Landmark Buenos Aires cafe to make way for sports shop

Once the haunt of literary giants Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the famed Cafe Richmond in the heart of Buenos Aires is set to be replaced by a Nike shop, a scandal that has Argentines mourning the loss of a national treasure.

On a crowded tourist street, passersby are greeted by locked doors and glass painted white, in an apparent attempt to hide the shock gutting of the grand old gathering spot.

For nearly a century, more than 100 antique English leather armchairs provided comfort for bohemians, writers, adventurers, politicians and untold numbers of European and American tourists.

But nearly all of the celebrated pieces of furniture, including classic 19th-century bentwood tables, were spirited away recently in the dead of night. A look through a crack in the paint revealed the front room to be virtually bare, stripped of all but seven or eight chairs.

"People are alarmed. They stop, peer in, and stay here for many minutes" contemplating the cafe's historic past and uninspired future, said one policeman posted at the entrance.

"They need to vent about it, it's pretty remarkable."

The August 14 closure of the Richmond - featured in onetime patron Greene's 1973 bestseller "The Honorary Consul" as well as in "Hopscotch," the influential 1963 novel by Argentine writer Julio Cortazar - continues to make waves, pitting conservationists against bureaucrats who say they are powerless to intervene in a private property issue.

Dozens of people lined up Wednesday in front of the coffeeshop to sign a petition, launched by the Commission for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage of Buenos Aires, calling for the landmark's re-opening.

"There's no explanation," housewife Claudia told AFP about the closure, as she waited with her daughter Marcela to sign the petition.

"They have no respect for what is part of our history," Marcela lamented.

The Argentina operation of US sportswear giant Nike said it was "not involved with the decision" to shutter Cafe Richmond.

"The local Nike shops are operated in all cases through third parties," and Nike is not engaged in the purchase or rental of premises, the company said in a statement, although it did not deny that a Nike shop would take the place of the restaurant.

- Public interest at stake -

The plans have infuriated many, including Teresa de Anchorena, a grande dame of the heritage protection movement and member of the commission on monuments. She wants the capital's minister of culture, Hernan Lombardi, to intervene, but he has refused.

"Had he done so, the Richmond would have been protected," she said.

Santiago Pusso, head of non-governmental group Stop the Demolition, said he plans to file a complaint against Lombardi "for failing in his duties as a public servant."

Rated a "cafe notable", the Richmond captured the air of a bygone Buenos Aires.

It serves as a memory point for France and its legendary aviation company Aeropostale. Pioneer pilots Saint-Exupery and Jean Mermoz would spend hours over coffee or drinks in the front room discussing how they would change the world, or playing billiards in the basement.

Saint-Exupery, author of "Night Flight" and "The Little Prince", lived a stone's throw from the cafe in "a small, charming apartment" on Florida Street, he wrote in a letter to his mother in November 1929, shortly after arrival.

This period of the aviator-author's life gets broader treatment starting September 4, when the French capital hosts "Tandem", a cultural, artistic and literary exploration of the links between Paris and Buenos Aires.

The Richmond's heritage is also dear to Belgium, since the wood decor, widely considered a masterpiece, was done in 1917 by Belgian architect Jules Dormal, who completed the Colon Theatre, Argentina's grand opera house.

But for Argentines, the Richmond will always be most closely linked to Jorge Luis Borges, the world renowned author who visited the cafe throughout his life.

"It's the place where Borges worked on his writings," his widow, Maria Kodama, told AFP on Thursday, launching an appeal to authorities to allow the cafe to stay open.

"A place that is a part of this country's literary history should not just disappear," she added. "It's painful."

Is there still time to save it?

"We cannot force an owner to maintain a specific business," wrote Lombardi. But preservationists believe the culture ministry must act to save national landmarks.

"The owners have already disposed of the furniture," a ministry spokesman told AFP. "But we are trying to negotiate with them."

A magistrate, at the request of a Buenos Aires MP, has ordered the return of the cafe's furniture, and a constant police surveillance at the establishment.

"What is at stake is the public interest," said a legal source familiar with the matter.

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