Saturday, November 19, 2011

Anthropology: Urban Vestiges, Part 3 -- Abandoned

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by ruins and abandoned houses. I still am. So, since moving to Yucatán, where uninhabited haciendas litter the countryside and empty mansions still dot the Mérida inner-city landscape, I am in a kind of heaven.

A friend of mine sells real estate. As a dabbler in the business myself, sometimes I tag along to take pictures for her, just to have an excuse to nose around old houses and maybe find an interesting opportunity. One day I went with her to look at a house that the owners were putting on the market. The prior owner had died years ago and left the home to relatives, two of whom met us on the street in front of the high, decorated facade of the colonial-style structure.

Many keys were produced, but none seemed to work in the lock. All the keys were tried a second time, and this time one was found to rotate slightly. A small can of oil was located, and with liberal application of lubricant and gentle force, ultimately the lock was made to open. Then the door, apparently swollen by humidity and its hinges stiff with corrosion, would not budge. Finally after some kicks and heavy shouldering, the door scraped open. A large pyramid of unopened mail from banks and utility companies had accumulated beneath the letter slot. This yellowed, wrinkled heap, which with dampness had congealed into a pulpy mass and stuck to the floor, had been partly to blame for our problem with the door. Along with this, the reek of rodents, humid, stale air and enough hanging cobwebs to furnish several Halloween Haunted Houses were evidence that no one had been inside for a long time, perhaps years. One of the owners would not pass over the threshold. He didn't say why. He peered inside while standing safely back on the sidewalk, and then returned to wait in his air-conditioned car.

The interior was much the same as in many of these forlorn old Mérida homes. There was a story here of a life, in this case of a man who had passed away years ago, leaving roomfuls of furniture, files and hoarded treasures to heirs who didn't really care to deal with the mess and did not want to live in an old, crumbling house in centro.

Another old home near mine also was uninhabited for many years. It was easy to see through cracked, uncurtained windows that it remained fully furnished in the style of the 1930's, with crystal chandeliers, bric-a-brac, old paintings and family pictures still intact. A dusty baby grand piano was clearly visible through a missing pane in the padlocked and chained front door.

In some of these cases,  there are numerous heirs who can't agree, or there is no will, so houses remain locked up and in limbo for years, sometimes decades. An acquaintance of mine tried to buy a fabulous old home whose owners had died intestate in the 1920's. Their numerous children and many of their grandchildren were now also gone, leaving dozens of great grandchildren and other relatives to dispute the estate. The family feud over inheritance is so intense that no one lives in or cares for the property. Likely the dispute will continue until the house falls down or is confiscated by the government as a nuisance or for back taxes and bills. There is a beautiful old house on my block that's been in much the same situation since the owner died in 1951. The remaining original heirs, who would like to sell, are now in their 90's. I suspect none of them will ever see their money.

Occasionally, a house you might think abandoned, isn't. It turns out an ancient man or woman, or sometimes a younger family, to all appearances without funds to maintain the place, hangs on, often living in a couple of back rooms that are still in habitable condition. They may be owners, heirs, caretakers or squatters. Whatever the situation, it's interesting to see a fabulous casona still in use, but with chickens running in the gardens, laundry drying along the colonnades, and humble hammocks swinging beneath ornately stenciled, beamed ceilings.

I appreciate the restoration efforts that have brought many old Mérida homes back to life, but feel it will be a sad day when progress has eliminated the last of the abandoned and ruined old mansions. These old, un-beautified relics are romantic time capsules. They add a touch of color and mystery to the city.

These remnants also remind us of the glories and follies of the past in a way that restored and modernized examples do not. They help me keep in mind the temporary nature of everything on this planet, and particularly the fleeting qualities of wealth, status and power, which many of these crumbling edifices were constructed to symbolize.

If you enjoyed this post, you also might like Wanderings: Hacienda Dreams, Urban Vestiges Part 2 -- Stones, and Urban Vestiges, Part 1.


  1. Stunning post. The "peering in" phenomenon is such an interesting one to me: what we see, what we want to see, what's not there that used to be there, who was there, so many things. The term "romantic time capsules" really got me.

  2. La Cubanófila, you are saying what I am thinking. Seeing these places, catching a glimpse through a broken window or a cracked wall, or through overgrown gardens always makes me wonder about the stories. All of these places have fascinating stories, some true, and some only our fantasies. But it's always interesting.

  3. You're making me wish I was in Merida. That city has the coolest architecture of any place in all of Mexico.

  4. Jennifer, it is a cool place, if you like architecture. There's so much, not like in some cities where the centro historico is fairly small. I've read that Mérida has the largest stock of colonial buildings of any city in the country outside of Mexico City. I've been here eight years, and still am discovering new, interesting corners of this city.

  5. Before I started school there was an old water mill in our town that I played in, most of the floors were long gone but the beams were intact. The local bar flies would pay me a quarter for any baby pigeons I managed to steal out of the pigeon nests, my love of ruins started early.

  6. You lucky dog. I would love to have gone in there. I share your fascination. I wonder why the one guy would not cross the threshold.

  7. Norm, I too, started early. When I was young in Alaska there were still lots of remote areas and ghost towns with abandoned buildings. I recall two places where remote general stores in roadless areas had been abandoned during the gold rushes, left intact and full of antique merchandise, things like shoes, bars of soap and hurricane lamps, all still in their original packaging from maybe the 1920's. That's all gone now, pilfered away by souvenir hunters and probably antiques dealers. It was amazing.

    Felipe, I have wondered a lot about the guy who would not go in. Maybe it had to do with sad memories of the lost relative. Maybe he is fastidious -- the place was pretty nasty. Or maybe he is superstitious...lots of that around here.

    I LOVED it.

  8. Lovely story Marc. I'm always surprised to find not everyone sees the beauty and mystery in the old, decaying buildings. But that's probably a good thing or we'd be overrun.

  9. We lived on Adak, Alaska in the 50's when I was in the 4th grade. We used to play and explore out in the tundra. We didn't find the great old mansions like you have in Merida but quonset huts remaining from the war. They were full of maps, paper work and all kinds of phones. To us at that young age it was a real find. I still remember it so vividly even after 57 years. It is a good memory.

  10. Michael, I remember a trip to Unalaska in the 70's...much the same, with old barracks, pillboxes, gun emplacements, etc., all over the place, largely left as they were at the end of the war. As I also wrote in response to another comment above, I was lucky enough as a kid to get into some remote bush areas where gold camps were abandoned and left untouched, due to lack of roads, for decades. There was an old house with furniture, a piano, etc., and the old general stores I mentioned above. Lots of old cabins in the mountains that were empty for years, but still stocked with everything one would need to survive. There still exist some of these places in Alaska. Fascinating.

  11. Debbie, you are right. The thing that gets me is that these places often are wonderful because they are not perfect, and have the patina and remnants of the past. It is sad that many of the house restorations in Mérida erase all of that, often preserving just the facade, which itself is completely redone so it looks brand-new, like a Disneyworld recreation of "Old Yucatán." Something is lost when this happens. I've been working on a post on just this theme...soon to come.

  12. Fine post, Marc —

    Mary and I have often passed a home much like one you've depicted above. It's likely a bigger project than I could presently undertake, but it certainly had my imagination working in visits past. And your post has my mental wheels creaking again, much in need of oil. The right door will reveal itself!


  13. I mentioned to Alan that the facades of homes similar to the one above, with the exposed mamposteria, are so appealing and should be left alone, with the exception of doors and windows, which could be restored for functionality. I suspect few would be brave enough to resist the temptation of full restoration.

  14. John and Alan: You are right, I think. Most folks, if they spend all that money, want it to look great, and most peoples' ideas of that mean all fixed up. I think that Europeans appreciate the "as is" esthetic more than Americans and Mexicans. The Americans I know mostly want to redo everything and largely want it to look like new.

    One problem with not doing anything means is that water is more likely to seep into walls, and what details and flourishes remain will continue to deteriorate. I think there usually are ways to stabilize what's there and leave it as is. I like that. I didn't restore the facade of my house, and now chunks are falling off. I will have to do something, if only for safety of pedestrians.

    I have one friend who actually constructed brand-new to look old and unrestored. He had a heck of a time getting the albañiles to leave it rough and eroded looking.

  15. Eric, at the same time you posted the above comment, you also sent me an email with a photo...I think you've seen the same house I've pictured a couple of times in this post. There are many, many more out there.

    Glad you enjoyed the post. We'll have to get together and compare notes soon.

  16. Nice post. When I get back over your way, we will have to do a bit of crumbling home touring.

  17. I spent most of my young years spending summers at a cabin on a lake in western Kansas. It was a beautiful place: a gorgeous lake nestled in the rolling Flint Hills, surrounded by enormous cottonwood trees. The landscape overall was a horror, being terribly dry, dusty, and mostly flat. Still, there was 99 Springs.

    And all around 99 Springs, on the dusty prairie that stretched from I-35 west to Colorado, were abandoned houses, barns, outbuildings on farms left alone since the Dust Bowl.

    My sisters and I were "explorers." We were enchanted by these often perfectly preserved snapshots of life on that prairie when the disaster hit. Abandoned houses, abandoned lives. In one old house there were still dishes on the kitchen table, as if the occupants were sucked up into the boiling clouds of dust.

    When we'd enter one of those old houses, I always had the sense that time was standing still, just for an instant, and I could see what life was like in that place 50 years before.

    I would love LOVE!!!!! to explore the old houses of Merida, and so I loved LOVED!!!! this post. Happy Thanksgiving, my friend.

  18. Your post and photos could be the beginning of a mystery novel. Just think of what could have happened behind those walls. Rainie

  19. The other day, I mentioned to you the old, abandoned colonial around the corner from me. The back yard is on the other side of my back wall. There are stone horse stalls in back, and a massive tinaco, The place could be out in the country somewhere, It has never been occupied in the 28 years I've been here, and sadly, I have watched as thieves removed all the furnishings, and even the old giant doors. It's hard to resist breaking through my wall and using the huge abandoned yard as a garden.


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