Plaza Muñoz Gamero
Unlike plazas in colonial Chilean cities, Punta Arenas’s central plaza was not the initial focus of civic life, but thanks to European immigration and wealth generated by mining, livestock, commerce, and fishing, it became so by the 1880s. Landscaped with Monterey cypress and other exotic conifers, the plaza and its surroundings constitute a zona típica national monument; the plaza proper underwent a major renovation in 2004.
The plaza takes its name from provincial governor Benjamín Muñoz Gamero, who died in an 1851 mutiny. Among its features are the Victorian kiosk (1910) that houses the municipal tourist office and sculptor Guillermo Córdova’s commemorative monument, sponsored by wool magnate José Menéndez, on the 400th anniversary of Magellan’s 1520 voyage. Magellan’s imposing figure, with a globe and a copy of his log, stands above a Selknam Indian representing Tierra del Fuego, a Tehuelche symbolizing Patagonia, and a mermaid with Chilean and regional coats-of-arms. According to legend, anyone touching the Tehuelche’s well-worn toe—enough have done so to change its color—will return to Punta Arenas.
After about 1880, the city’s burgeoning elite began building monuments to their own fortunes, such as the ornate Palacio Sara Braun (1895), at the plaza’s northwest corner. Only six years after marrying prominent Portuguese businessman José Nogueira, the newly widowed Sara Braun contracted French architect Numa Mayer, who designed a Parisian-style mansard mansion that contrasted dramatically with earlier utilitarian architecture. Now home to the Club de la Unión and Hotel José Nogueira, the building retains most of its original features, including a west-facing winter garden that now serves as the hotel’s bar/restaurant.
Midblock, immediately east, the Casa José Menéndez belonged to another Punta wool baron; at the plaza’s northeast corner, the Comapa travel agency occupies the former headquarters of the influential Sociedad Menéndez Behety (Magallanes 990). Half a block north, the 1904 Casa Braun-Menéndez (Magallanes 949) houses the regional museum.
At the plaza’s southwest corner, Punta Arenas’s Iglesia Matriz (1901) now enjoys cathedral status. Immediately north, both the Residencia del Gobernador (Governors’ Residence) and the Gobernación date from the same period, filling the rest of the block with regional government offices. On the south side, directly opposite the tourist kiosk, the former Palacio Montes now holds municipal government offices; at the southeast corner, the Sociedad Braun Blanchard belonged to another powerful commercial group (it’s obvious from the names that, commercially at least, Punta Arenas’s first families were an incestuous bunch).
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition