The game of pelota is probably as old as humanity, as you only need a ball and a vertical wall. In Spain, the game of pelota played against a wall has been present in every province, each one having their own rules, with the vertical wall being the essential part of the urban morphology of the towns.
It was in the Basque Country, however, where more variations of the game developed: pelota mano (hand-pelota), pala (using a wooden racket), and the more iconic modalities, cesta punta (jai alai), and remonte (a variant of jai alai where the ball can not be retained, for which the player uses a wicker curved basket that allows him to pick up the ball and throw it at speeds up to 300 k/h).
These games, which had traditionally been played locally, had an unparalleled expansion at the end of the nineteenth century with a worldwide reach, maintaining the original rules and even exporting the Basque name Jai Alai (Merry Festival). There were frontons (pelota courts) in China and the Philippines, in New York, and in all of South America. It was one of the most popular games in Cuba, Florida, and, of course, Spain.
In Madrid, hidden between residential buildings and scaffolding that masks its current state of disrepair, there is a witness of that glorious period for the Basque pelota: the fronton Beti Jai. We look back at the past, present, and, we hope, promising future of the only example of a sports venue still remaining in Madrid from the nineteenth century.
The expansion of the game of pelota
After the death of the King of Spain Alfonso XII in 1885, the Queen Regent Maria Christina of Austria moved her holiday destination to the coastal city of San Sebastián, Spain in the Basque Country. The consequence of that decision was a large presence of the aristocracy of Madrid in the city. It turned, first the Queen Regent and then the wealthy classes of Madrid, into fans of the sport in fashion at that time in the city: the Basque pelota. The game was, by that time, a professional sport, with big sums of money being spent on bets.
Thanks to its influence, there were several frontons built in Madrid in a short period of time so that its citizens could also enjoy the new fashionable game of pelota. By the time that the permit to build the Beti Jai was requested in October of 1893, there were already six other frontons in Madrid and, some of them, like the Fiesta Alegre, had an elegant façade similar to a neoclassical theater boasting a capacity of more than 5,500 people.
José Arana was a businessman from San Sebastián that had become wealthy by investing the money he had won in the Spanish Christmas Lottery in a company exporting foreign food products. He opened the Beti Jai fronton in San Sebastián in the summer of 1893, later known as Fronton Arana in honor of its developer. Witnessing the success of the pelota game in Madrid, that same year he decided to build a fronton in Madrid with the same name.
He located the building in a parcel in one of the blocks that were being developed north of the historic center of Madrid. Near the Paseo de la Castellana, and only five hundred meters from the historic center, the parcel was perfectly located in the new area of Madrid.
To build the fronton, Arana and his business partner Antonio Modesto de Unibaso hired the architect Joaquín Rucoba. Rucoba had been a municipal architect in Malaga, where he built La Malagueta bullring (1874) and the Atarazanas Market (1879). In Bilbao, he built two of his most important projects: the Arriaga Theater (1890) and the new City Hall (1892).
Joaquín Rucoba studied architecture at the School of Architecture of Madrid. He was a clear representation of a school that had broken off from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando to offer studies that combined traditional artistic aspects with a new technical education: the industrial revolution brought new materials and new technical solutions that could be applied to buildings.
Already in his early project for the Atarazanas Market in Malaga, he used forged steel to achieve large spans that simplified the structure. Like many of the architects of the era, he was unable to understand that this new technique required a new language, so he ended up covering the steel pillars with Arabian-style decorations to soften their industrial appearance.
The Beti Jai opened on April 29, 1894. It was a summary of the best projects of Joaquín Rucoba. For this project, Rucoba created a neoclassical façade facing the Marqués de Riscal street in which he employed the same stylistic elements previously used in the Arriaga Theater in Bilbao: big openings that ended with semicircular arches that covered the ground and mezzanine levels and, above them, vertical windows with an oculus above the lintel in the main floor. For the area of the stands, he used a structure of forged steel pillars and beams (with lavish decoration created with molds offsite) that facilitated the viewing of the sports area, a structural solution similar to the one he used in the La Malagueta bull ring. Unlike other frontons, Beti Jai had a curved stand area that increased the distance to the court to avoid the possibility of stray balls hitting the spectators. But the main novelty of the building was the use of curved beams in the stands, creating a slope that provided optimum viewing conditions for the game. All the elements of this structural system were manufactured in an offsite factory and assembled on site, making it one of the first examples of prefabricated construction. For the side façades of the building, Rucoba created brick walls of neomudéjar style (a Moorish Revival architectural movement), a style he also used in the side of the frontis (the wall of the fronton), where the access door is finished with a horseshoe arch. The use of the neomudéjar style is a clear sign of the period in which the building was built, when old styles were reintroduced to affirm a “national identity” in troubled times such as the ones in those years.
The new fronton competed with the Fiesta Alegre in elegance and design, and became known from that moment on as the “Royal Theater of the frontons.”1 It had lounge rooms facing the Marqués de Riscal street, as well as a café and kitchen in the back area. As can be seen from the map of Madrid drawn by Pedro Núñez Granés,2 in 1910 the Beti Jai was still the only building in its block, and all façades were visible from the main street.
Probably due to the saturation of frontons and daily games, but also due to its own design (it was a very large uncovered fronton in a city with cold winters), the exclusive use of Beti Jai for the game of pelota did not last long. Between 1897 and 1916 the building was used for charity and social events, horse shows, professional meetings, invention demonstrations, and even political rallies such as the protest against the shortage of goods in 1916. In many occasions, the game of pelota was followed by other sports, such as fencing.
But all these other activities were not enough for this building to be profitable. In 1909 the journalist Rafael Solís wrote in the La Correspondencia de España newspaper:
The game of pelota attracted the fans and tastes of the people back in 1890…. After that, it was just a flash in the pan due to the rogue money involved that ruins everything… in the Marqués de Riscal street, near the Castellana, there was another building built for pelota, baptizing it with the name of Beti Jai, with an enormous court, and luxurious stands and galleries. Not many games were played in the building—there was no interest by then and almost no money and it is currently not leased and without any kind of practical use.3
Despite the fact that during that period there were other frontons being built, the uncovered Beti Jai was no longer the most convenient option to enjoy a game of pelota. On top of that, the public had moved on to watching other games that required smaller courts, such as pala or pelota. Those games allowed for covered buildings such as the Jai Alai built in 1922, a project by Joaquín Otamendi that had all the modern features of the time. Or the 1936 Recoletos fronton designed by Secundino Zuazo with the collaboration of the engineer Eduardo Torroja, one of the most important buildings of the so-called first Spanish Modern Movement (developed right before the Spanish Civil War). The building was covered by two overlapping barrel vaults, which used reinforced concrete that was only eight centimeters thick. It was an extraordinary example of the technical expertise of the engineer Torroja.
Meanwhile, the Beti Jai continued to adapt to new uses: As it appears in the Historic Municipal Archives of Madrid, in 1919 the Beti Jai widened its main door to build a factory for cars; in 1924 a permit was issued to build garages; in 1943, it was turned into a machinery storage; and in 1944, a permit was issued to open up a shop for cast and papier-mâché work. The last known use was a garage and warehouse for cars that lasted until 1997, when the Frontón Jai Alai Society bought it with the intention of bringing back its original use.
Luckily, years of neglect did not fatally damage the building, and in 1977 the Architects’ Association of Madrid submitted a proposal to declare Beti Jai a National Monument. In the General Urban Development Plan of Madrid, which took effect in 1997, the building was labeled as a monument, with the use and typology typical to a public building.
In 2004, the City Hall of Madrid received a preliminary project proposal by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rafael Moneo that proposed an aggressive intervention to turn the building into a hotel, where rooms were located against the walls of the original court. Fortunately, the Institutional Commission of Artistic and Natural Historic Heritage (that included members of the Architects’ Association of Madrid, the City Hall of Madrid, and the Community of Madrid) rejected the proposal as it negatively affected the intrinsic values of the building.
In 2008, the citizen platform Salvemos el frontón Beti Jai (Let’s Save the Beti Jai fronton) was formed to initiate a thorough and constant campaign to save the building by publishing articles in the media, organizing lectures, and coordinating calls for action via social media. During that time, the building remained without a specific use and was illegally occupied by homeless people.
Finally, the legal proceedings to declare the Beti Jai an Official Asset of Cultural Interest in the category of Monument started on May 18, 2010, and became effective in early 2011. The official ordinance, published on February 9, declared that “the building is a significant example of the architectural duality characteristic of the end of the nineteenth century, where the historicist shapes, eclectic and neomudéjares, hide daring steel structures, creating a rich spatial proposal with an area for the stands, light and elegant, where the highlights are the curve façades and large roof.”
During that time, the City Hall of Madrid started the process to expropriate the building, successfully acquiring it in 2015 after paying seven million euros.
A new interest
The interest in the building and its possible rehabilitation has increased constantly during the last few years. Besides the innumerable articles published in newspapers and on TV about its state of disrepair, there have been multiple efforts from citizen platforms, such as the previously mentioned Salvemos el frontón Beti Jai and Madrid: Ciudad y Patrimonio (Madrid: City and Heritage). The documentary “Beti Jai: la Capilla Sixtina de la Pelota” (Beti Jai: The Sistine Chapel of the Pelota), directed by Richard Zubelzu, was also released last year.4
On December 9, 2015, the City Hall of Madrid finally initiated limited work to shore up the structure of the building with plans to start its rehabilitation, first with a process involving citizen participation followed up with an international ideas competition.
What is more problematic, however, is the lack of support to the actual game of Basque pelota. Another documentary released in 2015, “Jai Alai Blues,”5 shows the explosive increase in interest in the game during the 1970s and early 1980s and the temporary madness that hit the US, with magnificent buildings being built in Tampa and Daytona Beach in Florida, unfortunately no longer standing. The sport of jai alai was, at that time, one of the most recognizable symbols of the city of Miami.6 Recent articles, however, show the current disinterest in the different modalities of pelota, with less than 180 professionals active today.7
The interests of people change continuously, following trends that come and go. But it would be unfortunate to have to wait until we witness a resurgence in the interest in the game of Basque pelota to recover this architectural gem from oblivion and make it, once again, a shared space for the citizens of Madrid.