If these walls could talk, they would have quite the tale to tell. The history of Casa Gangotena begins with a tale. A tale that stretches beyond time immemorial, spanning ancient civilisations, tumultuous conquests and religious upheaval, fires and reconstructions, romance and betrayal.
But throughout its varied history, guises, bricks, uses and even names, Casa Gangotena, one of Quito’s Old Town Hotels, has been at the physical, spiritual and civic heart of the city.
But where did it all begin?
According to the first Spanish chroniclers, modern-day Plaza San Francisco boasted many temples, including that of Huayna Capac, the all-conquering Inca Emperor of the 15th century. It is said that the emperor himself used to stroll from the San Francisco area to where Santa Clara now stands. The plot where the mansion was built was the Temple of the Blue Militia – the élite royal bodyguard – during the Incan period.
As soon as the Spanish arrived in the Incas’ northern capital in 1534, the religious orders soon set about converting the hearts and minds of the local population. Thus the Franciscan order occupied the whole western hillside of the vast square, which had for centuries been used as a giant open-air market for traders from every region. The Casa therefore occupied a pivotal place in colonial Quito, bearing witness to the construction of the city’s first Catholic church.
The original house was built in 1600 by the Ponce Castillejo family, who sold it to a rich cacao impresario by the name of José María Caamaño during the independence era. The wealthy man rented the residence to the first Presidents of the Republic, including Vicente Rocafuerte (1783-1847): after all, the Presidential Palace was just around the block on Plaza de la Independencia. Other notables, like notorious Eloy Alfaro, were among guests.
First known as Casa de San Miguel, the house kept the original title for more than 200 years until it was changed to Casa Gangotena in 1840, named after its wealthy residents who owned lands across the Cotopaxi Province, with haciendas like El Balcón and Buenavista (a farmhouse that María Gangotena would donate to Cistercian monks to build a monastery).
The final owners of the house, the Gangotenas, were one of the capital’s leading families, with important industrialists, politicians, landowners, academics and even poets among their number.
In many ways, their own histories are intertwined with that of the city: a document shows that after an intense period of drought in the 17th century, the family was granted free water for as long as they lived in the house, after they agreed to bring in their own supplies to Quito from lusher lands.
In 1914, the house suffered a calamitous fire – local historians say that a bitter ex-boyfriend of one of the Gangotena daughters was to blame, setting ablaze to the mansion on her wedding day. The wrecked marriage would not last long – barely 24 hours, in fact.
The home was completely rebuilt in 1926, the palazzo vision of the Italian Russo brothers, architects with a taste for grandeur and finery. Out went the colonial style, replaced with ornate columns, fountains, and murals. Of these frescoes, one of them depicting the Gangotena family on horseback, each member’s name inscribed on their steeds’ reins can now be seen in the hotel’s Junior Suite. Another, in the former sunroom on the mansion’s southwestern wing, where society dames used to come to sew and gossip, showed a glorious maritime scene, complete with whimsical little sailing boats (now the Balcony Junior Suite).
Decades past and the house fell into decline. Sisters Mimi and Lola Gangotena were the last direct descendants of the wealthy Spanish family to live there. The latter was the wife of former Ecuadorian president Camilo Ponce Enriquez, and the couple had five children. After the death of the sisters, the house was passed on to a foundation, which sold it in 2007 to Roque Sevilla, former mayor of Quito, who was interested in purchasing the emblematic building (which he had visited for tea parties as a child) as a hotel, thrilled with its unique position on Plaza San Francisco.
A tale of restoration fit for the silver screen followed, and in 2010 Casa Gangotena reopened, in its latest incarnation: a luxury, boutique hotel.
But the story doesn’t end here. Every guest, every cook, every cleaner who passes through the doors becomes part of Casa Gangotena’s narrative, each playing their role. There’s so much more for these walls to see.