As with so much of society in South America, fashions in European culture and art set the tone in the 19th century. This very strong influence and orientation is seen just as much in Santiago as in other capitals of the continents on the Southern Hemisphere. The Palacio Cousiño is no exception. It was built between 1870 and 1878 by the French architect Paul Lathaoud for one of the first families of Chile: The Cousiño Goyenechea family owned the important mines of Lota (coal) and Chañarcillo (silver) as well as the vineyard of Viña Cousiño-Macul (still in belonging to the family today).
Luis Cousiño Squella (1835 – 1873) never saw the palace finished, since he died from tuberculosis at the age of 38 in Perú. His young and beautiful widow, Isidora Goyenechea, then only 37 and mother of seven children, took on the running of the family enterprises. Not only did she take over, but she expanded the business empire, including having the South American first hydroelectric installed by Thomas A. Edison’s company. She never remarried and, like Queen Victoria, wore black until her own death in Paris in 1897 at the age of 61. Her remains were transferred with great pomp and homage to be buried in Chile. Her will set apart a substantial part of her fortune for the construction of several churches, schools and homes for disabled miners, as well as a hospital close to the mines with generous facilities for women and children.
Only the finest building materials and furnishings were used and since the family business also had a shipping fleet, these materials could be easily brought from Europe: Italian marbles and majolica tiles, parquet flooring and custom designed and hand-carved furniture in exotic woods such as American oak, ebony, mahagony, walnut, French Sèvres and Limoges as well as German Meissen porcelaines, French and Italian silks and velvets, Belgian crystal chandeliers, and so forth. The first elevator in Chile was even installed. It is indicative of the contemporary fashion of the time that the representative portraits hanging in the central hall of Don Luís show him in a pose akin to King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Doña Isidora painted in the style reminiscent of the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter (who portrayed Empress Sissi of Austria amongst other royalty and society notables).
Built around a central atrium hall, there were twelve salons on the main floor, each for a different use: the grand dining room, a golden hall for formal events and balls, a music room with a grand piano, a tea room, an arms room, a Pinacoteca where the most important paintings and library were displayed. The private bedrooms and sitting rooms were on the second floor. The third floor housed rooms for governesses and tutors. Amazingly, this vast domestic home was only ever occupied by seven family members at one time – and about thirty sevice staff.
Times, family structures and needs changed, as well as upkeep costs escalating. In 1940 the palace including contents was put on auction. At the last minute, an agreement was reached between the Municipality of Santiago and the family: for a symbolic sum, the palace was sold to the city, who used it to put up high dignitaries visiting the city until 1982. A fire completely destroyed the second and third floor during that year, thus making it impossible for Queen Elizabeth II to stay there on her official state visit to Chile that year. The second floor was rebuilt and the palace reopened as a museum and declared a national monument in 1981.
Today, it is very sad to see this really very lovely residence, with its adjoining park, be located in an area of town that clearly shows signs of decay. I misjudged the distance from the central metro station, therefore walked about a kilometer along Calle Dieciocho leading to the museum – nowdays lined with some new, but mostly historic old buildings housing schools and institutes of all kinds. Many of these edifices still show vestiges of by-gone architectural embellishments. It is no wonder that I was married to an architect, my heart goes out to these buildings and I would love to see them all refurbished. By the way, when I finished my visit and asked the friendly concierge how to get back, I was directed to “just across the park” to the closest metro station.
All photographs copyright and courtesy of the museum.