The conversion of a dilapidated nineteenth-century Lisbon palace into luxury apartments demonstrates that resuscitating past elegance needn’t clash with contemporary city living
Words by Herbert Wright
In Portuguese, a ‘palacete’ is a small palace, more of a mansion house than the old aristocracy’s grander palaces with their extensive grounds. The location of the Palacete Barão de Santos is urban — but idyllic. On the crest of a Lisbon hill which slopes down into the posh district of Santos, the urban mansion’s facade overlooks the tranquil refuge of the Jardim do Príncipe Real, a public garden square, yet it is just a few minutes walk from the steep lanes of the Bairo Alto and its 24/7 street life. The fancy yet discreet neoclassical palacete has now been rehabilitated as luxury flats by Barbas Lopes Arquitectos.
The four-storey Palacete Barão de Santos was built in 1862 by Carolina Augusta de La Rocque (the original architect is unidentified), just as Príncipe Real’s garden was laid out. The building’s symmetric facade faces it with first-floor balconies and a central stone section rising to a pediment. The narrower second floor was stepped back from the volume below, but around the corner, on the Rua do Jasmin ( Jasmin Street), its full width extends to the facade under another pediment. In plan the building is a rectangle squeezed into a trapezoid by the adjoining building, now the UAE Embassy. Japan’s diplomats were based in the palacete until 1945, then it was offices for the Casa de Bragança Foundation and the Camões Institute, both Portuguese institutions. Since 2000, it has been unoccupied.
Stairs to the basement lead to a clean, minimalist central hallway. Image Credit: DMF
When new owners Renowned Champion, a local real estate company, commissioned a residential conversion from Barbas Lopes in 2013, the place was bare and dilapidated. The practice was a husband-and-wife partnership of Diogo Seixas Lopes, who passed away unexpectedly in 2016, and Patrícia Barbas. The duo’s portfolio already included the striking, cerebral transformation of the ruins of Lisbon’s Teatro Thalia, in collaboration with Gonçalo Byrne (Blueprint 320). In 2015, the practice was commissioned to design FPM41, which completes this year, an extraordinary 17-storey Lisbon office split-block, informed by Mies’ Seagram tower (1958).
Although below street level, the swimming pool receives natural light. Image Credit: DMF
Incredibly, despite this and other endeavours such as a sublime golden skyscraper vision exhibited in Chicago in 2017, Barbas still limits her studio to just seven architects. The 1,788 sq m Palacete Barão de Santos has been divided into four luxury apartments, one per floor, each between 340 and 450 sq m — far larger than the small new flats feeding demand by young European professionals.
A new terrace patio laid with Yellow Cumaru wood is tucked behind the Rua do Jasmin pediment. Image Credit: DMF
Despite reducing the marketability, it was agreed that not subdividing each floor was, according to Barbas, ‘the most natural way to preserve the essence of the palace, to keep the morphology’. That also meant a slow, methodic approach, rather than the usual quick conversions of Lisbon’s bubbling market.
The facades on Rua do Jasmin (left) and facing Príncipe Real (right) have been painted a pink that reflects the local vernacular. Image Credit: DMF
The first challenge was rescuing the building from modern additions. Things like air conditioning and aluminium window frames were stripped out. What was original re-emerged, but in poor condition. The roof was degraded and water damage was extensive. Floors had to be replaced, but that allowed them to meet contemporary fire standards and insulate the flats acoustically from each other.
They are laid with Portuguese pine. As with the original build, stone and wood were used for structural reinforcements. Many original elements survived in good enough shape for restoration.
One of the new barrel roof features looking towards Príncipe Real. Image Credit: DMF
The robust original central staircase is the palacete’s dominant internal feature — it is its core, visually as well as structurally, around which three levels are wrapped. It rises directly from the imposing 71 sq m reception hall that still makes the crucial first impression on entering. Hall and stairs are common areas, and at mezzanine landings on the ground and the first floors, the stairs split into two elegantly curving staircases to reach the floor above. Light falls through skylights in a cone-shaped cupola in the roof’s centre. Part of the work of local conservation specialists Água de Cal was to restore the romanticised neoclassical statues which adorn the stairs.
The central staircase is adorned with neoclassical romantic muses, this one in an alcove. Image Credit: DMF
Água de Cal's biggest task was the restoration of sixteen ceilings covering about 540 sq m, which took 15 months. The ceilings’ magnificent baroque stucco work is now as good as new — indeed five are replicas.
The first floor is the ‘piano nobile’, historically the most important level and with the highest ceilings. Its rehabilitation and that of the ground floor was essentially a case of restoration and adaption. The other floors, originally for servants, are where Barbas Lopes’ architecture is far more interventional, requiring ‘inventions’ as Barbas says, to ‘add value’.
The developer has chosen furniture and carpets which match the original period and style. Image Credit: DMF
Below the grand entrance, a staircase winds down to the basement. It has windows behind crafted grilles which emerge on Rua do Jasmin as it slopes down. Here, walls have been demolished to transform a warren of small rooms into larger ones, including two new bathrooms. A generous 41 sq m living room now opens out across a new patio into the palacete’s own walled garden, which has been redesigned by Lisbon landscape architects HAHA. With a touch of Roman decadence, a sunken swimming pool with steps into the water has been built into a space lined with new marble, punctuated by two small windows that let light in from right down on the pavement level beside the entrance.
The extensive restoration of ceilings includes this barrel-vaulted passage. Image Credit: DMF
The second (top) floor also creates contemporary new spaces, and is styled minimally. Under a new roof on the Príncipe Real side, a kitchen/dining room is the longest of these, under a ceiling that slopes diagonally down over it. Dreamy, deep curving recesses cut into it, within barrel-roofed enclosures filled with light from their glazed openings facing Príncipe Real, some of which give access to a narrow terrace behind the cornice balustrade and pediment on the main facade.
Similarly, new space has been created on the other side of the old floorplan, and on the corner above the palacete’s own garden and Rua do Jasmin, there is now an open terrace. Stepping out on to it you can see up close the copper detailing of new walls and one of several elegant new flues rising from the balustrade — but the big wow is the stunning view over the Santos rooftops, the distant river Tagus and the 25 de Abril Bridge, Europe’s answer to the Golden Gate.
Restored period features co-exist with a minimal approach to new fixtures and décor. Image Credit: DMF
The terraces are paved with Yellow Cumaru wood. Portugal’s equivalent to Historic England, the DGPC, was worried about the terraces’ effect on views from the street, but Barbas Lopes produced a 1:25 scale model which, as Barbas notes, ‘quickly erased their doubts’.
As for the facades, the original colour of the plaster is unknown. Later it was salmon, but when the project began it was white. In the end, the decision was to paint them in what Barbas calls ‘a kind of Italian’s old pink’, similar to nearby properties but also contrasting with the stonework.
On the second floor, the kitchen-dining room is accommodated under a sloping roof. Image Credit: DMF
There are other elements to the palacete’s meticulous rehabilitation, such as the restoration of its carrara marble fireplaces and the new brass grilles and doorhandles commissioned to replicate surviving ones found. The palacete is filling with classical furniture, carpets and paintings, bought by the developer to match the period and style.
Several of Lisbon’s abandoned palaces and townhouses have been brought back to life in a distinctive style of raw stripped-back original interiors that preserved their elegance as traces, a ghost of the past. This reflected the city’s recent gritty-but-elegant chic. Nowadays, Lisbon is hot, its economy climbing beyond the stage of startup paradise into bigmoney investment. Luxury is back. The Palacete Barão de Santos delivers it, but is anything but brash. This is no scripted theatrical version of the past, but an obsessively respectful period restoration, an authentic revival of the romantic. Yet by efficiently providing for a contemporary city lifestyle, it’s not living in the past.