Mi Pullman: remodeling a Mexican Art Nouveau townhouse I
Part One: Agreement to purchase
This is a story about my love affair with an old house in Mexico. It began in February 2004, when I did a road trip across Mexico and ended my journey on the shores of Lake Chapala. Exploring Chapala town one day, I ended up in a little dead-end street called Aquiles Serdan, and found myself standing in front of a beautiful three storey, art nouveau town house. It was shabby, obviously neglected, and unlived in, but it had certain magic about it, which captured both my imagination and my heart. It was called Mi Pullman. I knew, in that moment and with great certainly, that one day I would buy it — how and when, I had not the faintest idea!
At that time I was living in England and had still not made the decision to come and live in Mexico. But as the months passed, the cold, grey days got me thinking about the sunshine of Mexico and I finally decided that I would sell my little Georgian house in Bath and move to Ajijic.
In early 2005, I became a resident of Mexico and, although I had bought a beautiful Mexican style house in Ajijic village, the house in Chapala kept pulling me back. I often found myself standing on the other side of the street looking up at it and daydreaming. I wondered who the owners were, and whether I could persuade them to sell it to me. I would ask anyone and everyone I met on the street if they knew who owned it and the replies were always negative. It stood alone and abandoned, and I knew I had to rescue it before it became a ruin. The paint was peeling off the walls and, peering in through holes in the shutters, it looked like squatters had once made it their home. Now it was home to stray cats.The swallows, also called it home, and flew in and out of opened windows, built nests on the light fittings and splattered the walls with their droppings! Looking through a gap in the front door gave me a view of an elegant wood staircase, now badly damaged by termites and floor tiles covered in dust and dirt, so thick that only the faintest of patterns could be seen. There was rubble and rubbish piled high in what was once the living room, together with rusty cans of paint, rotten wood and the remains of the original front door. The house spoke to me and begged to be rescued.
I knew time was running out for the house, and for me. I was worried that someone else would find the owner before I did, and I was worried that with each rainy season that came and went the house would fall into worse decay. I had to find the owners and needed help. And finally I got help. I met and began a relationship with a Mexican artist called Alberto Ortiz in July of 2005. He was from Jalisco and knew the house well. He had memories of it as a child when his parents brought him to Chapala for holidays. He remembered it as always being empty and abandoned, and like me, he loved the house. Together, we were determined to find the owners. It was to be a slow process and it took over a year just to get a contact number. He came home one day with a big smile on his face, waving a piece of paper in his hand and said he had a surprise for me. He had the telephone number of the owner. He had been in Chapala that day, and as always had gone to see the house. On that particular day workmen were busy in the house and he had asked them for the telephone number of the owners. I was so excited, and immediately got him to call the number. The phone was answered by a man we called Don Raphael, and Don Raphael said in no uncertain terms that the house was not for sale!
My disappointment was enormous. However, I was determined not to give up my dream, and determined that we would continue calling until they agreed to at least show us the house. Alberto telephoned nearly every three or four weeks for about seven months and the response was always the same — the house is not for sale. Over time Alberto had developed some sort of relationship with Don Raphael, and finally he said, "Make us an offer and we will show you the house."
I said, "We can't make an offer until we have seen the house." So, it was a stalemate! The game had just begun. This went on for a few months and eventually, in August of 2007, Don Raphael and his wife Lupita decided that they would show us the house. You can imagine my elation — I was so thrilled, I could hardly contain myself!
We arrange to meet them at the house on August 4.
It is difficult to describe my feelings. I was so shocked on entering the house. It was filthy, with a recently dead cat on the first floor landing stinking the place. There were bird droppings all over the walls and doors, and many dead swallows. The smell was awful, part musty house mixed with decaying animals. Walking through the house, it was evident that the woodwork had been badly damaged by termites, but the nine-foot oak doors seemed to be in good condition.
However, in spite of all this the house was filled with a wonderful energy and light, especially on the first and second floor landings. The views from the top floor were a wonderful surprise. You could see the lake, the pier, and the mountains beyond. It was a solid and strong house with no cracks in either the walls or the ceilings. This was reassuring, as it was 102 years old. There was no kitchen, only a small, dark pantry, which was lined with beautiful hand painted art nouveau tiles.
I had renovated several old properties in England and was trying to look at the house dispassionately. So, rather than looking at the good points, I was assessing the problems and weighing up whether it would be worth restoring. After walking around the house several times, I saw the potential and was sure that I wanted to buy it. That with the right team helping me I knew I could bring it back to life.
I made them an offer and they asked us to call in a few days.
I felt overwhelmed, and very angry by the neglect — how could the owners have let it get into such a state? Walking away, I felt very sad for the house, and the thought of having to restore it frightened the life out of me, but I decided to put these thoughts out of my mind. If they agreed to my offer, so be it. And if they didn't, then it wasn't meant to be.
On August 14, Alberto called Don Raphael who told him that they would sell me the house. I was quietly happy!
To be continued….