In the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires, on Avenida Defensa, lies what must be the city’s most enigmatic tourist attraction. El Zanjón (the term translates as “deep ditch” or “ravine”) is a . . . well, what exactly is it?
Twenty-five odd years ago, Jorge Eckstein bought a derelict house in the once fashionable barrio. Actually, ruin would be a better description. His motivation was commercial. It could be a restaurant, something. But then fate intervened.
As Eckstein and his crew dug through the rubble, he became fascinated with the history of the building. It was built as a private mansion in 1830 but by the end of the century, after the well-heeled residents of San Telmo had fled a cholera epidemic, it had become an overcrowded tenement slum or conventillo (“little convent,” so called because of the close quarters). In the twentieth century, it was abandoned and fell into disrepair.
You can get an idea of what the original mansion might have looked like by visiting the Pasaje La Defensa, farther down Avenida Defensa towards Plaza Dorrego. That former home of the Ezeiza family is now given over to shops and cafes.
The renovations uncovered the remains of earlier dwellings beneath the 1830 mansion, and when a floor collapsed revealing a long forgotten tunnel, Eckstein’s project stopped being a purely commercial venture and became something of an obsession.
Eckstein decided to renovate the structure in such as way that its many phases would be made manifest. Plaster was stripped away to reveal the brick bones of the building and the remains of earlier structures below were painstakingly excavated to preserve long buried cisterns and slave cells.
Most fascinating were the tunnels, the ditches of the site’s name, which channeled water from streams that once flowed through the area to the River Plate. Following their course led Eckstein under neighboring properties, some of which he also purchased.
Today it is possible to get guided tours through this idiosyncratic exercise in urban archaeology. On the day we showed up for an English-language tour we were lucky enough to be hosted by Eckstein himself. He proved a garrulous Virgil to his own netherworld and a one-hour tour stretched to nearly two.
What exactly Eckstein has created is hard to describe. There are displays of artifacts discovered during the renovation and copies of old records and maps along with period prints, but the space doesn’t quite qualify as a museum. I found it difficult to piece together the time line that led from the earliest structures to the 1830 mansion to its later renovations as a tenement. And in Eckstein’s hands, the tour becomes a tale of a very intense and personal private obsession, spiced by subtle references to his pique that his labors have gone largely unsung in Argentina despite international acclaim.
I found it easier to explain it to myself as a work of art created by an urban visionary. The spaces you visit during your tour are absolutely ravishing. There are long vistas, often punctuated by arches, that have been cunningly lit with fixtures of Eckstein’s own design. The tunnels themselves are a magical labyrinth dotted with benches and a few high-top tables and chairs. They lead to an expansive two-story space with a surrounding balcony that was once a paddleball court according to Eckstein.
Eckstein complained to us about how “marketers” who visit pepper him with questions about the value proposition and the ROI on the project. To Eckstein, these are petty concerns and yet it’s a fair question.
The income from the guided tours can’t amount to much. There was only one other person on the tour I took with the beautiful and mysterious woman I travel with. The site’s main source of income seems to come from renting out its various spaces for receptions and corporate events. And if you’re in the market for an event in Buenos Aires, you’d be hard pressed to find a more evocative venue.
During the day, the spaces are largely empty, with the exception of a few benches, chairs, and some exquisite large lamps designed by Epstein. El Zanjón’s beautifully designed web site, however, gives an idea of what the rooms and passageways can look like once a gifted event designer gets hold of them.
I suspect that once Mr. Eckstein is gone, his tightly held vision will go with him and the complex will become a warren of high-end restaurants, hip cocktail lounges, subterranean wine bars, and swinging night clubs that will make it the hottest destination in Buenos Aires.
In the meantime, you have a chance to wander through this odd wonderland and revel in some of the most romantic interior spaces in this or any other city.
San Telmo, Buenos Aires
El Zanjón is open only for tours, which occur every hour on the hour.
One hour tours are 50 pesos and are given Monday to Friday from 11 to 3.
Half hour tours are given on Sunday at a reduced rate.