful, colonial home. As of today, it is easy to sense that Casa Gangotena is much more than just a hotel; it still retains the character and feel of that warm, welcoming home.

What disaster happened at Casa Gangotena?

And then disaster struck in the history of Casa Gangotena. In 1914, the house was burned beyond repair. Officially it was recorded as an electrical problem, but rumors persist to this day that contradict this theory. It was rumored that one of the Gangotena daughters was engaged to a local gentleman. She broke off the engagement and the scorned lover retaliated with arson. Although it seems like a drastic way to exact revenge, we know that the Gangotena family arose from the ashes and built something much grander than what the city had seen before.

Nearly everything was lost in the fire, but the Gangotena family was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to transform the building into something completely new. They put the Russo brothers, famous Italian architects, in charge of the reconstruction project. Of course, the styles of the times had changed drastically in the hundreds of years since Casa Gangotena had first been built, and the new house did away with the original colonial style, opting instead for the elaborate European architecture that was in vogue at that time. Most of the materials used in the rebuilding process were shipped directly from France, Germany, and Italy, marking a new era in the storied history of Casa Gangotena.

Casa Gangotena's destructive fire
The fire at the property was very damaging for Casa Gangotena’s original structure. Photo from Archivo Histórico de la Ciudad de Quito.

The reconstruction of Casa Gangotena was a testament to their family name. Once not able to afford a house, the family had now grown into a group of prosperous and wealthy industrialists and landowners that engaged in business throughout Ecuador. As a result, they were now able to afford the luxury of aristocratic commodities including the tastes and styles of the Russo brothers.

In 1922, the new and more ornate Casa Gangotena was finished and the family was able to move back in. They continued to improve their home life and commodities in the constantly growing capital city of San Francisco de Quito.

One of their main requests was to build a canal to their home from a natural spring flowing from the Pichincha mountain. They were granted permission to build it despite muted opposition among other people living in the area. Opposition quickly dissipated soon thereafter, though, when the city suffered an unprecedented drought. The family gave access rights to the municipality to provide water to the neighborhood. As a sign of gratitude from Quito, the family never received a water bill until the house was sold in 2007!

How did the building go from a family home to Hotel Casa Gangotena?

Sadly, the Gangotena family line slowly died out. After the last two Gangotena residents of the mansion, Mimi and Lola, passed away, the house sat empty for about eight years. In 1978, the historic center of Quito was declared the first-ever UNESCO World Heritage Site, but even with that title no one was interested in turning the venerable Casa Gangotena into a museum or tourist attraction.

Previous exterior of Casa Gangotena
Casa Gangotena went through a renovation after it was bought by Roque Sevilla.

Eventually, in 2007, the tired building was bought by Roque Sevilla, who had made his mark as a renowned economist and former mayor of Quito. Now, as the owner of Metropolitan Touring, he dreamed of creating something never done before: transforming this historic jewel into a unique hotel experience. He understood the tremendous importance of Casa Gangotena in Quito’s history and the significance it would represent for each guest who would visit it. His vision was aided by the fact that he had frequently visited the house with his aunt when he was a child and could remember its former magnificence. He knew that Casa Gangotena could provide an experience like no other, but also knew it would require a lot of work to restore it to its original glory.

The story of Casa Gangotena’s restoration itself is filled with blood, sweat, and tears. The building was nearly 100 years old by then and had entirely collapsed in parts. Only a few men at a time were able to work on the upper floors, as the foundations were so frail that it could have collapsed even further. The restoration not only had to be strong enough to hold 28 bathtubs on each floor, but also had to be as close to the original as possible. Workers meticulously removed the original surviving floors and art, not only so that it could all be reused for the upcoming hotel, but also so that work on the foundations could be done without damaging the original heritage of Casa Gangotena.

Renovations took close to three years to complete with the constant work of about 100 workers. Casa Gangotena finally reopened in October 2011, and thanks to their painstaking efforts the end result is truly astounding – a magical and breathtaking step back in time.

Why are there different types of architecture in Casa Gangotena?

The flamboyant Russo brothers used many muses when they originally rebuilt Casa Gangotena after the fire. They had been influenced by art deco, Renaissance, and art nouveau.

Of course, there were some areas where the original architecture simply could not be restored to its former state, such as the modern and diamond-shaped glass roof that now covers the lounge area or the glass doors that adorn the front entrance. However, the original architecture of the Russo brothers was carefully replicated or restored as much as possible.

Is there any original art?

One of the oldest objects in Casa Gangotena is a mirror innocently sitting on the first-floor landing. Upon close inspection, you can see that it has slight burn marks which reveal its history as a surviving piece from the 1914 fire.

During the reconstruction of Casa Gangotena, the builders worked diligently to remodel and renovate while sticking as close to the original architecture as possible. The ceilings were expertly restored to their previous grandeur and even the original Gangotena family crest is seen in the original stonework along the high archway that stands across from the main entrance.

Casa Gangotena's junior suite
Renovations were made to make every corner of Casa Gangotena look just as it originally did.

Frescoes were painstakingly restored and preserved in some of the hotel’s most treasured suites. The fresco in the Junior Suite, for instance, depicts the Gangotena family on horseback while another shows a serene body of water. Even a large fireplace from the upper salon was removed and placed in the lobby along with the aforementioned mirror displaying the Gangotena insignia.

Why is the Casa Gangotena logo a seashell?

To answer this question, it is important to delve into the history of Casa Gangotena and understand the broader historical context of Ecuador. There was very little infrastructure connecting the Ecuadorian highlands and coastal region in colonial times. The only access route to the coast from the highlands was a rather treacherous and tedious trip down the Andes. Therefore, the choice of a seashell would seem to many to be an unexpected choice.

However, the seashell was used extensively as a form of currency by many Native American tribes, including the Inca and pre-Inca cultures. At first, coastal tribes began using the clam shell, and the practice caught on like wildfire throughout the Americas. One of the most prominent places for trading in the Pichincha province was where San Francisco Plaza is now located, adjacent to the site of Casa Gangotena. This historical mansion, which has witnessed the evolution of Quito from a pre-Columbian trading hub to a colonial city, offers a unique window into the past. Through understanding the history of Casa Gangotena, we gain insights into the intricate network of trade and cultural exchange that shaped the region.

Casa Gangotena's seashell
Casa Gangotena’s logo can be traced to the Quitus, the original settlers of Quito.

In ancient times, this area was actually busy commercial center, dating all the way back to an era before the Spanish ever arrived in South America. The San Franscisco Plaza itself was actually once a major trading point for goods from many different regions. The main form of payment was, in effect, the clam shell. When the Spanish arrived, they took over the area and turned it into a more modern trading area, but continued to use the clam shell in some of their trading, especially with the indigenous tribes.

One growing and prominent family during this time was the Gangotena family. Their frequent use of seashells in their commercial transactions reflected their position as they gradually came to be known as successful entrepreneurs and traders. If you look carefully at the Gangotena family crest, which is proudly displayed above the wall-length mirror in the Casa Gangotena lobby, you can see a seashell depicted over the mountain. In this case, the seashell symbolizes the success of the Gangotena family from their early beginnings in the city of Quito up until the thrived and prospered with their businesses and deals throughout Ecuador.

Casa Gangotena Boutique Hotel
Casa Gangotena Boutique Hotel, luxury accommodation in the Historic City of Quito, Ecuador, South America.

This seashell has been modified to become the logo of Casa Gangotena in homage to the Gangotena family. But it’s not just a tribute to the family that built the house, as it also represents the atmosphere of the hotel and its fundamental purpose. Casa Gangotena is not only a hotel – it symbolizes its deep connection with the community, and is an icon of pride for every Quiteño as well as a standing reminder of the city’s aristocratic origins.

The history of Casa Gangotena isn’t just a list of dates and events – it is a collection of unexpected twists and turns that tell the story of a family growing and flourishing in a nascent city. It speaks to the growth of Quito and the cornerstones that helped build and transform the city into what it is today. Though it is now under the guise of a hotel, Casa Gangotena was and always will be a home built for bringing people together in unparalleled comfort and luxury.

Travelers exploring the unique landscape near Finch Bay, showcasing the luxury experiences offered by the Gangotena Boutique Hotel network in the golden triangle.
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