Beneath a pale-blue late-winter sky, and behind an elegant but unassuming facade, one of Madrid’s great unsung survivors sits waiting, once more, for news of the latest in a long and improbable series of metamorphoses.
Since its inauguration 127 years ago, the Frontón Beti-Jai, built at the height of the Spanish capital’s love affair with the Basque game of pelota, has echoed with the crack of leather-stitched balls, with cheers, screams, the thrill of invention, the gunning of thirsty American engines and, most recently, the chirping of the birds who nested in its almost terminal decay.
Today, the Frontón Beti-Jai is the finest surviving example of a late-19th century pelota court in the world, and also lays claim to being the oldest original and unaltered modern-era sporting venue in Europe.
But six years ago, before the site was bought by Madrid city council after a protracted campaign by architects, residents and pelota fans, the frontón was teetering on the edge of collapse.
“It was as if a forest had sprung up on the court and there were shrubs and bushes everywhere,” says Cristina Moreno, the city council’s municipal architect. “The wooden roof was damp, there had been a fire and the bricks had crumbled; if you touched them, the dust came away like flour. It was a miracle the whole place was still standing.”
Now the building has been conserved – at a cost of €38m – the debate is about how is should be used and whether it should be modernised and encased under a glass roof. If another €10m can be found to install electricity and water and bring the Beti-Jai up to modern safety standards, it could be used as a sports venue – the pelota court is suitable for the game’s many varieties – and as a place to stage plays, concerts and other cultural events.
Since the restoration ended in 2019, the frontón has been open to the public on only a few of occasions. But over the next two months it can be visited, by appointment and in small groups, as part of the city council’s annual free historic tours.
Designed by the architect Joaquín Rucoba, the Beti-Jai was built to capitalise on the popularity of pelota, which found favour in Madrid in the late-19th century after it became fashionable among the monarchy and upper classes who took to it while holidaying in the Basque country.
“The building Rucoba designed is interesting architecturally because it uses prefabricated iron girders and there’s a huge contrast between the exterior facade, which is heavy, austere brick in the neomudéjar style, and the interior, which is light and very decorative,” says Moreno.
But for all its grace and beauty – not to mention the skill of the pelotaris who played in front of crowds of 4,000 spectators – the Beti-Jai was as much a business as a temple to aesthetics and athletics. Over the course of its 24 years as a pelota venue, a huge amount of money rode on the balls that bounced off its walls.
“The Beti-Jai represents the beginning of the industrialisation, or professionalisation, of pelota; of the time when you had entrepreneurs building frontones and organising games for people to bet on,” says Fernando Larumbe, a former Jesuit and pelota world champion who is also a founder member of the Plataforma Salvemos el frontón de Beti-Jai, which campaigned for years to save the site.
“Madrid was the symbolic centre of all that because four frontones were built in the city between 1891 and 1894. It was like building four Bernabéu stadiums in four years.”
And that, adds Larumbe, also explains why they were so short-lived – “imagine the brutal competition between them when you had daily games in a city which, at that time, had a population of 500,000 people”.
Even before the pelota matches stopped at the Beti-Jai in 1918, the site had found other uses. Leonardo Torres Quevedo, the Spanish engineer and pioneer of modern wireless remote control – best known for designing the Whirlpool AeroCar cable car that has been carrying people over Niagara Falls for more than a century – tested his devices there in 1905.
The frontón was also used as a military academy, a Studebaker car showroom, a Harley-Davidson dealership and then, during the Spanish civil war, as a police station and prison.
By the time Igor González Martín, a Basque IT specialist living in Madrid, stumbled across the site in 2008, it was all but lost.
“There were weeds everywhere, birds cheeping – and rats, because of all the rubbish,” he says. “You could see there was a beautiful building there, but it was in total decay.”
González Martín took his camera with him on that visit 13 years ago and the photos he uploaded to the website Flickr attracted huge interest and led to the formation of the conservation group. But while the building may have been saved, the battle is not over.
“The Beti-Jai was designed by one of the great architects of the time,” says González Martín. “But it’s also really important on a neighbourhood level. We want the original building to stay as it is and not undergo any alteration, such as lifts or a roof. And we want to see it put into public use for sporting and cultural events because it’s now in public hands.”
The campaigners would now also like the frontón to be declared a world heritage site by Unesco.
“You need to think about it like Pompeii, because the Beti-Jai is as it was back then,” says Larumbe. “Its miraculous survival meant it could be restored to all its architectural glory.”
A serious car accident in the early 1980s brought his playing days to a premature end but last year, well into his 70s, Larumbe became the first pelotari to send a ball glancing off the frontón’s walls in more than a century.
“It would have been amazing to have actually played there,” he says.
“It would have been like walking out into the Bernabéu or the Maracanã. You’d be playing in the Sistine Chapel of pelota in front of 4,000 people.”
What is pelota?
Pelota is the general name given to a number of ballgames that are played against a wall with bare hands, bats, rackets or baskets, perhaps most familiar to many people because of the jai alai variant of the game that features in the opening titles of the 1980s TV series Miami Vice.
Basque pelota, which is popular in parts of Spain and France, spread across Spain’s former empire and is still played in countries including Cuba, Argentina, the Philippines and the US, but federations also exist in Sweden, India and the Netherlands.
The pelota played at the Frontón Beti-Jai was joko garbi (meaning “clean game” in Basque), the forerunner of the modern game cesta punta, also known as jai alai (happy festival).
The Beti-Jai stadium could accommodate 4,000 spectators in its four-storey grandstand.