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City Hall

Ref: HLBP1/019

The Gibraltar City Hall is located within the city at the west end of John Mackintosh Square. Formerly known as the Alameda during the Spanish period, it was referred to as the Almeida or Almeda by the English who probably found the Portuguese word for Alameda easier to pronounce. Other names used for the Square include La Plaza or La Plaza Mayor, Commercial Square and colloquially El Martillo and later the Piazza). Presently, the building is used as the office and parlour of the Mayor of Gibraltar.

The refurbishment of the City Hall as it now stands was first proposed in 1993 and after discussions with the Heritage Trust, plans were prepared for restoring the façade. Work on this restoration project began in February 1995 and entailed the removal of the balconies, the removal and replacement of the windows, the installation of shutters, repairs to the walls and the casting of new quoins. The balconies were replaced with ornate period cast iron balustrading. It was also intended to rebuild the parapet wall at the top of the building replacing the balusters that had been removed to the boulevard across the road.1 The restoration of the City Hall was completed in April 1996.

The building was erected directly on the site of a former medieval Spanish hospital and chapel known as La Santa Misericordia (English: The Holy Mercy) which was later converted into a debtors’ prison. Another important feature here was the old Spanish fountain which stood next to the prison and set into the old Moorish wall (in line with Fountain Ramp). This fountain was fed by an aqueduct built in 1571, with water collected at the Red Sands. It is said that this fountain supplied the town with very pure water right up to the middle of the 18th Century. The fountain sustained damage during the Great Siege. In 1872 the fountain was removed to Castle Street and retired from use in 1967 when it was erected to the side of Zoca flank in the Boulevard where it remains to this day.

Luis Bravo de Acuña map dated 1627 showing the Plaza Mayor (no.4) and the hospital of La Santa Misericordia right next to the defensive wall.

The building was a private mansion built in 1819 by Aaron Cardozo, a prosperous merchant of Jewish Portuguese descent who had settled in Gibraltar, as his family home. It was the grandest private mansion ever seen in Gibraltar. At the time, it consisted of an elegant well-proportioned edifice of two storeys, surmounted by a broken pediment. The interior had a number of spacious rooms with ornate ceilings opening up from a gallery around a small central patio, surmounted by a glass dome.

1753 map detail of the Main Square showing prison and old Spanish fountain on the site later occupied by Cardozo's mansion.

As a Jew, Cardozo was not legally entitled to own property in Gibraltar, but he was owed a fair amount of compensation from the British authorities. Moreover, he had made himself very useful to the British in the wars with France, by obtaining provisions and water from Morocco, and also, in 1798, he had exposed a "dangerous conspiracy to give up the Fortress to the Enemy." Officially, it was granted to him in exchange for property in Market Lane, which he had conceded to the Government in 1793. Cardozo had been a personal friend of Admiral Nelson supplying his fleet with all the provisions necessary to blockade the Spanish fleet at Cadiz right up to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1804. It is reputed that Nelson was so grateful for his help that his parting words to his old friend were “if I survive, [The battle of Trafalgar] Cardozo, you shall no longer remain in this dark corner of the world”.

Nevertheless, it was not until 1813 that he finally obtained a Deed of Conveyance to build a house on 3,333 superficial feet of land at the bottom of the Almeida (Alameda), to be holden forever, ‘being the tenure of General Bland’s grant’ under which the ground surrendered to Sir Robert Boyd had been held. The only condition placed on the grant of land being that it be "an ornament" to the square. 2

At an estimated cost of £40,000, Cardozo’s mansion was erected as an elegant, well-proportioned building of three stories, surmounted by a broken pediment in the Regency style. The interior was decorated with ornate ceilings, spacious rooms accessed by mahogany double doors. A small central patio stood in the centre of the building protected from the weather by a glass dome. Every staircase in the building is made of marble, including the spiral leading from the ground floor up to the roof. A number of pillars and arches decorate the stairwells leading up to each level. In the old address system, the property was simply demarcated as D.10H.6 [District 10 House 6].

One feature of the building, not usually noticeable, but shown in an early 19th Century painting of the Line Wall by an unknown artist is the observation tower at the top of the edifice and used to observe merchant shipping as it entered the bay. This was an architectural feature typical in many of the great Spanish merchant houses and can still be seen in many important buildings in the port city of Cadiz.

Early 19th Century painting by an unknown artist showing Cardozo's Mansion and observation tower near to the Line Wall.

During the dark period in Spanish history known as the “Decada Ominosa” (1823-1833), Cardozo did not hesitate to open his doors to at least twenty liberal refugees from the oppressive regime of Fernando VII, including General Quirogas and Sir Robert Wilson, who was to return, many years later, as Governor of Gibraltar (1842-48).3 Cardozo was created a knight of the Legion of Honour by Louis XVIII of France in 1824, and was rewarded with other orders of merit for his distinguished services. He was also the long-time president of the Hebrew Community and of the Gibraltar Exchange Committee. The latter becoming the first prominent representative body of the civilian population pursuing civil rights in a predominantly fortress environment. Ultimately, becoming the forum for petitions to the Governor.

In 1820 Cardozo’s wife died and a few years later, Cardozo himself left Gibraltar due to ill-health, residing both in Lisbon and in London. He died on the 12th January 1834 at Little Alie Street, Whitechapel at the age of around 71 or 72. In his will, written in 1832 Aaron Cardozo had left half his “Mansion in the Public Square at Gibraltar, formerly called the Alameda, but now the Commercial Place to his nephew, Isaac Cardozo, his heirs and assigns for ever.” The other half he left to his old friend Lord Amelius Beauclerk, third son of the fifth Duke of St. Albans during his lifetime, thereby to revert to his nephew Isaac. Furthermore, Aaron specifically stipulated that “my said mansion be sold or disposed of except to the Government and for a sum of not less than £20,000, as the same cost me upwards of £30,000, besides the value of the ground, for which I have been offered $40,000 by Messrs. Bonfante and Carboza.”4

A year before his death, however, the now vacant dwelling had become the new premises of the Gibraltar Club House. The previous Gibraltar Garrison Club having occupied a property at Cornwall’s Lane before being offered the vacant possession in Commercial Square on the July 1st 1833. The Gibraltar Club House would operate from these premises until 1837. Balls were organised here and several clubs met at the premises during this time and the Gibraltar Scientific Society, founded in 1835 held fortnightly meetings in the Ballroom. In 1848 the Scientific Society would announce to the world the discovery of the Gibraltar Skull.5 Which was later confirmed to belong to a Neanderthal woman.


Neanderthal skull from Forbes' Quarry, Gibraltar.

In 1839, the property became the Club House Hotel and run by a Mrs. Crosbie. The new hotel competed with the King’s Arms, otherwise known as Griffith’s Hotel which stood at the South-East junction of John Mackintosh Square and Waterport Street (Mainstreet). Balls continued to be held there, as well as concerts. Not everyone, however, was impressed by the state of the hotel and William Makepeace Thackeray writing in 1844 described the English house as “mouldy and decrepit.” In November, 1846, Sarah Crosbie, daughter of the late Mrs. Crosbie sold the establishment to Mr. William J. Arrowsmith who employed a Mr. John Bray to run the hotel on his behalf.6

In 1848, Isaac Cardozo, nephew of Aaron and heir to the property also emigrated to Lisbon. Isaac, however, never managed to build on the wealth accrued by his uncle and was often plagued by acute financial difficulties which forced him to periodically increase the mortgages of his properties in Gibraltar.

During the next twenty years a number of royal visitors stayed at the hotel. Prince Adalbert of Prussia convalesced at the hotel for two weeks whilst recovering from a wound to the thigh sustained in an attack by Berbers near Melilla whilst aboard the Prussian steam-corvette Dantzig. Seven Prussians were killed and eighteen wounded, including the Prince who convalesced at the Club House Hotel for two weeks before embarking for England aboard the P. & O. Packet steamship the SS Ava.7

That same year, Henri Eugène Philippe Louis d'Orléans, duc d’Aumale, his wife Princess Maria Carolina of the Two Sicily’s and infant son Louis, Prince de Conde arrived from Malaga accompanied by a troop of mounted Civil Guards. The Royal party stayed at the hotel before boarding a ship bound for Palermo.8

The Club House Hotel was the first of three properties to boast gas lightning from the privately opened Gas Works in 1857. The other two properties being the Convent and the Exchange.9

Club House Hotel dated 1869.

In 1868, John Ansaldo, the proprietor of the King’s Arms obtained a seven-year lease on the property. Ansaldo’s business acumen ensured that a number of upper-crust sporting clubs made use of the Club House facilities, including the Calpe Hunt, the Garrison Cricket Club and the newly formed Gibraltar Jockey Club. A number of well attended Masonic Balls were also organised here by the local Masonic bodies.

In 1872, a severe storm in which nearly 6 inches of rain fell in two and a half hours flooded the cellars of the Club House where Ansaldo kept thousands of dollars’ worth of wines and spirits. Ansaldo filed a lawsuit against the Sanitary Commissioners but the case was withdrawn on the advice of the Attorney General, each side paying for their own costs.

Two years later, just before the expiry on his lease, Ansaldo decided to sell his hotel altogether (as well as his residence in Rock Cottage), but with no buyer interested he proceeded to sell all the furniture, linen, glass and plate by public auction.10

John Ansaldo’s Club House Hotel

Isaac Cardozo was now in a precarious financial position and the property, already mortgaged to the hilt, was becoming a huge financial burden. One of Cardozo’s creditors was Pablo Antonio Larios y Tashara, a wealthy businessman and banker and probably the only person with enough personal wealth to be able to afford the property.

Pablo Antonio Larios was Gibraltarian-born, the scion of an old Castilian family who had, despite his Spanish nationality, acquired a right of residence in Gibraltar. His father, Pablo Larios de las Heras was born in the Rioja in 1755. His first wife Ana Llera, died young and he settled for a while in Malaga with his son Manuel Domingo. He soon remarried and his new wife Gregoria Herreros who gave him another three sons, Pablo Eustaquio, Martin and Juan. In 1809, aged 54, he settled in Gibraltar with his family. When Larios de la Herras died his son Pablo Eustaquio took over the family business. Pablo Eustaquio married a local girl, Gerónima Tashara Celli. From this marriage Pablo Antonio was born in 1819, the very same year Aaron Cardozo had built his mansion.

When Pablo Eustaquio died in 1869 Pablo Antonio inherited most of his fortune. Not only was Pablo Antonio Larios now exceedingly wealthy, but he also became a generous local benefactor. As an example, in 1874, he donated a new clock for the tower of the local Catholic Church of St. Mary the Crowned.

In February 1875, Larios purchased the Cardozo mansion in Commercial Square for $39,000 – a fraction of the original cost – which probably reflected Aaron’s Cardozo’s severe financial predicament. Six months later, Cardozo died but the mansion was now firmly in control of the Larios family.

Larios subsequently carried out an in-depth renovation and refurbishment of his new acquisition with an additional storey being added along the west face of the building, crowned with a white marble balustrade. The ground floor was set apart for offices and services with the principal reception rooms occupying the first floor. The saloon, later the Council Chamber, was decorated in the Empire Style and included many Neo-Classical features. The walls had a series of supporting pilasters decorated at the top in a composite style of the Ionic and Corinthian orders of architecture. The ceiling had a number of framed bas-relief images inlaid in the plaster ceiling showing allegorical representations of the liberal arts, medallions of Roman emperors and historical and mythical scenes of Roman events, all in a 'gresaille' style. The adjoining smaller room, now the Mayor's Parlour, had its ceiling decorated with floral motifs and cherubs. The dining room, situated to the south of the building, had a rich black Brussels carpet with small light flowers; the main features of the room was the fireplace with panels of carved alabaster and a massive richly-carved sideboard dresser.11 Pablo Larios spared no expense renovating and improving the property, even installing running hot and cold water, which was practically unheard of in those times.

His expensive restoration of the property, however, coincided with the arrival of the Duke of Connaught, son of Queen Victoria who had been posted to Gibraltar whilst on active military duty. It soon became clear that Larios’s house was the only residence, apart from the Convent, luxurious enough to house such a royal figure anywhere in Gibraltar. Larios therefore lost no time in offering the Duke his newly refurbished property, to use as his residence during his stay in Gibraltar, an offer that was readily accepted. The Duke joined the Garrison General Staff on the 19th October 1875 and lived in this house until April 1876. Only after his departure did the Larios family finally move into the property which now became known as Connaught House, a name it retained until 1920.


Prince Arthur, 1st Duke of Connaught and Strathearn.

In 1869, a new fountain was erected by the Sanitary Commission replacing the old Spanish Fountain behind the mansion, which, as already stated had been removed to Castle Street. This new fountain was erected in the centre of Commercial Square and inaugurated on 8th December by Lady Airey, wife of Governor Sir Richard Airey. However, the "Airey Fountain" became dry very soon and was replaced in 1879 by an ornamental fountain constructed to commemorate the Duke of Connaught recent stay in Gibraltar.

Old fountain Commercial Square.

Pablo Antonio did not enjoy the luxuries his new home or surroundings afforded for that very same year he was struck by a horse which was being exercised by a Sergeant Howell of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The sergeant was exonerated on the grounds that that the horse had bolted and that there was little he could have done to avoid it – Pablo Antonio died two days later.12

The Larios family, who by now owned large swathes of the Campo de Gibraltar, including most of the Almoraima corkwoods near San Roque are often identified with their Spanish heritage, but they very much identified themselves as Gibraltarian. Pablo Antonio christened his five sons – Carlos, Augusto, Leopoldo, Pablo and Ernesto, their initials forming the name CALPE.13

In 1891, one of the sons, Pablo Larios was elected as Master of the Calpe Hunt a position he held for 45 years. In 1906, King Edward VII of the United Kingdom and King Alfonso XIII of Spain became joint Patrons of the Hunt, after which it was known as the Royal Calpe Hunt.

Of the five brothers it was Pablo Larios who inherited Connaught House. His father had already increased his domestic offices by building outhouses to the north and erecting a kitchen under what is now Line Wall Road. Pablo however, still found it too small for his needs and in 1895 offered to buy a strip of land 17 feet in length to the north of the building. However, it was then that the Colonial Secretary realized that the Larios family had “unobserved and comparatively recently taken 582 feet of public land.” The matter stagnated for a number of years until at last Larios agreed to purchase the whole of the land encroached, but at a lower price than that demanded. It was as a result of this purchase that he erected his extension to the north which gives the present building its unsymmetrical form. However, this original extension only rose up one floor and a proposal to add a second floor in 1914 was delayed by the outbreak of the 1st World War. It was also during this time that a heavy glass-enclosed balcony was erected over-hanging the entrance, which remained a feature of the building until the alterations of 1948.14

Pablo Antonio Larios, Leocardia Sanchez de Pina and five sons.

Pablo Larios assumed the courtesy title of Marquis de Marzales in 1910 as a result of his marriage to María Josefa Fernández de Villavicencio y Crooke, 1st Marquesa de Marzales. Despite his new title, Pablo Larios suffered some serious economic setbacks when on two occasions his cork factory in La Linea burnt down, with an estimated loss of 20,000 tons of cork, of which only a small fraction was recovered by insurance.15

In 1920, still reeling from his huge financial loss, he sold the building to the Gibraltar colonial authorities for £27,500. Thus, Aaron Cardozo’s final wish for his mansion to revert to Government was finally fulfilled.

The Colonial Office’s intention was to convert the building to a general post office, but lack of funds meant that only the ground floor housed a parcels post office. The following year, the then Governor of Gibraltar Sir Charles Munro suggested that the building be converted into a City Hall. The original intention of the Colonial Government was to exchange two freehold properties – Convent Place and a smaller property in Irish Town – for a 99-year lease for Connaught House. The City Councillors refused and eventually the building was transferred to the City Council on a freehold – subject to a nominal ground rent paid to the Colonial Government. On the 24th September 1924 the City Council met for the first time at the newly named City Hall.16

Some minor alterations were carried out to accommodate the new City Council, for example, the saloon became the Council Chamber, the drawing room was converted into an office, the dining room became the offices for the Clerks and the library became the City Engineer’s office. The North wing now accommodated the Public Health Department. The emblazoned arms of the City Council was mounted above the marble chimney piece in the newly converted Council Chamber.17

City Hall with Lady Airey Fountain in foreground, early 20th Century postcard.

City Hall with new Lady Airey fountain in Commercial Square

In 1926, the Gibraltar telephone service was operated from here by the City Council, and an automatic exchange serving the territory was installed in the third floor of the building.18 It was from this building that the first direct telephone communication with England was established. Much later, when the telephone exchange had to be extended, a walking bridge was erected on the third floor connecting the City Hall with the adjacent Haven building.

In 1948, the present alterations to the façade were enacted. The marble balustrades, which had decorated the roof of the building was removed and used to enclose the War Memorial boulevard behind the City Hall. Modern windows now replaced the older, worn out framework and concrete balconies replaced the old Victorian wrought-iron ones in the front of the building.19

The City Council continued to function from these premises until it was dissolved in 1969 and the now named Government of Gibraltar moved to the newly constructed House of Assembly (now Parliament House). When the City Council received a Charter of Incorporation in 1955, the Chairman of the City Council also became the City Mayor. This position became honorary after the 1969 Constitution.

Nowadays, the City Hall houses the Mayor’s Parlour, with the old ballroom hosting the Mayor’s and other Civic Receptions. A number of Government departments are located here, including the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Culture, Media, Youth and Sport. The City Hall is also home to the Mario Finlayson Art Gallery which was inaugurated by the Chief Minister on the 2nd June 2015.

In 2020, the original Larios sideboard dresser which had subsequently moved to other premises was re-discovered in a private property in Main Street and the new owner kindly donated it to the Government via the Gibraltar Heritage Trust who were instrumental in liaising with the developers in the build up to the conservation work.

This piece is carved from walnut wood in the Victorian Rococo style (also known as Late Baroque) which was highly in fashion into the 1870s. Highly embellished furniture of this period often features themes inspired from nature such as fruits, seeds and nuts as well as Greek inspired imagery – in this case goddess-like carvings on the posts and ornamental urn finials along the top. It is likely that this piece was made to order by a cabinet maker in nearby Spain where Walnut Wood is easily available. Note the monogram ‘PL’ on the shield centre, top of the piece which confirms ownership of this statement piece by Pablo Larios himself.

The dresser was restored by Robert Sanguinetti and took three months to complete and can be viewed in the lobby of the City Hall.

Minister John Cortes said, “We have such a rich heritage in Gibraltar. Sometimes it turns up in unexpected corners in unexpected ways. The Larios dresser is a work of art and I am so pleased that it has been so expertly restored and found its place back home in a place where it can be seen and enjoyed by all”.20

The restored Larios antique mirrored sideboard dresser

City Hall Image