A labour of love, the transformation of Casa Gangotena from almost-derelict family home to luxury hotel was beset with challenges, but the vision of preserving the character of an extraordinary historic building in Quito overcame them all.
For four centuries, the home of the illustrious Gangotena family has guarded the corner of Plaza San Francisco, the most iconic of all Quito’s squares with its religious and historic heft (link to Religious Museums Blog).
The building itself is not Colonial: burned down in a fire in 1914, the special mansion was rebuilt by Italian architects, the Russo brothers, who made the family home into an Italianate palazzo, adding Romanesque columns and art-deco touches. The family moved into the mansion in the early 1920s.
A new purpose
Mimi Gangotena was the last direct descendent of the wealthy Spanish family to live in the house. The wife of former Ecuadorian president Camilo Ponce had no children, so on her death, the house was passed on to a foundation of nieces and nephews. The foundation decided to sell the house, and notified 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. The sale was made in 2007.
The new owners would face many, many challenges to turn the mansion into the luxury hotel you see today.
A sorry site
When builders first set foot on the site, Casa Gangotena was more Miss Havisham than high-class hotel. Paint was grey and peeling, corrugated iron covered damaged tiles, floorboards and walls were cracked and damp bubbled at the lovely old murals.
The final resident, Mimi, had lived in just a few rooms on the second floor, complete with a huge, intricate altar, which was removed and sold upon her death like a great deal of the other furniture. (If you fancy buying some for yourself, some pieces can be found in the Artik UIO antiques shop in the colourful La Floresta neighbourhood). The rest had fallen to various degrees of ruin.
Breathing new life
For the new owners, it was imperative to rescue as many of its gorgeous original features as possible in order to preserve the inimitable character of the house. There were the murals: one depicting the Gangotena family on horseback, each member’s name inscribed on their steeds’ reins (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).
Both were painstakingly restored. Parquet flooring in the upstairs dining room was rescued and transported downstairs where the bar and Crimson Room are today. Silk panels added by the flamboyant Italian brothers were removed and gently renovated, and stucco plasterwork was taken down panel-by-panel and fiercely guarded as the works continued. Even a hefty fireplace was moved from the upstairs salon to the main entrance as well as the hotel’s iconic mirror.
Original decor, modern comforts
One of the greatest challenges for the team was restoring the mansion to its former glory, while making it fit for 21st-century luxury travellers. It was a task that architect Pedro Jaramillo accepted with gusto.
For example, the lovely old house only had two bathrooms. How would they make the floors strong enough to withstand the weight of 28 bathtubs filled at the same time, should everyone in the hotel wish to bathe at the very same moment?
This dilemma forced the builders to widen narrow corridors, replace double doors with fire doors, and to lower the sky-high ceilings to incorporate modern pipes, electronics and fire safety equipment. Yet to look at them, you’d never know the difference.
Then, there was the elevator. Perhaps the greatest set-back they faced, the team discovered on digging down that what lay beneath the hotel was not pure earth, but an extra room of the next-door house, given permission to do so by former Casa Gangotena owners.
There was nothing for it but to move the elevator. But where to? The only place that worked within architect Jaramillo’s re-drawn up plans was where the sweeping, double winged staircase stood with its art-deco bannisters. The staircase was removed, the elevator constructed in its place, and a striking, winding spiral staircase created alongside. This new staircase is now an emblem of the building itself – testament to the architect’s designs.
A further change the builders were to make was in the patio. Today the hotel’s conservatory, filled with orchids and eclectic furnishings, resembling an English garden gazebo, the space was once an open-air quadrangle with a fountain at its heart. A glass roof was installed to create the relaxing space for guests, and the water feature was moved to pride of place in the redesigned garden.
Although you’d never know it, an entire extra floor was built on the eastern wing, topped with solar panels to heat water. Meanwhile, a whole floor was excavated beneath the mansion’s west wing in order to create a goods’ delivery entrance and a hidden-away service area for the kitchens and staff.
Three years later, the mammoth construction, the labour of love, was finished. But that wasn’t the end of the preparations.
Building a community
The new owners were keen to integrate the hotel into its community around the San Francisco square, the barrio known as San Roque. So, along with the owners of the neighbouring Casa del Alabado archaeological museum, they funded a non-profit cultural organization which aimed to improve the community’s standards of living, sense of belonging and integrate them into the tourism project. Many of these neighbours – including the last miller family in the Old Town, the painters of saints, embroiderers, hat milleners, traditional healers, and the traditional candy makers – are now part of tours the hotel can organize with a local guide.
When it came to the opening, locals were delighted to be invited to the first of a string of cocktail parties in celebration. And neighbours lined up around the block to get a peep inside in the tours offered by staff – the first time they had seen inside the former home of the legendary Gangotena family.
The restoration of Casa Gangotena has not only meant the physical regeneration of a unique building, but the rejuvenation of an entire neighbourhood. It has shed its aristocratic origins to become the heart and soul of a flourishing community, and a source of pride for all Quiteños.