Stained glass panel for a ceiling light

You may have seen a number of my previous posts on Montevideo’s architecture – its old city centre

and its cemeteries

On Tuesday I visited an architectural salvage firm in the Aguada area of Montevideo  where the affecting sight of the city’s architectural heritage in pieces made clear how much of the old city is being torn down to make way for new apartments, but also that people value – and are prepared to pay for – preserving some small elements of that heritage.


Entrance on the busy Avenida General Flores

Even purely utilitarian pieces – cast iron pipe, security grilles, window frames, iron shutters – have something of the visual character of the old city about them.

Behind the miscellany at the front is a dark warehouse full of salvaged floorboards. As in other parts of the world, tradesmen here tell you that the old wood is of much better quality than new flooring – properly dried, free from knots, broad and thick – though it will cost more to lay than modern system-build wooden flooring which clicks together without nails or screws. Even this old, it looks, feels and smells like real wood.


Functional and decorative

But it’s the decorative items – breath-taking in their variety, profusion and grandeur – which drive the message home. This city was once much more prosperous, vying with European capitals for elegance, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, judging by the style of the ornament.


Turn-of-the century ironwork


One lighting bracket still sports its glassware


Railings for steps to grand front doors


Not one but two cast-iron fountains, in pieces

Fewer fragile items survive – stained glass, painted panels, ceramic tiles – but these too suggest wealth and elegance, less on show now in Uruguay, even in the playground of the rich which is Punta del Este.


Accomplished stained glass work


Job lots of the azulejos or blue and white tiles favoured in Latin America

When you ask, you are told that Latin America grew rich on feeding and clothing the combatants of the Second World War with beef and wool, and when it stopped, so did the riches.


Industrious putti in field and factory – painted plaster panels

But agricultural wealth continues to support the rich families of Latin America – what else intervened to stop the rise of prosperity? The echo of the time of the dictatorships is much fainter, but it can be chilling – the sight, for example, of one of the hated army trucks which brought soldiers onto the neighbourhood streets at night to arrest and take away suspected dissidents, elicits fear and loathing still. It is not only prosperity which needs salvaging. Talk in Europe and the US of impending civil war seems a little wild against that cultural backdrop.

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Exhausted by his labours