Casa Muller “Mullah” Building

Muller or Miller Building.

Casa Muller or Muller Building
circa 1972, just before it was demolished.
Image thanks to Sr. Justo Pardo Villalaz

The grand Hotel Tivoli located in Ancon, CZ
had comfortable accommodations for visiting American
and other white foreigners visiting the Zone.
Image thanks to Panamaliving.com

In 1976 a news article by Earl V. Newland appeared in a leading local newspaper that he dedicated to the descendants of the first member of the Müller family. This man had passed through Panama en route to California smitten by the “gold fever” that had spread throughout North America when, as we know, in the middle of the nineteenth century gold was discovered in the Mother Lode country of that great western state.

Mr. Muller was little impressed with what he finally saw in California after, more than likely, not finding any of the shiny metal. He promptly returned to Panama, however, where he eventually managed to find his fortune. In Panama he did find his first rare treasure, a wife, as he married not long after his return. His name was Oscar Muller.

Since the discovery of gold had been the primordial reason for the construction of the Trans-Isthmian or The Panama Railroad, it sped up the movement of cargo and passenger transport and ushered in a new era of economic activity and comfort, particularly between the north American east and west coasts and the terminal cities of Panama and Colon.

The Panama Railroad Company had acquired a good amount of land to dedicate to the building of the railroad and Carlos Muller, Oscar’s son, seized upon the opportunity to secure a three lot tract of land, rented of course, from the company in order to raise a residential four level type structure of 76 apartments. The ground floor units would be wholly dedicated to commercial establishments. This was the birth of Casa Müller in the year of 1910.

Thousands of Antillean workers who labored on the construction of the Panama Canal were in urgent need of housing, which gave rise to the birth of the districts of Calidonia (which only had 800 inhabitants when the Müller Building project began) Rio Abajo, El Marañón, San Miguel, El Granillo, El Chorrillo, Malambo and several others. These Westindian salaried men, with large amounts of spending cash (in conjunction) were the target of Mr. Muller’s enthusiasm since no other large body of wage earners existed in Panama to support whole enterprises.

In light of the fact that during the construction of Müller Building there were very few architects in Panama, the owner of the project looked for someone akin to a construction foreman- someone like “El Maicero,” Joaquin Rodriguez Londoño, who was quite well-known in Panama at the time- to take charge of so important a work. But Müller did insist, however, upon a design similar to the Tivoli Hotel (another architectural icon that, in our humble opinion, should not have disappeared) that is, something with ample corridors, high ceilings, etc.

El Maicero, by the way, was Colombian and you can read more about him here and see other buildings he was credited with. Muller Building would also eventually have the unique triangular shape so favored by the architect and it is said that this shape would commemorate the first transatlantic ship that would cross the Canal.

Once completed, in part of the bottom floor a small jail or women’s detention center was established with its police station and a fire service station in case of fires which were very frequent at the time.

Later on, the jail and service center were transferred and several stores were opened. There were shoe stores, the Boyd Pharmacy and Gaspar Omphroy opened his first auto parts business. With time came the opening of other stores which sold clothing, fruit, a lottery office, and, of course the traditional shoe shine parlor, etc.

At one time Mr. Müller very astutely began offering his renters a one month free (rental) bonus if they detected the beginnings of any fire and managed to put it out. This ultimately became a double edged sword since many people caused or simulated the beginning of a fire in order to avoid paying rent. In any event, throughout the 65 years of Casa Müller’s existence there occurred few fires of any real consideration.

What did occur was something I can lend testimony to. I must have been around 9 or 10 years old- around 1945- when, during Carnival Saturday, a crowd of people congregated on the third floor to view the processions (comparzas, procesiones etc.,) passing by on Central Avenue. This was not at all unusual since it had become a tradition to go up into Muller Building and similar multi story buildings to get the best views of the magnificent parades, spectacles and dance floors that arose around the area during the week of Carnival.

Apparently the wooden floor structure of the balcony was weakened by the weight of so many people and the flooring collapsed sending men, women and children down to the floor below. I remember seeing the few children, maybe five or six of them, hanging from the iron connecting bars on the balcony upon which they had been perched. Thank God there were no casualties but the adults who landed on the lower floor did suffer injuries.

Another peculiar thing about Muller Building- known by the Westindian population as “Mullah Building” or “Casa Miller”- was that nobody really ever spoke of its exact location or an address in our modern sense of the word. The building was actually located on Central Avenue (today called Via España) between 22nd, 23rd and 24th Streets. You needed only to say “Müller Building” or indicate it on any postal remittance and there you were.

It is only with regretful hindsight that we esteem that Casa Muller, and similar architectural icons of this era, should have been preserved. Today it could have served as a wonderful attraction for tourists since few wooden houses of that size exist today. In fact, Casa Muller became known as the largest wooden residential building of its kind ever built in the world.

In Colon we had “Leviathan” which was also demolished, and in New Orleans (before Hurricane Katrina) there were similar buildings that inspired great admiration as symbols of a more luxurious and artistic way of life. Casa Muller was demolished in the early seventies as the photograph indicates (you may be able to see the little white notices posted up on the walls near each dwelling notifying the residents that the building would soon disappear and they were advised to seek housing elsewhere).

In upcoming posts we will take a look at the lifestyle and ambience that arose around Casa Muller and similar areas of The Silver People in Panama.

Our thanks to an archival article in the La Prensa newspaper for the brief history and special thanks to Sr. Justo Pardo Villalaz for the splendid photograph of Muller Building in its last days.

This story continues.

13 responses to “Casa Muller “Mullah” Building

  1. With all the many wonderful memories of Mullah building I have to admit I don’t remember ever going up into any of the apartments or living quarters. I could have but don’t remember. Many of my friends would tell me of the wild adventures on 23rd street. What I remember is you could find any product on that first level of shops. Furthermore if you went everywhere you were sure to find the item at Mullah’s.
    About 20 years ago, here in Seattle the Safeway grocery chain thought of a new innovative architectural structure of combining their grocery store and other merchants with apartment quarters above. Guess Mr. Muller had them beat by almost a century.

  2. Ocho-gritos,

    You know, we, the Silver People who dominated the scene in Calidonia, Marañon, Chorrillo etc., always loved the fact that you were close to everything there in the heart of down town Panama City and also close to the Zone. It was easy for us to shop at Little Market, Big Market, Mullah, all along Central Avenue, and Santana, and the Commissaries. Life was sweet in this aspect and that’s why people, even today, don’t want to move away from that area. Have you checked out the video we put on the home page. That’s La Central (Central Avenue) full of shoppers.

    This is just a reminder of the bustle that we, the Westindians created throughout our history in Panama, when, every morning and evening, at the sound of the “Karchi” you could see the crowds of Westindians returning home from work on the Canal Zone.

    C. Roberto Reid

  3. As a Zonian I was update on all of the rules and customs of Panama. This weekend here in the Seattle area we had our independence celebration and I ran into some West Indians who grew up along Caledonia. I was reminded of when I attended IJA at Casino and rushing to the bus station could not understand why everyone had stopped. A Guardia Nacional now the police gave me a stern look then told me to HALT! As you know there is quite a crowd in that locale especially at 6pm. One of them pointed to the flag being lowered (toque de queda). Even though I was still struggling with Spanish at the time, I got a stern dressing down by the policeman that I fully understood and to this day regardless of the anthem played, I stop and put my hand on heart. Caledonia, Central, Salsipuedes and Santa Ana are still places that are beautiful memories.

  4. Roberto, you mentioned the following neighborhoods: Rio Abajo, El Marañón, San Miguel, El Granillo, El Chorrillo, Malambo. Where was “El Granillo” and Malambo? Also, distance wise Isn’t Rio Abajo way to far to host canal employees? How did people get from Rio Abajo to the zone back then? Thanks for your time, and keep on doing what you’re doing.

  5. Anonymous,

    Malambo and El Granillo (correct me if I’m wrong) are areas in the direction of Arraiján (el mas allá). Malambo came into the public eye recently over disputed land that was supposedly owned by the Catholic Church.

    Rio Abajo and the massive West Indian settlement that starting occurring there after the 40’s will be the topic of our upcoming posts. When you are discussing the Silver People you never stop discussing housing problems.

  6. Hi Roberto, I never heard of Malambo. Granillo is around Barraza where the Toldos were. Benny More used to play dominoes in Granillo in a bar owned by Manito Bernal Dad.

    • Ken,

      Good to see you here again! We’re always glad to hear about Beny More’s andanzas in Panama. How he loved Panama and the Panamanians.

      Roberto

  7. Ase tiempo que estoy buscando esta informacion tankyou somuch

    • Edlodia,
      We’re happy you found what you needed in this article. Many people have commented on it here and through e-mail.

      Stay in touch.

  8. I like the history of Panama. I used to race in the Marañon back in the 60’s and early 70’s. Keep up the good work.

  9. Viola Dormoi de McClure

    This article is excellent. Too many memories. I live in U,S now but have not forgotten Casa Muller y sus alrededores (la estacion del ferrocarril, Calidonia, etc.

  10. I just found this website and have been reading many of the articles. Great stories and history of Panama. I am from Chiriquí but very much interested in getting to know the history of all of Panama and its different peoples. Keep up the good work!!!

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