Once upon a time in Mexico… renovating an old house in Mérida

Once upon a time in Mexico… renovating an old house in Mérida

Layer upon hidden layer revealed its different incarnations
Water works: distressed surfaces around the pool at La Rosa, Mérida, Mexico.

La Rosa, a house in the historic centre of Mérida, capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán, exudes a sense of the past and reflects its historical surroundings. It is something its owner, architect Lucía Rios Santos, was keen to see safeguarded when she and her husband came to renovate it. “Every room offered a space that had a history to tell. We felt that the story must be rescued and preserved,” she says.

She tells the tale of its construction during the 1940s: “A man called Cristobal Duran, Don Boxol to his neighbours, bought the land and built a family home here, which was also a grocery. For more than 70 years his shop was the grocery store of the neighbourhood and some neighbours still fondly remember childhoods spent swimming in the water tanks, and renting bicycles from him.”

Mayan marvels: layers of paint exposed in restoration, tiles in the entrance hall depicting exotic birds.

But by the time Rios Santos’s husband, Oswaldo Denis Dominguez, acquired the house a few years ago, it had fallen into disrepair. “The house was in very bad condition,” he recalls, “with damp rot, exposed ceilings and dirty, broken tiles. Most of the original handmade ‘pasta’ floor tiles were in OK condition, although some were full of grease, others broken. There were original doors, some in very poor condition, others completely destroyed and the house was full of garbage and empty bottles, since it had been a warehouse for several years.”

“We discovered wonderful details that needed to be respected, and in some cases emphasised,” says Rios Santos.

The property is made up of two houses and a rambling garden. Next to the original family house is a second building, which was the grocery store and is now the kitchen, guest bathroom and living-room terrace. The houses were not connected and the gardens were separated by a wall that has since been mostly demolished – the only part that remains now divides the hammock garden area and the outdoor bedroom corridor, accessed through the gardens.

Inside story: Lucía Rios Santos at home.

Together they decided what they wanted to do, then Rios Santos’s architectural studio brought the project to life. The first thing she and her team did was to work out what could be rescued and repurposed. “The most important thing when intervening in an old building is having respect for every detail that the house offers,” she says.

So the entry foyer to the main house retains the original pasta tile floor, a motif of two exotic birds on bouquets of flowers, while the walls were stripped of between four and five layers of paint until the original surface was reached – a hand-painted fresco. “When we discovered it, we decided it had to be left as the final finish. It is part of the history. The house was full of surprises, and the idea was always to let it tell a bit of its own story,” says Rios Santos.

Rosa by name… pink paint is used in spaces ‘where water and nature are combined’.

And the house turned out to have plenty of stories to tell. The walls revealed grocery requests, hand-scrawled dates and customer telephone numbers from decades previously. All have been preserved. “The most difficult thing was to know our limits, at what point we were respecting the house and at what point we were altering it in a negative way. We wanted to help its essence stand out, and not overshadow it.”

Another big decision was not fitting doors between the living room and the terrace it opens on to. “This is a house, first of all, for nature lovers. The most beautiful things about it are the ancient trees and the walls of beautiful Yucatecan stones, and so we wanted each of the spaces to maintain contact with the garden, either directly or at least visually. So, for us to install doors here we felt we would be limiting,” says Rios Santos.

A traditional Yucatecan hand-woven hammock from a local Mexican artisan boutique Uumbah is strung across the living room with hand-embroidered linen scatter cushions by Ekimia from Matilda, a concept store in Mérida. The walls show the original layers of paint, exposed during restoration.

The carved wooden Partera chair was designed by Don Shoemaker, circa 1950, and is from Casa Mo vintage furniture gallery in Mérida; and the pair of rattan chairs in the style of designer Clara Porset are from a local furniture gallery. On the floor is a woven mat by AR Home from Matilda.

Sleep tight: a restful bedroom.

The former grocery store became the kitchen, which was built from scratch. The bar and niches are made of concrete block and white cement. The wood cabinetry is cedar and bespoke. “We wanted to use the cedar because it’s the wood from the original rescued doors,” says Rios Santos.

The guest bathroom, adjacent to the living room, was also built from scratch as it was part of the original store. New installations were carefully integrated with existing items, such as the window divider, making an effort not to affect the original floors or walls. The bathroom counters, on which the stone sinks are placed, are pieces recovered from antique warehouses, modified and restored.

“It’s very common to find wonderful things like these old windows that are often not easy to reuse, because either the material is damaged or it does not fit with the concept, but sometimes we are given the opportunity to take advantage of repurposing them for new spaces, modifying and restoring them, as we did with these divisions in the bathroom.”

Finally, in homage to the house’s name, the couple chose a chalky rose colour in the bathrooms and swimming pool. “It’s a Mexican pink, which is a strong, vibrant shade of pink,” says Rios Santos, “and we used it in all the spaces where water and nature are combined. The overarching concept for the renovation was to re-create a space where the beauty of the old stands out, but with the comfort of the modern. Despite being in the centre of Mérida you feel as if you are lost in a hacienda surrounded by ancient trees in the Mayan jungle in a moment of history you can’t identify.”