The Argentinian opera house that became the world’s most enchanting book shop

13 May 2022, 16:33

El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina
El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Picture: Ryan Poole / Flickr

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

Known as the ‘world's most beautiful bookstore”, this grand venue has lived many lives as a home for the arts; both dramatic and literary.

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El Ateneo Grand Splendid is a huge book and music shop located in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In 2019, National Geographic named this palace of publications, the “world’s most beautiful bookstore”, and it’s easy to see why.

Throughout the 22,000 sq ft venue, thousands of books sit amidst the grand furnishings of a theatre, complete with rounded tiers, marbled columns, an original frescoed ceiling, and a stage framed by plush red cloth curtains.

Obviously, this venue had a previous life before it became the book shop it is today, and that life began over 100 years ago, in 1919.

So find a good place to sit, get comfortable, and let us tell you the story of how this venue swapped ballet solos, for bookshelves.

Read more: This former opera house is now pulling £2 pints after being restored into a pub

The enchanting mega book shop in Recoleta
The enchanting mega book shop in Recoleta. Picture: Alamy

In the northern part of Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires, sits an affluent neighbourhood called, Recoleta.

Recoleta houses multiple cultural highlights, including the National Fine Arts Museum and the National Library of Argentina, and once upon a time, a theatre, named Teatro Gran Splendid.

Less than a mile away from Buenos Aires’ main opera house, Teatro Colón, the Gran Splendid theatre was built in 1919 to house an audience of 1,050 who could enjoy ballet, opera, musical performance, and tango on the venue’s stage.

The venue was created for the Argentine film and music pioneer, Max Glücksmann, and designed by architects Peró and Torres Armengo.

During its opening years, many of South America’s most famous artists graced its stage, including ‘tango legends’, Carlos Gardel (singer), Francisco Canaro (violinist), Ignacio Corsini (singer), and Roberto Firpo (pianist) who dedicated a tango to the theatre.

Read more: Who was Astor Piazzolla? The Argentine tango composer

Canaro (centre) and his orchestra, c.1930.
Canaro (centre) and his orchestra, c.1930. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Five years after the Gran Splendid theatre opened, the venue added a new string to it’s bow, becoming a radio station, ‘Radio Splendid’ under Glücksmann’s direction.

Many leading musicians of the day recorded in the venue, and the Latin American branch of the operatic record label, Odeon (now owned by EMI), was run by Glücksmann at the theatre.

In 1929, 10 years after the opening of the venue, Glücksmann’s interest in the silver screen transformed the venue into a cinema. It was here that some of Argentina’s first sound films were shown.

And when silent films were played in the venue, due to Glücksman’s love of tango, he organised for a live tango orchestration to accompany many of the silent film projections.

Read more: Listen to the 1926 instrument used to soundtrack silent films: the American Fotoplayer

A history music and books at El Ateneo Grand Splendid
A history of music and books at El Ateneo Grand Splendid. Picture: Alamy

In 2000, almost 50 years after Glücksmann’s death, the theatre underwent its most recent (and its most dramatic) transformation: from live arts venue to real-life book shop.

The cinema seating was removed, and in its place came a multitude of bookshelves, which line every level of the palatial venue.

There has been some additional book-worm seating added, as well as the chairs which remain in the intact theatre boxes, so customers can sit here to enjoy a book before purchasing.

At the back of the stage, that once held up so many legendary tango performers, now sits a cafe where customers can admire the original ceiling fresco, painted by late 19th/early 20th-century Italian artist, Nazareno Orlandi.

Read more: Australian water tank turned ‘sound chapel’ brings 24-hour classical music to the Outback

Behind the literary curtain
Behind the literary curtain. Picture: Getty

Thousands of customers come to the now renamed, El Ateneo Grand Splendid, to browse the 120,000 strong collection of books.

However, this building not only holds stories within its shelves, but also within its walls. It's visitors often comment that despite the multiple genre changes the venue has experienced, it still retains the feeling of the grand theatre it once was, when it opened over 100 years ago.