MEXICO CITY – The palaces of Mexico City's historic center hold secrets. A taco stand in a dank entrance way may belie the crumbling insides of a once-elegant mansion, whose lead-cast banisters and enormous carved wood doors hint at a richer era.
Labyrinthine stone buildings are halfway boarded up. Others are invaded by squatters or given up to storage of whatever is being sold on the ground floor – cloth, kitchen equipment, school supplies. Many of the 1,800 historic buildings in the centro historico resemble images of the sunken Titanic but above water.
That's made the effort of a Mexican boutique hotel chain to restore and revive one of these palaces all the more stunning. Downtown Mexico is the reincarnation of the 17th century palace of the Condes de Miravalle, wholly re-configured by Mexico City-based Cheram Serrano Architects.
The 17-room hotel occupies the third floor along with a restaurant; a 76-bed hostel with a bar and game room sits at the back on the ground floor. The rest of the sprawling space – an atrium and a second floor that peers into the grounds below – is populated with restaurants and shops. High design with a Mexican flavor is a theme throughout.
Downtown Mexico is the latest brainchild of Carlos Couturier, director of Grupo Habita, which owns a collection of ten hotels in Mexico and one in New York – all distinct. The company has been making a name for itself in the world of small luxury hotel design.
It's the company's first foray into the historic center of Mexico City, which, up until a decade ago was a mess of makeshift street stands, unkempt streets and clogging traffic. The center – which had long ceased to be the geographical heart of the city but continued to be its cultural nucleus – wasn't considered safe, especially at night.
Today, back-to-back progressive city governments have transformed a handful of streets, including a primary thoroughfare, into pedestrian walkways. A Bus Rapid Transit line – the city's fourth Metrobus route – now crosses the center, reducing vehicle traffic and emissions. On Sundays, additional roads are closed to cars to permit cycling, and the city's bike-share program, Ecobici, has also reached the area.
Ride a bike into the grand foyer of Downtown Mexico and a guard will lead you to a bike parking station inside, just past the tables of the restaurant Azul, which serves gourmet Mexican fare under a canopy of trees in the atrium.
The upstairs level offers a walking tour of some of Mexico City's most avant garde, high-end fashion boutiques and design shops: Harto Diseño Mexicano, CasaSolaMexico, Arrolladora Mexicana, and others. Such luxury shopping is a novelty in the centro.
Although the shopping beckons, there is history to be savored at the Downtown Mexico, too. A two-story, 1945 mural by Manuel Rodríguez Lozano called "The Holocaust," painted in subtle blues and grays and restored by Monica Baptista, momentarily stops visitors at the stairwell.
The cavernous hotel rooms of Downtown Mexico are spare and loft-like with dividing walls and bathroom countertops made with red-orange ladrillo, a locally made brick. Luxury in this context runs between $150 and $225 a night, depending on the season and the room – perhaps marking a tentative return to the richness of the centro's era of counts and countesses and palaces of old.
Photos courtesy Downtown Mexico