Memories of the society which inhabited Panama City’s Old Quarter when the Republic was young seem still to haunt the narrow streets where, perhaps, spirits of the past are anxious to regain the lost elegance of the early days of the last century. There, in the district of San Felipe or Casco Viejo, lived the illustrious founders of the nation and their families, men such as: Don José Agustin Arango, Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero, the first president of Panama, Don Constantino Arosemena, Don Nicanor de Obarrio, Don Ricardo Arias, Don Federico Boyd, Don Tomás Arias y Don Manuel Espinosa Batista. Nobody needed an “address” in the Casco Viejo of yesterday. Everybody knew where everybody lived.
Some of the old and well-loved houses of these families are still habitable but sadly affected by the passage of the years. The families formed a close–knit group which met frequently, giving each other a respectful and friendly greeting when they promenaded in the evenings in Independence Plaza, or Cathedral Plaza as it is better known nowadays, or at the famous concerts of the Republican Band which enlivened the square on Sundays and during the week at Santa Ana Plaza.
On these occasions, it was the custom for the gentlemen to perambulate round the square in one direction and the ladies, in their Sunday best, in the other, permitting discreet coquetry and courtship.
Many of these families, both wealthy and of limited resources, later moved to the new suburbs such as La Exposicion, Bella Vista and Calidonia which grew up in the third decade of the past century.
It should be explained that this short essay does not pretend to be a historical review, but an agreeable stroll through the small world of the Panamanian community which resided within the “walls” of the old city and also ‘outside” to the Santa Ana Park.
Some of the houses have already been restored, such as that formely occupied by the Jimenez —De la Guardia family. Its owner, Don Enrique A. Jimenez was president in 1945. His residence was purchased and restored a few years ago by Juan Carlos Navarro, Panama City’s current mayor. The three-storey mansion overlooks French Plaza and the imposing monument honoring the constructors of the French Canal. The monument is dominated by a tall obelisk surrounded by an arcade of carved marble plaques on which is carved, in the words of Dr. Octavio Méndez Pereira, the story of the valiant achievement of the French.
Flanking the monument is the stone façade of Las Bovedas – prisons in the colonial era and up to the beginning of the last century. The buildings surrounding French Plaza have all played a part in Panama’s history. The French Embassy is there and another complex of buildings houses the National Institute of Culture.
First Street, where there are a number of well-restored houses, brings us to the ruins of the former Union Club which, since the beginning of the last century, has been the principal social center of the old families. The old club was also, for decades, the official headquarters of Carnival in the capital. The first Carnival Queen was Manuelita Vallarino who later became Mrs. Frank Morrice.
Bernhart and Fonteyn
On the seafront a little beyond the old Union Club is a beautifully-restored building, one floor of which is owned by Ruben Blades, the famous Panamanian screen and music personality. Close by is the former residence of Luisa Aguilar whose superb nativity scenes were so much admired by her neighbors… and the refresqueria Purruñotis whose ice cream was famous. On the way to the Plaza Bolivar the stroller will pause to admire the National Theatre where the immortal Sarah Bernhardt took to the stage in her early years; and where, in 1974 the equally-immortal Dame Margot Fonteyn, wife of Dr. Roberto Arias Guardia, gave unforgettable perfomances . The ceiling of the auditorium, and the foyer of this historical jewel is decorated with exquisite work by Roberto Lewis, the famous Panamanian painter.
Plaza Bolivar, with its monument to the great liberator Simon Bolivar, is flanked on one side by the church of St. Francis of Asisi, restored by the Jesuits, and on the other by the elegant façade of the old Hotel Colombia. Just past the church, on the street leading back to the sea, is the Salon Bolivariano, the old meeting hall of the Convent of St. Francis of Asisi where Simon Bolivar held the Congreso Anfictonico in 1826 to propose unity for the region.
In the same building , the monks gave schooling to children of the families of San Felipe.
Further down the street one arrives at the residence of the Arias —Espinosa family. This mansion was buit in 1929 and has been featured in various movies. Further round the bay is another school, a boarding school where the sisters Teresa, Maria y Josefa Ucros are still fondly remembered.
Palace of the Herons
Close by, is the presidential palace, known as El Palacio de las Garzas, the Palace of The Herons for the tame family of elegant birds which live around the fountain in the Moorish patio at the main entrance. The palace was built in 1673 and re-constructed in 1921 by liberal politican and three-times president Dr. Belisario Porras.
In the Yellow Room, hang oil paintings of all the Panamanians who have occupied the highest office of the Republic: Manuel Amador Guerrero, Manuel Espinosa Batista, José Agustin Arango, Tomás Arias, Federico Boyd, José de Obaldía, Carlos A. Mendoza, Pablo Arosemena, Rodolfo Chiari, Ramón Valdés, Ciro Luis Urriola, Pedro A. Díaz, Ernesto T. Lefevre, Tomás Gabriel Duque, Florencio Harmodio Arosemena, Harmodio Arias Madrid, Ricardo J. Alfaro, Domingo Díaz Arosemena, Juan Demóstenes Arosemena, Ezequiel Fernández Jaén, Augusto Samuel Boyd, Arnulfo Arias Madrid, José Pezet, Ernesto Jaén Guardia, Ricardo Adolfo De La Guardia, Enrique A. Jiménez, Daniel Chanis, Roberto F. Chiari, Alcibíades Arosemena, José A. Remón Cantera, José Ramón Guizado, Ricardo Manuel Arias Espinosa, Ernesto de la Guardia, Sergio González Ruiz, José Dominador Bazán, Bernardino González Ruiz, Marco Aurelio Robles, Max Del Valle, José María Pinilla, Bolívar Urrutia, Demetrio Basilio Lakas, Arturo Sucre, Gerardo González, Aristides Royo, Ricardo De La Espriella, Jorge Illueca, Nicolás Ardito Barletta, Eric Arturo del Valle, Manuel Solís Palma, Francisco Rodríguez, Guillermo Endara Galimany, Guillermo Ford, Ernesto Pérez Balladares, Tomás Altamirano and the current president, Mireya Moscoso.
The offices of the president are at present in the building erected over the original residence constructed in 1716 by the couple, Don Joseph Arillaga y Doña María de Flores. Close to the palace is the famous Casa Gongora which was constructed in 1760.
The Cathedral, gleaming with mother of pearl
If your route through the Old Quarter follows the old tramway, you pass the neo-classic building occupied by the Ministry of Government and Justice and following Avenida Central you arrive at Cathedral Plaza. The twin towers of the Cathedral, gleaming with mother of pearl, face the Hotel Central which, for three decades of the last century was the best hotel in town. International personalities in the words of politics, commerce and art stayed there; among them the immortal stars of silent films John Barrymore and Dolores Costello who spent their honey moon there.
By tram, horse-drawn coaches and motor cars with canvas hoods, the visitors enjoyed sightseeing tours, perhaps to admire the spectacular Municipal Palace with its marble sculpture by Italian artist Enrico Braga or the building which now houses the Panama Canal Museum.
The tramline continued along Central Avenue to the Fifth of May Plaza and the “outskirts” which today are La Exposicion and Bella Vista. On the other side of Cathedral Plaza are commercial establishments such as IL Maduro Jr., Libreria Preciado, Felix B. Maduro, Eisenmann and Eleta (Bazar Americano) and in this area were the offices of Brandon Brothers whose operations in Panama were handled by Ernesto (Neco) De La Guardia, and Bazar Frances operated by the Heurtematte family.
Santa Ana Plaza
Further along Central Avenue was the Vander Hans pharmacy in front of the clinic of the famous physician of the Panama Hospital, Dr. Herrick. Then came the Lyons hardware store and the Panama Radio Corporation where one could buy the latest models of the “Victor” gramaphones.
On to the Santa Ana Plaza, one could admire the La Merced church, the residence of the Arias —Feraud family, today “Municipal House”, and in the 1930s, as old-timers will recollect, the refresquerias Rendezvous, Viu and Mihalitsianos, this last still operating today as also is the Preciado Pharmacy and the stores La Mascota, La Joyeria, Ponce Rojas, Salomon Antonio and Lupi which specializes in the famous “Panama Hats”.
We also remember, in this area, the Amador Theatre, the El Dorado Theatre, and fronting the Santa Ana Plaza, the Variedades Theatre; where silent movies, later talkies and always variety shows, were presented. A few yards away was the Colon Hotel which is still open today.
If you were to leave Las Bovedas by “B” Avenue you would experience just as much vibrant history; noble houses such as that of the Calderon family with its private chapel have disappeared but others await restoration. They are mute witnesses of past splendor; the ruins of the Flat Arch, and of the Santo Domingo church with its beautiful golden altar which was saved from the old city which was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan. In this area, too, were the original headquarters of the newspapers founded by Don Alejandro A, Duque G; the Star & Herald en 1848 and La Estrella de Panama in 1853.
Wandering here, you will also discover Herrera Plaza dedicated to that illustrious Panamanian son, General Tomas Herrera. Attractive wrought-iron balconies lend dignity to the houses and from here can be glimpsed part of the “Boyaca” building surrounded by the city wall of the colonial city.
And returning by this route again to the historic Santa Ana Plaza where the domino enthusiasts have their private “casino”, the curious stroller may pause awhile to savor a “tinto” coffee in the traditional Coca Cola Café on the corner where the latest happenings in sport, international affairs and politics have always been and still are the main item on the menu.
By Madelag (Manuelita A. de Tribaldos)
Note: Information about the families which lived in the Casco Viejo and its environs can be obtained at the offices of the San Felipe Foundation at the building of the old Convent of San Felipe de Neri at the junction of Fourth Street and Bolivar Plaza, and at the offices of the Old Quarter at Las Bovedas
Courtesy of Focus Publications