Friday, April 13, 2007


Monday, March 19-

I am upset, to say the least. After nearly four months of trying to get the National Institute of Anthropology and History to address our application for our proposed changes to the house, we have had our project suspended.

About three weeks ago, our architect told us that the institute had problems with the door between the front room and the next room. They claimed we wanted to change an original doorway. However, in the process of looking beneath the plaster, we had discovered that what they thought was the original doorway was not the original doorway. And in fact, I found an earlier doorway almost exactly where we wanted to put our new door. We were, in effect, restoring the doorway to an earlier, if not the original, position.

I documented the older doorway with photos and was able to show on them where the current door was, where the earlier door was, how it was built, etc. My architect took these to the institute, and one of the institute people told him informally that the current door was obviously not the original door, so we figured it was pro forma. We have been waiting ever since for a formal acknowledgement or at least an invitation to discuss the matter.

On Friday, March 16, Christiane and I went to Mexico City to pick up her sisters from France, and we left Querétaro thinking that everything was OK. When we came back to town on Sunday, there were suspension seals all over the house and work had stopped pending a meeting with the institute on Wednesday. Today is Monday.

Everyone (i.e. gringos) that I talk to say this is not a problem and that our architect will straighten it out. That may be because none of them have gone through the proper preservation process from the beginning like we did. Since the beginning our architect has been saying that this is not a problem; but now he does not know what will happen next. We could get closed down permanently or have to redo a major portion of the work already accomplished ($$$), and/or put the “original” doorway back the way it was.

So far, I have not dealt with the institute people, and from something the architect said, it sounds like they think I am the typical American who has no understanding of Mexican history or of historic preservation and could care less about the patrimony of Mexico. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.

I was founder and executive director of a national preservation group in the US for 10 years; was on my county’s historic preservation commission for five years doing the exact same thing the institute is now doing (albeit with a little more common sense); have researched the house in the city archives and know more about it than they do; completed my MA in anthropology and archaeology in Mexico; am a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites; was active internationally on ICAHM, ICOMOS' archaeological resources committee; and have spent the last 30 years working with historic preservation professionally.

The problem is that they do not know this and could probably not care less. They also probably think that I have doctored the photographs or something, and that I am as rich as Croesus. None of which is true either, of course.

They are concentrating on a door that was probably put in when the house was last renovated in the late 1940s, but they have completely missed the frescoes in the entranceway that are truly coeval with the construction of the house, frescoes that I am trying desperately to preserve and conserve with help from the University of Querétaro.

We are making relatively minor changes to the house, and are trying to preserve its general layout while making it livable (bathrooms, running water, electricity, etc.). We have friends who have basically gutted their houses and rebuilt their entire floor plans. They had the same architect, but they never heard a peep from the institute.

There are dozens of houses that are literally collapsing or have already collapsed since no one wants to go through the hassle with the institute to fix them up. Demolition by neglect seems to be OK , but making a house livable without destroying the original fabric is not. Go figure.

I am really, really upset. Really.

Thursday, March 22-

On Wednesday, Christiane and I met with Alberto and Miguel (our architects) and with the INAH director who also invited the INAH lawyer and architect in charge of our project.

The director seemed to be the most practical and rational one of the lot. He said he wanted to see people living, not just working, in the historic district; but of course he wanted the historic nature of the district to be respected. After his introduction I introduced myself (I had spent all morning coming up with a statement in Spanish) by pointing out my background, the Dekalb Preservation Commission, my ICOMOS membership, my degree from UDLA, etc. Things went pretty smoothly with him after that. The architect was another story.

She was upset that we had desecrated an original doorway. The photo did not convince her that there had been another door there before. I had given Alberto three photos, and on the advice of another INAH member, he had only submitted one. I therefore showed them the other photos, and the director had to agree that there was indeed a door there previously, as did the architect, reluctantly. We left them the photos.

Of course, the director pointed out that our way of finding the door was a little heavy handed, and he is right. The architect then focused on the channels that were dug in the walls for electricity and plumbing, and how these destroyed the original fabric of the building. I had been a little uncomfortable with that myself, but I figured there was no way around it if you wanted to modernize the house. The director pointed out another way (baseboard channels), and of course he was right. At the end, the director wanted us to meet with the architect at the house and hammer out the details of an agreement, although he admitted that it would cause more damage to get it back the way it was than to just leave it alone. Miguel was quiet and stoic.

The architect only looked at me as she made disparaging remarks about my architects. Alberto suggested we just go directly to the house then; but the architect said she was busy. The director did not let her get away with that, so he set up a meeting the next day at noon, which she reluctantly agreed to.

The next day, Thursday, Miguel, Alberto and I waited for the architect, who showed up a little late with her boss, another architect who had visited the house once back in January. She had not been at the meeting the day before so that the first hour or so consisted of her preaching to us about preservation, and how I had been badly served by my architects, etc. etc. She also barely looked at them, but instead kept eye contact with me. It was very embarrassing for Miguel and Alberto, but to their credit they did not respond in kind. She pointed out that the picture I had taken was just a repair in the wall and not an old door. I found this hard to believe after the previous day’s discussion and asked the first architect for the photos to show where the old finished doorway and doorway arch etc. were.

It turned out the boss had never seen them! Visibly embarrassed, she eventually had to admit that there had indeed been a door there. While it ultimately helped our cause, she made us pay by how she treated Miguel and Alberto.

I stopped the conversation after she started to repeat herself, and pointed out that recriminations would not get us anywhere, and we needed to talk about where to go from here (I refuse to use the term, “the way forward”!!). Miguel then spoke up and asked them what they wanted us to do, and we would do it; but they had trouble giving a straight answer. He also pointed out that he loved the historic district and its buildings, his family had lived here for generations, and that he wanted to save it and not destroy it, as she had been implying. We finally got her off her high horse, and Miguel admitted that what they suggested would not only preserve the house but actually be cheaper for him to do. They liked hearing that.

I asked what would happen next, and the boss said that they could make us tear everything out or we could pay a fine. Just before Miguel and I were going to point out that the director had admitted the day before that redoing everything would cause even more damage, she admitted that tearing things out would be more of a problem than a solution. So I asked what the fine was. She hesitated, and then said 50 centavos (about 4 cents). So I asked, 50 centavos per square meter, and she said no, just 50 centavos, since the law was written so long ago and had not been updated. By the end we were talking on a more professional level, but relations were and are still strained, mostly because of the INAH folks' attitude.

We then went through the house, and she pointed out all the problems she saw with little digs at Miguel, who remained stoic. Finally, we agreed that Miguel would turn in a set of plans the next day, Friday, with things more spelled out (they do not have a preservation manual for the district so it is impossible for anyone to know what to submit, how to cause the least damage while renovating, etc; and they are not at all helpful in their reviews); and that he would pay a fine. I was ready to pay $500 MN right then and there, but we agreed on $50 MN.

They finally left, and Miguel, Alberto and I talked. They were very embarrassed and knew that this had not helped them in my eyes, and could hurt their reputation. I tried to assure them otherwise. This was really the first time they had followed the rules from the beginning (more or less at my behest) and the first time they had dealt with these particular architects. And we all agreed INAH needed to improve their "system". The only damage done to us is a two week delay, barring problems from the INAH lawyer, who was not at the house, naturally. We hope to get a permit next week. We shall see.

Saturday, March 24-

Given everything that has happened and the way the INAH architects acted, it is no wonder that most people ignore INAH until a neighbor calls them in and the owner gets slapped with a fine (which is not much). Why get harangued by irate INAH personnel when you can just wait and pay a small fine or perhaps get away with nothing at all, like most of the folks we know.

If they really want this system to work, they need a manual and/or a better way to get preservationist ideals across to architects and owners, perhaps a yearly class or something. I feel like volunteering to help write a manual for them.

As for our relations with our architects, I am not upset with Miguel. There are always going to be problems. It is how they are approached and/or resolved that matters. Miguel handled himself very well, held his temper in the face of provocation, and just wanted to get the process rolling in a positive direction. I think we accomplished that; and I think Miguel and Alberto learned a thing or two about preservation in the process that will help them in the future. Another architect could easily have been worse in this situation. Miguel is young but he is mature and is learning well.

I feel that I am at fault for most of this. I should have spoken up earlier and been involved with INAH earlier, but never having worked with masonry architecture or INAH in this capacity I really did not feel comfortable telling anyone what to do, and so I let Miguel take the lead. I was well aware of the basic preservationist tenet that all changes should be easily reversible back to the original conditions. But this is a private home not a public building or a major historic landmark, and I figured Mexicans would know better how things are done here and would be better at getting an agreement. Obviously, this is sometimes not the case.

Thursday, April 12-

We took our little holiday to the Sierra Gorda and got back last night. I asked our architect how we were doing, and this morning I got the answer that we have our permit and can begin working next Monday! The permit was supposed to have been signed Monday before last, but someone was on holiday. So we lost an entire month, instead of a week or two. I have now republished by old blog entries dealing with the house; and will post this one. I hope they cannot take a permit away after they have given it. I hope.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sierra Gorda

We just got back from a three day, two night vacation with our friend Grace to the Sierra Gorda. We had been planning on visiting it with the girls for nearly a year, but when the girls got here, they were too busy doing other things, and we just could not work it in.

The Sierra Gorda was better than I thought it would be. It is really a jewel and a place that all tourists to Mexico should visit if they are interested in nature and history.

The Sierra Gorda is a UNESCO recognized biosphere in the northern end of the state of Querétaro and a couple of surrounding states containing some of the last remaining pre-Columbian forests. This is due in large part to its isolation and difficulty of access. It contains tropical rain forests to deserts and most everything in between. The altitude ranges from 300m above sea level to around 4,000m resulting in a wide variety of micro-climates. It attracts people from all over the world for spelunking, bird watching, camping, hiking and adventure tourism, and for its five Franciscan missions built by Brother Junipero Serra in the 18th century. This was the the same fellow who later built all the California missions. The Sierra Gorda missions were a Franciscan experiment to develop building, missionary, and organizational techniques to spread the gospel in Mexico (which then included half the US). The missions have had their ups and downs over the centuries, but they are all now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like Querétaro, Pompeii, the Parthenon, etc.

We took our time and visited all five missions. My favorite was the one at Tilaco which is located in a valley way back off the main road (which is itself in a valley way back of the beaten track, which is over 4 hours through a curvy, two-lane, mountain road from Querétaro). The village is spotless with lots of cedar trees and bougainvillea. In 1958, the town got a priest for the first time in 28 or so years who became a real preservationist and did a great job getting the church back into something resembling its original condition. It is really a little gem.

We also visited Las Pozas de James in Xilitla at the other end of the sierra. Edward James was a rich, eccentric Brit who hung out with Dali and Picasso. Dali thought he was really crazy, which is saying something coming from Dali. James bought a large mountainside tract of tropical jungle and mountain streams, and "enhanced" it with surreal sculptures and buildings. He started it in 1949 and died in the 1980s. Over those nearly 40 years he brought in workers (as many as 150 at a time) and building materials to produce his idea of some kind of surrealistic, futuristic landscape. The place is mostly in ruins now, and it is dangerous as there are stairs leading up to towers with no hand rails, balconies and terraces jutting out over the jungle that have big round holes in them for stairs that no longer exist, waterfalls that have been subtly changed with slippery concrete that looks like stone, and with flowers and exotic plants running wild. It was literally a delight to behold. We laughed constantly, as we turned corners to view something totally unexpected.

Here are some pix of the Sierra Gorda and the missions of the Sierra Gorda

If you ever get a chance to come to Mexico, this is a must do.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Les Cing Filles, Tepexpan and Easter

(You may have noticed that I have removed the more recent posts about the house. We are in the middle of negotiations about the changes to our house, and I don't want to mess things up with any off-the-cuff statements on the blog. I will have a complete recap when things are settled.)

The week before last Christiane's sisters spent 10 days with us, two in Mexico City and the rest in Querétaro. We managed to get a sunburn in Mexico City with the double decker tour buses, visited the Templo Major, Alameda, and the historic district. They were pretty tired out so we did not see Chapultepec, Coyoacan, San Angel, etc. Maybe next time. However we were serenaded in our hotel restaurant by a Swiss men's yoddling choir in town for a music festival, a rare and unusual experience.

We also managed to visit la peña de Bernal, the cactus nursery at Cadereyta (one of our most interesting and appreciated spots to bring tourists, believe it or not), San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato. We also had a going away party in our apartment before they left.

I have posted a few pictures on Flicker. (Please excuse the lack of accents and any sense of French spelling on my part.)

Last week, Niels invited me to accompany him to Tepexpan where there is a museum on Tepexpan Man (the first speciman of early man found in Mexico in 1917). He had been invited to the reopening of the museum after its renovation for the 50th anniversary of the discovery. Why was he invited? Two reasons: one is that his father was the archaeologist who found it; and the second is that he was there the day it was found. His father died in the 1960s, and Niels has all his papers. It appears that the museum does not even have the original final report from 1949. So Niels is loaning them a bunch of stuff for the museum and to make copies of, including a picture of his father and of the site at the time of the excavation (flat, no trees, no town, nothing). We had a great time. Niels was treated like a rock star (everyone wanted a picture with him and to get his autograph) and I was treated as his main groupie. Pretty cool. Here are some pix. No pix on the party afterwards, sorry.

This weekend is Easter, and I have included some photos of this year's doings, or at least some of them, in Queretaro. Check here for the photos. Tonight we will be burning and exploding judas figures in the streets. I will try to remember to bring my camera.