Guru Featured Property
Cuernavaca, Morelos

Built in the Land of Hernán Cortés

The early influence of parents and grandparents interested in Mexican culture led Roberto and Cristina Chapman to establish their home in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City. Both were born in Mexico, each with at least one American parent. They both enjoy dual citizenship.

The Chapman's house was built by Roberto's father, in 1945, on a large plot of meadowland. The American retiree later built bungalows for friends from New York who often came on extended visits. At that time the property was nearly self-sustaining, with mango, tangerine, lime, loquat, and other fruits trees as well as a kitchen garden, chickens, and horses.

But trouble has a tendency to invade paradise. In 1988, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari expropriated the property, which now belonged to Roberto and Cristina. The purported reason was that this land belonged to an old ejido. (Ejidos are collective farms or fishing communities established during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas to help support Mexico's poor, lower-class majority.) Included in the expropriation were all residential properties in Colonia Tlatenango as well as restaurants, banks, churches, schools, and two car dealerships.

According to Cristina Chapman, this was a historically unprecedented expropriation by the Mexican government since it was the first time houses and businesses were expropriated instead of agricultural areas. The land in question had never belonged to an ejido, nor had it ever been farmed in recent memory, lying as it did on a bed of hardpan that made it unsuitable for crops.

Those unfortunates who did not have an escritura (title deed) from the year 1972 or earlier were forced to buy back their own properties. Luckily the Chapmans had their pre-1972 deed and all paperwork in order; however they did have to endure a five-year legal battle and subsequent attorney's fees.

Old photos and home movies made by Chapman's father show the lay of the land at the time it was purchased in the 1940s. Other physical and written records date the Tlatenango neighborhood to before the Spanish conquest. In the early 1500s, conquistador Hernán Cortes installed one of the region's first sugar processing plants in this neighborhood; remnants of an original smokestack can still be found in an expensive new condo development called El Trapiche. Also in Tlatenango are one of the New World's first Christian churches and a historically important bridge, over Amanalco Gorge, which proved instrumental in the Spanish Conquest.

On the Property

The Chapman's house is typical of Puebla-style homes from the 1940s. The three-brick-thick walls are covered in painted cement. Niches were made by subtracting bricks from interior walls. Windows, doors, and fixtures were all custom made.

Interior as well as exterior doors were made of thick red cedar. In the open, Puebla-style kitchen, the kitchen table and spice cabinet---vintage 1850s---were purchased at shops in Puebla's Bazaar de los Sapos, known for its antiques. Other antiques in the home include a chair purportedly from Maximilian von Habsburg's castle, colonial era chests, and a 1860s train station bench in the living room.

Not so desirable was the antique plumbing. The main house was built on a cement slab with clay pipes underneath it. As a result the slab (and floor tiles) had to be broken into whenever the plumbing needed fixing. Obviously this is a less than optimum scenario, and the Chapmans have retrofitted the house so that incoming water is now routed through copper and PVC piping installed along exterior walls.

The bungalows originally built for friends from New York now house paying guests. Each has a spacious kitchen as well as living and dining areas and one or more bedrooms. Walls are painted white; some are lined in rock. Floors are highly polished cement tiles. Light fixtures and curtain rods are of wrought iron. Beige or white bed covers and curtains maintain the rustic Mexican feel.

The bathrooms are decorated in original Talavera tiles from Puebla. Hand-painted, Talavera tile murals from the 1940s are found on both inside and outside walls throughout the property. In one bathroom of the main house, tiny floor tiles were individually installed in a basket weave.

A Place in Nature

Ahead of his time, the 1940s-era architect designed the home for passive solar heating. The winter sun shines through bedroom windows to warm these spaces, while during the hottest months the strong midday sun hits the rooftops. Today the owners trim the established trees to use as best as possible this natural source of heating and cooling.

Both bungalows and the main house seem to disappear in the forest of plants that dominate the large property. There are lacy palm trees, evergreens, lilies, giant chiflera, and stands of bamboo. Bright bougainvilleas, ginger plants, and hibiscus add splashes of color. Surrounded by a lawn of green grass is a large swimming pool and a covered patio with a 1950s Frigidaire, bar, cast-iron smoker, and tables and chairs.

Located in a quiet residential neighborhood, the property is about a 10- to 15-minute drive from Cuernavaca's historical center.

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