Jon Padgett, creator of Casa Carlos, Bar ChapitaSaturday, March 15, 2014
‘Argentina’s like a lover’
From: Los Angeles, USA
Lives in: San Telmo
Profession: Creator of Casa Carlos, Bar Chapita, (and an architecture enthusiast)
Education: Advertising at California State University — Fullerton
Reading: The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara
Gadget: ‘My garlic crusher’
Meet Jon. Meet Carlos. Oh, and don’t forget Fernando, Jon’s dog. They live in San Telmo, but Jon’s actually from Los Angeles and Fernando was born in Australia — two places that are nowhere near where you’ll find them nowadays. In fact, the two live in Casa Carlos, a forever evolving five-lot hotel project in the City’s most historic neighbourhood that’s been the focal point of the eight years this expat and his dog have spent in Buenos Aires. The story of Jon, Fernando and Carlos continues.
“I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I think that makes me one of three people — everybody’s a transplant in LA!” says a joking Jon Padgett, who has ironically become a bit of a transplant himself. The 50-year-old former owner of an advertising firm that worked with regional shopping centres in California, now runs Casa Carlos in the San Telmo neighbourhood, a dynamic renovation project that’s taken on many forms in the eight years Jon’s been working on it.
“It’s like a lover: all the things you love about them, also drive you crazy,” is how Jon describes his relationship with the country where he’s chosen to get his project off the ground.
Almost a hotel, about to be authorized as a bar and art gallery — and certainly nothing short of impressive — Casa Carlos is the result of what Jon describes as 12 years of work in advertising having “robbed my soul.” Oh, and an Australian firm bought his clients out, he adds, light-heartedly asking that the adjective he uses to describe said firm remain off the record.
Jon, who spent much of his childhood in his much-loved treehouse — and later his weekends at a cabin the Californian woods that made Mondays all the more difficult — had always been interested in architecture.
“I started renovating old buildings in LA,” he explains. “I had a business card which read Saving Los Angeles one building at a time.”
This was just before the now infamous US property bubble, which Jon recalls having seen coming. “I had the instinct to not start another big project. It seemed like the bubble was getting too big. That’s when I started coming down here to escape.”
And escape he did, forming a connection with Argentina that was both distinct and instant. “I came to study Spanish for three weeks and ended up staying on for three months.”
“It was the first place I came to that I said, ‘I could absolutely live here,’ from the moment I drove away from the airport,” he says. “It was October and people were having picnics along the freeway, throwing frisbees, with dogs running around and kids playing, and little barbecues — all of this, along the freeway. I knew straight away that I wanted to live here... And otherwise I tell people I moved here because all the old ladies dress up and everybody has a dog.”
Dissatisfaction with the City of Angels also had something to do with the move, Jon concedes.
“I don’t know if Los Angeles is different now, but my perspective of it certainly is: it’s an opportunistic, shallow, movie-industry city. And I find at parties, for example, that if you can’t further someone’s career they’re really not that interested in you. They literally spin on their heels and walk away,” he explains. “In LA, you have to have a black range rover, a golden retriever and a house.”
A die-hard lover of all things San Telmo, Jon had no doubts about which neighbourhood he was going to choose as his stomping-ground when he first moved here. He’d seen an old house in San Telmo on his first trip, so when he found it on the market still months later, he decided to cash in, thus giving life to Casa Carlos.
Initially a hotel project, it now spans five remarkable lots on Carlos Calvo street, where Jon has been taken on a rollercoaster ride of experiences in, of all places, one of the most heavily regulated neighbourhoods in the City.
“I began cleaning up. It was therapeutic and a good way to exercise. And it just started turning into something,” he says. “This area we’re sitting it had been partly destroyed. You couldn’t see anything in here. No tiles, no stairs, just trash and pigeon shit. I found marble underneath it all and so I built it, replaced a few things and made it the way I’d imagined it. Then I happened to find an old picture of it in an old book. And it was almost exactly like it is now.”
Jon’s next step was to begin throwing parties in search of potential investors. In the end, the project caught the attention of a Swiss hedge fund group that was investing in South America at the time.
But unfortunately for Jon, things weren’t going to be that easy.
“Part of the deal was that it was made bigger, so I included my own house in it. Then we got a panel together, did market research before we did anything, prepared everything we needed to, and they said, ‘no’ — a flat-out no.”
San Telmo being the historic neighbourhood it is, Jon’s property — part of which had been a parking-lot — was eventually slapped with the highest grade of cultural heritage protection possible.
Back at square one, the experienced renovator Jon was forced to disarm his team and start again, this time with a smaller group of people working on “a much more organic project.”
“We got really bogged down in APH (Areas de Protección Histórica, the Spanish acronym for the cultural heritage protection laws covering parts of San Telmo), and the money we had earmarked for this is now gone, because we told the investors it’s not the right thing to do,” he explains.
“We’re on hold, waiting to see if the government will change, if the property market will change.”
Fortunately, Jon’s not lacking in expat-in-Argentina patience, and says he’s hopeful some good news is right around the corner for Casa Carlos, which includes a smaller project, his bar, Bar Chapita.
“We’re supposed to be getting authorization any moment, as a bar and and art gallery,” he reveals. “I didn’t want to build a hotel that had a cool bar and restaurant in it. I wanted to build a cool bar and restaurant that had rooms. Miraculously that’s what’s happening. It’s going to happen in three or four stages.”
Parties in Los Angeles well and truly behind him, Jon leads a quieter life in Buenos Aires. And it seems he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Culturally I think there’s a big divide between North Americans and Argentines, socially, so it becomes difficult. I have lots of acquaintances but very few people I’d call really close friends,” he says. “For example, I swore off Argentine birthday parties a long time ago. A friend of mine calls them wakes.”
With an expat cycle that lasts seven to eight years, Jon says he’s planning to one day take a page out of the book of friends gone by.
“I’m modelling my life on my friends who lived here, who lived the summer here and then the Northern Hemisphere summer in New York. I think I’d like to have a teeny tiny apartment to come back to. It’s much easier visiting.”