Saturday, December 17, 2011

Architecture: The Colonial Obsession

This is a photo of the street where I live. Interestingly, although I live in the center of colonial Mérida, there is not single authentic colonial building in this image.

I ought to clarify my terminology. To me, "colonial" is something dating from the colonial era, and built by the Spanish before Mexican independence in 1810. Anything newer might be "colonial-style," but it's not truly colonial. The houses in the picture above, including mine, were mostly built within the past 100 years or so on land that probably was a patchwork of cultivated areas and smaller, less-durable structures, such as Mayan houses, in colonial times. There are two or three buildings on the other side of my large block that might be colonials.  But the houses in this picture were most likely built when the spacious lots that surrounded most early homes, sometimes called quintas, were subdivided between heirs or sold off as Mérida urbanized in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I started thinking about the obsession with things colonial when I noticed that a house on my block, which has been renovated by a foreign investor as a vacation rental and is now for sale, being advertised as a "200-year-old colonial." The fact is that although the house has a traditional facade, it is a 20th century house, with steel I-beam-supported ceilings, probably built during the 1930s-1950s. The investor had the entire structure demolished except for the facade and front room, and behind this built an ultra-modern two-story home, painted in bright colors. One of the few original interior details that was preserved, a squarish entry arch, is very Yucatecan, but the Spanish never built anything like it during the colonial era.

The same investor also bought another house nearby, which before being altered unrecognizably inside was also a nice traditional Yucatecan structure, but likely not more than 70-90 years old. Now renovated this, too, is being advertised as a "colonial."

A twentieth-century home recently turned "colonial"
Then I noticed a large crew of albañiles, construction workers, laboring on a recent Sunday. Sometimes when construction crews work on Sundays it's because they've got a deadline, but more often it means that they are working on a project without permits. Sometimes the permits are impossible to get because the homeowners want to change the appearance of downtown historic buildings that are regulated by INAH, The National Institute of Anthropology and History. So, people do what I call "Sunday projects," which are completed quickly over a weekend when regulatory officials are off work. By Monday morning everything is cleaned up and no one remembers anything about it.

This Sunday project was a house probably built in the 1940s or 1950s with higher ceilings, nice spacious rooms and a unique, very interesting facade. I saw the owner and asked him what was going on. He told me the facade needed to be "more colonial."

That's too bad, because Mérida has a lush architectural history, of which the colonial era is one aspect. To make it more interesting, many of the true colonials, often very plain structures, were modified with European and Victorian flourishes during the 1880s through the early 1900s hennequen boom when Mérida property owners had lots of money.

Twentieth century styles
Mérida also has a lot of nice Beaux Arts, Art Noveau and Art Deco buildings, along with interesting Mexican versions of these and 40's, 50's and 60's styles. These frequently are influenced by Mayan design, which preceded the colonial era and is the true native Yucatecan architectural style. Unfortunately these buildings often are not appreciated for what they are, and in fact some even show up on local real estate web sites labeled "colonial." And uninformed colonial-obsessed buyers often take the bait hook, line and sinker, thinking they are buying an authentic colonial. Then, if their new houses don't seem colonial enough, they go columns-and-arches crazy, and add the colonial touches they feel are lacking.

Traditional Yucatecan, not colonial
I have seen many lovely homes of various styles turned into fake colonials. One of the saddest examples is a very nice original art deco home with curved walls that was wrecked when all of the deco details were chipped off its facade. Then brand-new colonial-style doors and windows replaced the beautiful porthole-window originals of wood and wrought iron. A great many nice old Mérida buildings have had unique Yucatecan architectural features erased and pseudo-colonial facades added in recent years.

I can understand the interest in the colonial era. Colonial design is often very beautiful and is functional in this climate, with high ceilings, interior courtyards and large doors and windows. However real colonials in Mérida are not as common as people think. Many are more like my traditional house, which possesses many colonial-style design features, but although it is very Yucatecan, it is not colonial.

Although the colonial influence is still extremely prominent in Yucatán, this region's architectural history is a lot more diverse than that. I think it's sad that fascinating slices of the legacy are being homogenized and lost in the name of this obsession with the "colonial."


  1. I have often wondered what "colonial" really means in the Yucatán context. I was told our house was colonial, though it's clearly post-1900 somewhere. Thanks for explaining it.

  2. I think people see "old" and they say "colonial." At least that's what they do here in Mazatlán. Most of the old homes here in Centro are around 1880-1910.

    We see a lot of Sunday work here, too. Not just when people want to change something but because the permits are expensive and INAH takes forever to get around to the approvals.

  3. Debbie and Nancy, I am not an expert on architecture, but these are things I have picked up or figured out. I suppose there will be people who disagree with me. There are definitely many who call anything old colonial, as you point out, Nancy. There is one agent here who is my friend who used to call just about anything built before 1960 "colonial." I'm sure that's his slant on it.

    I think a lot of people say colonial when they mean a place has colonial touches. It's also marketing. People love colonials.

  4. Hmmm ... I wonder what my little beach house was before we renovated. We called it "traditional concrete beach box," but surely there's got to be some kind of name for those ordinary little box-by-box homes? We added terra cotta floor tiles, a talavera kitchen, wooden doors and windows, and yes, our new front porch overlooking the Gulf has columns supporting the tiled roof. And then, in defiance of any sense of architectural integrity, we added another concrete structure and topped it with a Tejas wood-and-tile roof. Built in the '80s (or so we were told), our house had no real style, so I guess we're forgiven for tampering with its ordinariness. :-) Sure miss that place, but it's always a pleasure to catch up with things Yucatecan on your blog, Marc.

  5. Well, Lynette, it's important to make a house a home, and it sounds like you've improved yours considerably over what was there. I hope you and Mike are down here one of these days soon to enjoy it.

  6. There you go again, Marc, speaking the truth. Keep that up, mister, and you'll never have a career in real estate.

  7. Marc, we figured out a while ago that most of the renovated homes in the Centro are not of the colonial era, although most people refer to all the old homes as "colonial." I have intended, for a while now, to change the description in our header from "colonial" to simply "renovated" home. Our house was probably built mid-20th century and the facade was totally changed to reflect an older style. I'm with you in that I don't particularly like attempting to pass something off as authentic when it clearly is not. This happens a lot in the antique business as well. Thanks for the post.

  8. Thanks for the interesting topic. For a follow-up could you post some pictures of what you mean by authentic colonial, Yucatecan and Beaux Arts features so the next time I am in Merida I will be able to distinguish the features? Thanks, Kathe

  9. Anybody wants genuine Colonial need only come to my town. Anyone who wants to renovate inside or outside and who plays by the rules puts themselves into a real nightmare with government officials.

  10. Perhaps an approach which would please a variety of needs would be an architectural heritage assn. of sorts--which would buy, preserve and exhibit the local style heritage, as is done in museums. That would free others to adapt their homes to current needs and preferences, while allowing the "Museum" to preserve evidence of history. Think of it as like cars: car collectors seldom drive their treasures around town, but keep them for display, as a collectable, or even show them in museums.

    While thinking about this, I remembered Pete Seeger's song, "Little Boxes." (You Tube has LOTS of presentations.) In other words, there are negative sides to many styles, for styles do reflect the period of their use.

  11. Thank you, thank you, thank you! You did a great job of explaining how the misuse of ''colonial'' actually hides so much of Mérida's architectural history. I think the misuse by realtors is in part sloppy, and in part lack of real knowledge about Mérida's long history (precolonial, colonial, and post colonial).

  12. For years I've wanted to buy a "colonial" home in Merida... thanks for the article! Very eye-opening :)

  13. Socrates was great at debunking definitions, too, Marc. Did you study with him?

    Your essay on colonial homes here in Merida reminds me of the architectural style called American Arts and Crafts, or simply American Craftsmen, back home. To call one's house such has a broad array of spectrum.

    The house listed here, top right: is being termed a "Craftsman-style bungalow." It certainly doesn't fit my view of a bungalow! Nor does it resemble much the homes near mine which were built as Craftsman homes. (I live near East Aurora NY, home of The Roycroft movement, which was a center of Craftsman production of furniture, and many design items.)

    Here's a home which looks like a craftsman home to me:

    Here's another example of the style:

    I think you've provided a good wake-up call to the industry. Clearly, terms have gotten too loose. People are being sold historical trinkets which have no provenance. And for big money.

    Thanks for the clarifications.


  14. Marc, From our family to yours we hope you have a very Merry Christmas.

  15. Great observations, Marc.

    There is a difference between "real" colonial homes and most of Merida. The Spanish population of Merida around the late 1500s (Montejo 'conquered' the Yucatan in 1542) was about 70. And that was the total population, not the number of houses they had built for their purposes.

    "Colonial" could refer to the colonists themselves, the period during which they arrived, or to a more extended time - 300 years more or less -- from the Conquistadores to Independence.

    A few maps have come up in another forum which might be helpful.

    First off, Merida as originally laid out by The Mozo himself, Francisco Montejo, Jr, along with Senior and Cousin (all Francisco Montejos):

    And then the map from 1648, showing the original circle has been filled in, with a few appendages extending out, along with Itzimna now having its church and plaza:

    Why do real estate agents refer to everything as "colonial?" Well, it is easy for one thing. It is lazy and it is uninformed. But it sells houses. And, if the style is somewhat close, "colonial" could be a style description rather than a precise dating of the home. A good number of "real estate agents" in Merida are neither experienced in real estate, knowledgeable in history, or care about more than making the sale. Most are, however, good at spinning a tale.

    Actual colonial homes of the early Spanish were built of very thick walls, very high ceilings, wooden vigas, and generally faced an inner courtyard. Behind the inner courtyard were kept the horse(s), chickens, pigs, etc in a second walled courtyard. The first inner courtyard may have had columns and a veranda surrounding it or not. And at times, there was no separation from the courtyards.

    The wealthiest or highest ranking had also built high double doors, so that they could ride their horse - or even drive a smallish carriage or wagon - directly into the house and to the back courtyard. Within the large doors, there was a "pedestrian door" to be opened and closed without the considerable effort needed to unbar and open the large doors.

    These were defensive measures as well - the thick walls, the inner-facing orientation, the heavy doors with a smaller inset door - as these were foreign occupiers in a sometimes hostile land.

    Here is a map of 1648 with the various newish barrios marked:

    That image is Merida at approximately 100 years old. Casa de Montejo, for example, is thought to have completed construction in 1549, having started about seven years earlier.

    I'd venture to say that homes within the 1648 map could possibly be "colonial" in truth. Homes built after that may be very similar copies, but are colonial style, rather than authentic colonial homes.

    Perhaps INAH has some guidelines on what truly constitutes "colonial", but you are absolutely right that there are a wide variety of wonderful styles. The Art Deco homes with their curved rooms and round windows are wonderful examples and nearly 100 years old, perhaps, at this time.

    If buyers feel the need to strip the front of the building and change it, the least they could do would be to choose a plain-front 1900s home in the first place, rather than removing some of the variety that has accumulated over the years.


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