It's true! You can drink the water in Buenos Aires.
This happy fact can be traced back to disease carrying immigrants, an English engineer, the Yellow Fever epidemic, a Norwiegian architect and a President determined to set things right.
Not too far off the historic Buenos Aires tourist routes lies one of the most magnificent buildings in Buenos Aires, overlooked by guidebooks and travelers: El Palacio de Aguas Corrientes - The Palace of Running Water. This grandiose Victorian period water pumping station is the happy ending to the early story of clean water distribution in Buenos Aires.
First, let's explore the need for a great water distribution system. Everyone knows that people need water to live. But why was it so critical in the late 1800's? The short answer is that BA was bursting at the seams with new immigrants from all over the world bringing diseases from their homelands with them. They arrived at a time when the city lacked both sewage and clean water systems. You can imagine the results.
Here’s the back-story:
By 1870, the population of Argentina and specifically Buenos Aires had increased exponentially and the city was expanding to accommodate new immigrants. The port activity was booming as Europe was in crisis and Argentina had the essential elements needed to become the next great global agro-exporter powerhouse: a port and railway system built, paid for and basically run by the English, unlimited cheap labor and a vast unexploited land mass full of natural resources.
As immigration and the export business exited childhood and entered into full-blown adolescence, things got out of hand. La Boca, Buenos Aires' main port was a festering brew of new immigrants from all over the world who unfortunately brought with them various illnesses. These health issues wafted into neighboring San Telmo, which at the time was an upper class neighborhood, so President Sarmiento and his scientist buddies decided it was time for a proper water purification and distribution system.
In 1870, the first steps in this direction began with the arrival of English engineer, John Frederik La Trobe Bateman, who came to Buenos Aires and began designing the first combined system of canals for sewer water and rainwater. Bateman's work formed the basis of the modern United Kingdom water supply industry and also worked on water supply schemes for Naples and Constantinople.
In 1871, La Boca and San Telmo were devastated by various epidemics including Yellow Fever and cholera, wiping out over 10% of the population. Those who had the resources fled to the north and west to higher land away from the port, populating new neighborhoods such as Palermo, Abasto and Caballito. This put the sanitary works into over-drive. The plain-like geography of the city set back from the low port areas facilitated the distribution of water in and out to the new burgeoning neighborhoods.
Separate channels carried sewage into a collector that sent it quickly down into the main sewer running from neighborhoods like recently turned high-class Recoleta to La Boca. This pipe connected to the mother of all pipes that sent the waste 5 kilometers down stream and then into the river. At the time, this "modern" system was one of the most advanced in the Westerm hemisphere and served as the example to the rest of Latin America. Bravo, Señor Bateman!
With a strong sewage system in place, the next step was to provide and distribute potable water. This brings us to the construction of the magnificent Palacio de Aguas Corrientes built between 1887-1894 located on Avenida Cordoba right by the Facultad de Medicina de la Universidad de Buenos Aires. The location was chosen due to its high population of residents as well as its relative elevation compared to the rest of the city.
This building was the acknowledged masterpiece of two individuals from Bateman’s English firm, Norweigan architect, Olaf Boye, and Swedish engineer, Karl Nystromer.
In this period of eclecticism in local architecture, this water palace displays a mixture of renaissance and baroque style popular at the time in Europe towards the end of the Victorian era. Its entire structure consists of a vast maze of steel beams covered with intricate masonry. The elegant mansard roof was manufactured and brought from France, while the 170,000 bright ceramic polychrome pieces and 130,000 enameled Royal Dalton terra cotta bricks might have fallen off the back of an English ship on it's way to delive the costly building materials for the home of a powerful president in South America.
The outer decor also includes two caryatids guarding the entrance and 14 shields representing each of the Argentine provinces at the time of construction. This elaborate construction along with the surrounding garden of imported palm and banana trees served as the great wall, hiding the inner workings of the city's main water system from the casual onlooker.
The building has the capacity to hold 73 million liters (19 million gallons) of water in 12 metal tanks located symmetrically in each corner of its three floors. The fantastic facade also hides numerous tunnels, filters, pipes and water pumps.
The Palacio de Las Aguas Corrientes remained in use until the mid-1900's and in 1989 was declared an National Historical Monument. Today, you can visit the building in it’s new function as the Museum of the Historic Patrimony - Palacio de Aguas Corrientes.
Intrigued? For more Buenos Aires insider information, trip planning and tours contact Madi Lang at www.baculturalconcierge.com or email Madi@baculturalconcierge.com .