Old Lisbon: Grandes Armazéns do Chiado

A historical marvel reduced to an ashy facade then re-built by Portuguese architectural masterminds

The Grandes Armazén do Chiado on Rua do Carmo was always considered a landmark in Lisbon due to its size, and even today serves as a meeting point for locals and visitors alike, but its history is a wild one, easily forgotten behind its smoke screen of modern day amenities.

The Armazéns were founded by the French Philipot & Co. and were formally opened on November 19, 1894, but that was definitely not the building’s first incarnation. The building was erected before the 1755 earthquake and originally belonged to the Convent de Espírito Santo da Padreira (until 1834 when religious orders were extinguished). It then passed hands to the Baron of Barcelinhos and Carlos Ramiro Coutinho, the first Viscount Ouguella, and later, in 1882 became the Ambassador’s Hotel, then the Hotel Gibraltar in 1874, and finally, the Hotel Universal in 1882. It was here that notable figures stayed, such as the writer Camilo Castelo Branco and even Eça de Queiroz, who used it as a setting in his novel A Capital.

Once reimagined as an armazém in 1894 the building got its first taste of commerce, with resident merchants selling mainly perfume, jewelry, gloves, and shoes while expert tailors and drapers stood at the ready to build bespoke ensembles for a bargain. Most notably, Nunes dos Santos & Co. opened up their embroidery and lace import shop on the ground floor, extending their already successful business to manufacture their own silk in the nearby neighborhood of Intendente. This wild success story allowed the company, along with two new partners, to take ownership of the Grandes Armazéns do Chiado away from its original French founders.

At this stage, the armazém branched out to Porto and Coimbra followed by more in other district capitol cities, while continuing to grow its headquarters in Lisbon. In 1924, the amateur radio station P1AA Rádio Lisboa was opened inside the flagship store by Portuguese representatives of Philips and RCA radios just as wireless telephony (TSF) was introduced in the country. In 1927, the armazém acquired the Palácio dos Barcelinhos, expanding its Rua do Carmo wing, and branched out its wares to include glassware and home goods, a “noble hall” outfitted with velvet drapes and leather couches, and a fabulous café and tea room complete with models walking the central aisle. Certainly, the place to see and be seen.

By 1945, there were 20 branches of the armazém while Nunes dos Santos & Co. enjoyed top rankings as one of the largest Portuguese companies in both the commercial in industrial fields. 

For the next 35-some years, the armazém business continued to flourish until it was sold in 1980 to Manuel Martins Dias, owner of the since-closed Paga Pouco supermarket chain, and his partner José Pereira Dias, who owned the then-operational Armazens Conde Barão, which still stands empty today and looks like it’s seen its fair share of wear and tear

But no one could have seen what was coming next. In August of 1988, the Grandes Armazéns do Chiado was devoured by the great fire in Chiado which started at the competing Armazéns Grandella, home to what is now H&M, on Rua do Carmo. Firefighters were unable to enter the street, which had been blocked off by raised flower beds to ensure the street was for pedestrian use only, and when all was said and done, the fire destroyed 18 buildings in the area, including some on Rua Garrett. That’s equal to around eight football fields of damage. All that remained of the Grande Armazéns after the smoke cleared was the facade, a balcony, and the central coat of arms.

Incêndio do Chiado by LisboaAbandonada

Enter Álvaro Siza Vieira and Souto Mora, two internationally renowned Portuguese architects whose achievements are vast and varied. The duo was charged with ensuring the building’s historical integrity, quality, and grandeur where possible, and in 1999, after only two years of construction, the building was finally completed under their watchful eyes. Today, it boasts nine floors of over 50 stores and restaurants. The top two floors, as had been its earlier tradition, are occupied by the 4-star Hotel do Chiado, complete with its own noble room for meet and greets and one hell of a martini cocktail.

While it’s a shame we can’t travel back in time to see the once opulent interiors, at least we can still engage in trade and dining within its shell. So next time you walk through the grand entrance, take a look around for clues of its past and mourn the loss of live models with your tea before you get too caught up at Fnac or indulge in a snack at the food court.





Photo sources: 






On Key

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