Deborah LaChapelle is as intense as the Yucatan sun, at least when it comes to her passion: home restoration and interior design. A native Californian who has traveled in Mexico since the age of 8, the red-haired dynamo now lives in Mérida, where good connections and an eye for beauty help her locate old houses with potential to be reborn. Most of the houses she buys are in a state of dismal disrepair, which makes them accessibly priced. With Deborah I recently visited two of her current projects as well as Casa Flor de Mayo, a lovely house that she renovated with her crew of seven talented maestros and helpers.
Casa Flor de Mayo is a mid-19th-century home in Mérida's San Sebastián neighborhood. The soup-to-nuts renovation started with a couple weeks cleaning bat pooh off the walls and floors and hauling off mountains of trash and escombro, or rubble. House builders today use rubble to fill the 50-centimeter (20-inch) walls---the same as builders did when the Spanish first conquered the region. Besides funky record-keeping, one of the reasons it's so hard to date houses currently on the market in Mérida is that building styles and techniques are much the same as they were hundreds of years ago.
Flor de Mayo's exposed-beam ceilings are about 5.5 meters (18 feet) high. The rubble-filled walls are finished with a thin veneer of cement that resembles stucco. Because she loves old and original design elements, Deborah managed to reclaim the wall stencils in several rooms, retouching the paint when necessary but not going for a look that is 100 percent new. She loves the look of distressed metal and wood, and the pieces she obtains are often just cleaned and varnished, leaving the aged patina that goes so well with this old home.
One of the most beautiful elements of this traditional Yucatan home are its tile, or in Spanish, pasta, floors. Found in the grand old houses of Mérida (and many humble ones as well), these cement tile floors are also called tapete style, since many have a central, rectangular design that resembles a large area rug, enclosed by a border and then finished with plain tiles at the edges in a complimentary color.
Deborah restored the house's original floors whenever possible. Because she didn't care for the color scheme or design of those in several rooms, she left the border but replaced the central tiles. She buys (or custom orders) these tiles in the town of Ucu, or buys from antique shops. At her friend Julian Alfaro's wonderful shop on Calles 72 and 75, Deb also find old-fashioned, wrought iron security windows (protectores), antique wooden tables (or old pieces of equipment that can be made into tables), lighting fixtures, and much more.
Although local antique or electrical shops may retrofit pieces for the home remodels, almost all of the work is done by Deborah's talented crew of five maestros and their two helpers. She and her team have evolved a relationship of trust and mutual respect. "If I didn't have them, I wouldn't do this," she told me as we sat on her courtyard patio overlooking the fountain-fed swimming pool under towering tamarind and poplar trees. "I've found a great formula with respectful artisans who are honest, artistic, and who respond to my ideas. It's really been a pleasure to work with them."
While they are masters at restoration, the crew sometimes starts from scratch. In the second bathroom, they hand-poured a cement bathtub and created a fountain where water trickles down a bed of round rocks imbedded in the wall. Pasta floor tiles create a central design in a polished cement floor; overhead, thick glass skylights let in the natural light.
Keeping the skylights close to the sides of the roof rather than right in the middle helps keep the house cool. Additionally, each bedroom has an a/c unit, and each room in the house has at least one simple but efficient, three-blade ceiling fan. Old-fashioned, thick wooden shutters may be kept partially open to keep the house ventilated as well.
Like most Mexican building crews, the men work 5.5 days a week. This complicated renovation with lots of handmade features took just four months. Describing the process, Deborah told me, "I love watching these guys do manual labor, an art lost in the U.S. It's like watching tai chi. The men have certain movements that they always do the same way and with the same result. They are very, very, very hard workers."
And it certainly shows.
Although she currently lives in the house, Deborah plans to rent it by the month or week. The two-bedroom, two-bath home in a quiet residential neighborhood not far from the city center will have a maid and gardener and house manager to help visitors make necessary arrangements.