“By looking at its narrow entrance, it’s hard to imagine the beautiful house that awaits—with its thick walls, high ceilings, beams and surrounding gardens,” says Elia Stavenhagen of her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Located less than ninety kilometres south of Mexico City, Cuernavaca has long been an escape for city dwellers, known by locals as ‘the city of eternal spring’. The year-round sunlight means the lush cityscape is in endless bloom.
In 1992, Elia and her husband Rodolfo Stavenhagen bought this house from an Italian family who, for more than thirty years, used it for weekend getaways. Named after an Italian saint of the Catholic church Quint San Gaudencio, the Acapantzingo home still shows remnants of its Italian history. When Elia and Rodolfo moved in, they renovated the space and made it their full-time home.
The house is believed to have been built at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Supposedly, the land was previously a tree orchard belonging to the church. The oldest part of the original house was an oratory with sixty-centimetre-thick adobe walls from the seventeenth century. During the renovation, Elia and Rodolfo removed the doors and preserved the acoustic arches. This ambient space—with its near six-metre-high ceilings—became the living, dining and breakfast rooms for their family.
The home is a celebration of Mexico: the kitchen’s Talavera tiles were sourced from Puebla, a local historic town famous for its pottery; and the outdoor patio was inspired by the home of Frida Kahlo, a close friend of Rodolfo’s mother. The garden, another canvas for the family’s long-standing appreciation for art, features Mesoamerican pre-Hispanic sculptures. The home is also a celebration of the people who have lived there. Married for thirty-four years, Elia and Rodolfo met in Paris in 1982 with a shared a love and respect for Mexico’s Indigenous cultures and history. As a museum curator, Elia has spent her life preserving and promoting the handicrafts produced by various ethnic groups in Mexico. Rodolfo was a sociologist and anthropologist who worked in social sciences for UNESCO, as a research professor at El Colegio de México and for the United Nations on the human rights and freedoms of Indigenous people. While the library speaks of Rodolfo’s unrelenting interest in and commitment to his work, the art collection tells a story of Elia, who has preserved the pieces that fill the home: everything from European paintings to Mexican folk art. Both are a tribute to their life in Mexico and travels abroad.
It’s a home where the door is always open, so to speak. When their children were young, Gabriel and Yara’s friends would come over and paint, make jewellery or perform plays. Sometimes they would learn Italian and French; other times they’d play soccer in a part of the garden which was once a field. Over the years, Elia and Rodolfo would invite friends over and cook up a feast, where maíz (Mexican corn), tequila and mezcal were almost always on the menu.
The garden is a feature of the property: laurels, ash trees, palm trees, betel nut trees, rafi trees and others—some over 150 years old—surround the home. There are heliconias, anthuriums and namias. It’s a garden made up of slow-growing palm trees—for low maintenance—and flowers that can grow beneath the shadows. It’s their outdoor home which they share with hummingbirds and parrots; butterflies and bees.
While it’s just Elia who lives here now—Rodolfo sadly passed away in 2016, and the kids have grown up and moved to the city—it will always be a family home. Their story will forever be written into the walls: imbued in every room and every object.
Lindsay’s ongoing photo series ‘At Home’ documents local living spaces of all shapes and sizes from around the world. Behind these closed doors, we discover more intimate and subtle versions of the place itself: spaces where culture is mirrored in daily life, history exists in the walls and stories are made by those who live there.
This article was originally published in Lindsay Issue No. 1.