In the late 1920s and early 1930s, desperate to escape Europe’s increasingly hostile climate toward those of Jewish heritage, Chaim Zelig Gudes left his village of Maków, Poland – and his family – behind. His original destination was the United States of America – but American restrictions on Jewish immigrants caused him to change course, and he ended up in Costa Rica. With no money in his pocket and no knowledge of Spanish, Gudes worked for many years polaqueando (selling door-to-door), until he was able to bring to his new home his wife, his daughters –Mary, Dora, Balcha, and Anita–, and his sons –Herman and Samuel–.
Samuel, the youngest of Chaim’s sons, was charismatic, charming and intelligent, attributes that helped him become an extraordinary salesman. Like his father, Samuel was devoted to textiles, but was also very interested in fashion. As a teenager, he ran a small button and zipper shop, walking the streets and visiting customers door to door.
As a young adult, Samuel openly declared his love for a handsome young Costa Rican of European origin, Estanislao “Taño” Scriba, who would become his life partner both emotionally and from a business perspective.
Once they managed to save enough, Samuel and Taño founded La Dama Elegante, a clothing boutique that specialized in imported clothing and eventually became a reference of elegance and fashion in San José. Samuel and Taño took advantage of the end of each season in the United States and Europe to travel, searching for the latest international fashion trends; once they brought them back to Costa Rica, these trends were received with great enthusiasm.
Always meticulous, Taño oversaw the boutique’s numbers, while Samuel received customers, showing them the dresses, shoes and accessories that he had handpicked on his latest visits to Europe.
Wives and daughters of presidents and businessmen frequented La Dama Elegante; eventually their husbands and sons had a boutique of their own to visit, El Caballero Elegante.
Following the success of La Dama Elegante and El Caballero Elegante, Gudes and Scriba ventured into the construction business, planning the creation of an apartment building next to their property on Central Avenue.
On 18 March 1963, US President John F. Kennedy visited Costa Rica. Official reception ceremonies were held at the National Theater, a few steps from La Dama Elegante and the apartment building site –which was then in progress.
When Samuel and Taño walked outside of the boutique to witness JFK’s convoy, they overheard bystanders remarking on the construction, speculating that it was a hotel being built in honor of the President’s visit. They heard some cry out: “Mira, el Presidente, el Presidente” (Look, the President, the President). At that moment, both of them decided to change the fate of the building –as well as its name–; thus it was that instead of an apartment building, Samuel Gudes and Taño Scriba built the Hotel Presidente.
Once built, the hotel enjoyed the same prestige as the boutiques. Samuel and Taño’s glamorous lifestyle, excellent personal relationships and great eye for detail made them very popular among political figures, artists, and celebrities. Among their friends was Margarita Berthau, the renowned Costa Rican artist, who honored them with two beautiful murals painted in the boutiques’ lounges where clients’ measures were taken and tailors made adjustments.
In 1966 the sculptor Francisco Ulloa decorated Salón Las Américas with a beautiful mural, inspired by the Golden Hall at the Costa Rican Art Museum; the Museum itself used to be the main building and Control Tower of the International Airport back when it was located at La Sabana Park, not far from the hotel. The Golden Hall was the diplomatic lounge; it was – and still is – beautifully decorated by low-relief sculptures depicting scenes of important events in Costa Rican history.
Over the years, the hotel went through many renovations and improvements.
During the 1970s, Salón Las Américas was the scene of several high-profile weddings, quinceañeras, college graduations, and receptions for important political and social events. Renowned musicians such as Luis Velázquez and Vernon "El Pibe" Hine visited often to play the piano.
Samuel and Taño’s penthouse was decorated with stunning works of their talented friends, who were frequent guests. The couple also owned an estate in the suburb of Santa Ana, 15 kilometers west of downtown San José. There, surrounded by beautiful peacocks, fruit trees, eccentric Chinese porcelains and Louis XV furniture, they received their guests, many of them renowned artists, businessmen, and politicians.
Of course there was always time for family. Samuel often invited his brothers and sisters to come with their children and grandchildren to enjoy weekends at the farm.
In the late 1980s, plans were made to expand the hotel by adding a building with 63 new rooms. Sadly, Samuel’s sudden death in 1991 meant that he was unable to see the results of this undertaking; it also left a great void in his and Taño’s boutique business. That void, coupled with the emergence of large malls and shopping centers in the San José suburbs, led to the closing of both La Dama Elegante and El Caballero Elegante in 1997. Estanislao Taño Scriba died that same year.
In the late 1990s, the Municipality of San José launched a plan to transform the Central Avenue in a Pedestrian Boulevard. With the collaboration of private enterprise – Hotel Presidente included – the government provided a much-needed boost to commercial activity in downtown San José, effectively spurring its resurgence.
Motivated by revitalization effort, the hotel opened an iconic restaurant on the new boulevard – a milestone both for the hotel and for the city. The News Café inspired the arrival of other restaurants and cafés – pioneers of what today is a thriving nightlife.
The second decade of the new millennium has brought even more new life to San José. Many young entrepreneurs, artists, and professionals have turned their attention to the city center; in an effort to be a part of these exciting changes, Hotel Presidente has made its own transformations – always mindful, however, of retaining the character and the spirit of the building and the vision of our uncle Samuel.