Without Armenian institutions, maintaining a community in the diaspora so far from Mayr Hayastan might seem daunting. Yet, in the commercial district of Providencia, nestled in the center of Santiago de Chile, a tiny but tenacious Armenian community defied all rules and galvanized the creation of the spectacular Hye Doun—the Armenian House. A sprawling center open to the community, the renovated structure is the manifestation of a hopeful future born from a painful past. With a breathtaking view of the San Cristóbal Hill and the Andes mountains—often called the “spine of the world” due to its length—the new Hye Doun is now a magnet for Armenians in the southernmost country of South America look-ing to renew their culture—and more importantly, welcome all of the extended Armenian family to Latin America.
Diego Baloian, architect behind the design of the new Hye Doun, is a third generation Armenian-Chilean. Along with Hye Doun’s executive board, Baloian was determined to “breathe new life” into this small but active Armenian community. The vision of his team was to restore the heritage of the old neoclassical house in Chile while making an inclusive, contemporary space for all generations.
Heartbeat of the Community
The original Hye Doun house was located in the district of Ñuñoa. Though the Armenian community could never grow large enough to fund a church or school, Hye Doun remained a mainstay for all Armenians to gather. As Armenians rose to prominence and slowly relocated out of Ñuñoa, however, Hye Doun’s attendance dwindled. “In the past, the neighborhood was very active and full of Armenians, but after the city started to grow, the old club began to deteriorate as the Armenians started to emigrate to different neighborhoods,” Baloian explains. The Armenian community purchased an old neoclassical palace located in a hip neighborhood of Providencia, which is full of embassies.
Space to Grow
With an Armenian population that has never surpassed 600 people, a community center was vital to bring people together. For the few Armenians left in Ñuñoa, Hye Doun was a religious sanctuary, an embracing kitchen to prepare familiar dishes, and the hub of the Armenian community. Determined to unite all generations of Chilean-Armenians, the board of Hye Doun realized a community revival demanded a fresh new space that could be funded by the sale of the old Hye Doun. “Maybe it’s because we are small, we are even more united, and we survive despite all odds. Most of us are mixed with other roots, but we still feel very Armenian—even though none of us speak Armenian.”
A Dialogue of Past and Present
After a year-long design phase with careful consideration poured into every detail, the restoration was completed in 2019. Baloian added 233 square meters to the original house to ensure that the new space would have the space to embrace the present while honoring the memory of the old house with fragments of the original decor, such as window frames, bronze and marble pieces woven into the new design.
The community has taken full advantage of the center; a chorus group of all generations practices in the Gomidas room, religious events take place in the main hall and parties are hosted on the terrace. “Both young and older generations were so emotional during the unveiling ceremony. The first people to arrive viewed the artwork on display and some even found their ancestors in the photos,” said Baloian.
Mi Casa es Su Casa
Despite the expanse of Hye Doun with its striking view of the Andes, the executive board has ensured that it should still feel like a home for all. “There are many Armenians now immigrating from Venezuela to Chile, for example, because of the crisis. And the first day they arrived, they called us and they are part of the community now,” Baloian states proudly. He also notes that non-Armenians are also welcome. “We’re friends with the Lebanese club and other minority communities in Chile, like the Palestinians and Syrians. We want this to be a space for us, but also to receive our friends from South America and the rest of the world.”
Baloian also reports that the board is looking to add a new space for a chapel and other events. This would be a monumental step forward for the Armenians of Chile. He is also pleased to usher in a new generation of Armenian-Chileans, who have embraced the concept. “The young people are extremely active now. They have barbecues, parties, and football games. We also invite young groups of other communities to interact with them. We learn Armenian dances and music, and some of the young people are members of Hye Doun’s board too.”
With growing enthusiasm among the new generation of Chilean-Armenians fused with the rising participation of minority communities, it’s clear that Hye Doun is setting a higher standard for community organizing in Providencia.
Prior to purchasing the building in 2017, the space was headquarters for a real estate company. The construction team discovered that the interior was destroyed by its previous owners—complete with cables hanging from the ceiling. It took nearly six months to renovate the space and restore and replicate old elements of the original neoclassic structure.
Banner photo by Marcos Medizábal