Condominium of the Martinelli Building

The first skyscraper in the city of São Paulo

In 1889 an Italian immigrant landed at the Port of Rio de Janeiro – his goal was the same as so many others who came to America: to prosper! This immigrant, named Giuseppe Martinelli, was exceptionally successful and in a little more than two decades had built a remarkable wealth. Eager to leave a permanent legacy of his work, besides his important shipping company in Santos, Commander Martinelli decides to build in the city of São Paulo the highest skyscraper of South America, the Martinelli Building.

The work promised a huge controversy, São Paulo had no great stature building at the time, and buildings with more than 5 floors were rare. Planned to reach the 100-meter-high barrier, in a structure not only high but significantly wide, the Martinelli Building would mark a transition to skyscrapers’ era. It has been through difficult times – it was even considered to be demolished, but the building was recovered and was once again a pride for the city.


In 1924 construction began on the building designed to have 12 floors, on a large land in the most noble area of the capital back then, between the streets São Bento, Líbero Badaró and São João avenue. The project author was the Hungarian architect William Fillinger, from The Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. All the construction cement was imported from Sweden and Norway by Martinelli’s own importing company. In the construction works there were over 600 workers involved. 90 craftsmen, italians and spaniards, took care of the perfect finishing. The details of the rich façade were drawn by the Lacombe brothers, who later projected the entrance of Nove de Julho avenue tunnel. Several unforeseen events prolonged the works: the foundations shook a neighboring building – problem solved with the purchase of the building by Martinelli; complex structural calculations led to the import of a Mercedes Calculating Machine from Germany.

Meanwhile, Martinelli kept adding floors to the building, incentived by the population itself that asked him for an even height – from twelve it went to fourteen, then eighteen and in 1928 it reached twenty. At that time Martinelli himself had already taken over the architectural project, and, not satisfied to inspect the works daily, he also worked as a bricklayer – thus resuming the profession he had exercised during his youth in Italy – and he showed great pleasure in teaching the young workers the tricks of this profession.

When the building reached twenty-four floors, it was embargoed, for not having license and disrespecting the municipal laws – there was a great debate at the time about the convenience of whether or not building high buildings in the city. The issue ended up in court and took political shape, being seized by the opposition to harass Martinelli and the city hall. The issue was settled by a technical committee that ensured that the building was safe and limiting building height to 25 floors. Martinelli’s goal, however, was to reach 30 floors, and did so by building his new five-story residence on top of the building – just as Gustave Eiffel had done on top of his tower.

Martinelli impressed not only by the dimensions but also for the rich ornamentation and luxurious finish: pine doors of Riga, marble stairs of Carrara, glasses, mirrors and Belgian wallpapers, English sanitary ware, Swiss elevators – all that was best at the time; stairway walls lined with marmorite, oil painting in the rooms above the 20th floor, 40 kilometers of plaster frames in arabesques.

The building has recesses, common in the American hotels of the time, for ventilation and lighting, and presents the three basic divisions of the classical architecture: foundation, body and crowning. The foundation is covered with red granite; in the crowning, false slate mansard. The body is painted in three shades of pink and covered with pink dough, a mixture made of ground glass, rock crystal, very pure sand and mica powder, which made facade sparkle at night. The coating has three shades of pink. Martinelli inspired Oswald de Andrade to pejoratively call São Paulo of “wedding cake city”.

Among the tenants of the building, political parties, newspapers, soccer clubs (among them Palmeiras and Portuguesa), unions, restaurants, pastries, nightclubs, a hotel (São Bento), the cine Rosario, the dancing school of Professor Patrizi. Comendador Martinelli’s business sense was revealed even in the blind corners of the building, which served as a giant billboard for a number of products, including the “pasta dental Elba”, “café Bhering” and Fernet Branca spirit drink – imported by Martinelli himself. 

Even before its completion the building had already become a symbol and icon of São Paulo – in 1931 the inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi, visited the city and was taken to the top of the building. When Zeppelin flew over the city in 1933, he took a ride around Martinelli.

However, for the Commander the construction of the building caused serious financial problems, and in 1934 he was forced to sell the building to the Italian government. In 1943, with Brazil’s declaration of war on the axis, all Italian assets were confiscated and Martinelli became the property of the Union, and was even renamed as Edifício America.

With the end of World War II, the city entered a phase of enormous progress that was reflected in a real estate boom. In 1947 Martinelli lost the title of the highest building of São Paulo to the neighbor Building of the State Bank. However the loss was the construction of the gigantic mass of the Bank of Brazil on the other side of the av. Saint John in the early 1950s, shadowing Martinelli – who thus became the victim of the very verticalization of which he had been a pioneer.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the building rapidly decayed by a number of factors. The building becomes a vertical favela, occupied by low-income families (the Martinelli was one of the few cheap housing options in the center) in poor health conditions. The set is from a real horror movie. In the long, dark corridors, where children played amidst promiscuity, thieves and prostitutes lerked. The elevators stopped working; the garbage was no longer collected and was thrown into the ventilation shafts– the mountains of garbage reached tens of meters high, and permeated the building with a smell of death.

Martinelli became a scene of several high-profile crimes in the 1960s, such as the Davilson boy, raped, strangled and dumped in the elevator shaft. The killer was never found. In the midst of poverty and human degradation, an evangelical church operated on the 17th floor, attracting the unfortunate and hopeless dwellers of the building.

Then, in 1975 the newly installed mayor Olavo Setúbal decided to save the building. It expropriated the building – it was necessary the intervention of the army to remove the most renitent residents – and restoration began. The engineer responsible for the construction was Walter Merlo, leading 640 workers. The hydraulic and electrical systems were completely replaced, new elevators were installed, the facade was cleaned with sandblasting. A modern fire prevention system has been installed, making Martinelli one of the safest in the city. In 1979 it was reopened, being occupied by several municipal offices, as Emurb, Secretaria de Habitação and Cohab.

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