It has been described as the most British corner of Buenos Aires, a landmark once frequented by writers such as Graham Greene and Jorge Luis Borges. But the grand old Cafe Richmond where until recently powerful politicians mingled with laid-back bohemians is being replaced by a Nike shop.
Thousands of people have signed a petition against the planned opening where the now-closed cafe stands on Florida Street, a pedestrian walkway that is one of the city’s main tourist attractions.
“It is horrific, barbaric,” said Robert Cox, former editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald and a patron of the cafe since he first arrived from London 50 years ago. “The Richmond was the only place you could get a decent cup of tea.”
During the 1920s and 30s the Richmond was home to the “Florida group” of artists, Borges the most notable among them, who met there regularly. Greene was another frequent visitor and the Richmond appears in The Honorary Consul, his 1973 bestseller that was later made into a film starring Richard Gere and Michael Caine. “The Richmond is haunted by Greene’s presence even now,” said Cox.
A need to preserve history
Outside the shuttered cafe last week, passersby queued at a makeshift stand to sign the petition demanding its reopening. “It is part of the city’s heritage,” said Tomas Vaccaro, a lawyer, putting his name down. Maria Christensen, a tourist from Chile, said: “It’s a tradition that should never die.”
Nike Argentina said it had approved a proposal by one of its franchise-holders to put a shop in the building. Felicitas Castrillón, a company spokesperson, said: “There is a commitment to preserve the facade.”
Sergio Kiernan, editor of the architectural supplement of the national daily Página/12, said that commitment was not enough. “The problem isn’t the facade. The problem is that the Richmond is one of 60 landmark cafes protected under city law. It’s a public relations catastrophe,” he said.
The plight of the Richmond has dominated local media since the cafe’s insides were gutted last Monday morning. Apparently to ensure it could not be returned to its former splendour even if the local government rules against the Nike shop, the Richmond was emptied of its historical interior, right down to its grandiosely comfortable Chesterfield wingback leather armchairs, in a 3am raid. The movers took the precaution of pulling down the security camera on the front of the building first.
“It’s against the law,” said Monica Capano of the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission. “The Richmond is one of the city’s emblematic landmarks.”
Inaugurated in 1917, the Richmond had seemed to be going strong until its unexpected closure. “The whole thing is commercially stupid,” said Kiernan. “It was always packed.”
“They are tearing out part of the heart of Buenos Aires,” said Cox. —