An Eccentric's Secret Garden : An Englishman's Xanadu mirrors a fantasy world created by Poe

Jonas, a staff writer for the New Yorker for 30 years, is also the author of six books

From the moment I heard about it, I wondered how the reality of Las Pozas, an elaborate sculpture garden in northeastern Mexico, measured up to Edgar Allan Poe's fictional Arnheim, a fantasy landscape so perfect that Poe protested that it could not be captured in mere words.

But Poe's supremely beautiful estate, created in his short story "The Domain of Arnheim," never existed outside his imagination. Like Xanadu, Shangri-La and the Emerald City of Oz, it is a literary mirage, a lucid dream of worldly perfection. But Las Pozas owes its existence to a strikingly similar act of imagination. The man behind Las Pozas, an eccentric English millionaire named Edward James, is probably the nearest thing the world will ever see to Arnheim's Ellison, a landscape artist of prodigious wealth who transformed an entire countryside into a secret garden of his own design.

According to Poe, the creator of Arnheim worked in secrecy because he had a great "contempt of ambition." Edward James' reasons for keeping quiet about Las Pozas were more complex. Having failed to win the recognition he craved as a poet, James started building Las Pozas in the early 1960s to please himself. He envisioned a labyrinthine complex of concrete towers and whimsical sculptures set in a steamy rain forest far from the usual tourist playgrounds.

During his lifetime James shared his vision with only a few of his closest friends. After his death in 1984, the structures at Las Pozas would have been quickly buried beneath the rampant tropical vegetation if not for a small band of enthusiasts who, having discovered James' unique creation, began working to preserve it. Only recently have they begun to dismantle the wall of secrecy that has hidden Las Pozas from the rest of the world.

Spanish for "the pools," Las Pozas sprawls across a jungle-covered hillside outside the town of Xilitla (she LEET lah) in the mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental. Xilitla is a 240-mile drive north of Mexico City and 80 miles southwest of the Gulf port of Tampico.

The region is known as Huasteca, after the Indians (distant relatives of the Mayans) who have made their homes here for more than 2,500 years. As a commercial center for the surrounding country, Xilitla offers several streets of shops, a bank, a branch of Alcoholics Anonymous and a Sunday market that is long on fresh produce, such as chiles and bananas, and short on handicrafts.

Despite the satellite dishes sprouting from the roofs of the fancier houses in town, Xilitla cannot have changed much since the late 1940s when Edward James first saw it. He was living at the time in Los Angeles, a member of a well-established English expatriate community that included Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley. He had come south with a Mexican friend named Plutarco Gastelum to search for a hidden valley where, he had been told, orchids bloomed year-round.

James had exiled himself from England a few years earlier for reasons having to do with hurt pride (his first serious book of poems had been mercilessly panned by reviewers), high taxes and a restlessness that no amount of traveling seemed to assuage. Born in 1907 to a family whose wealth derived from American lumber and mining interests, he was raised in a 300-room mansion in Sussex.

Like Poe's imaginary Ellison, Edward James inherited a vast fortune at the age of 21. As an undergraduate at Oxford he had already displayed a taste for the flamboyant, converting his college rooms into a salon for a circle of self-conscious aesthetes that included John Betjeman, future poet-laureate of England.

After he came into his inheritance, James began acquiring a reputation as a world-class eccentric. Forsaking Oxford for the Continent, he collected cars, villas and surrealist paintings with equal zest. With the help of artists he befriended, such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, he converted a hunting lodge on his Sussex estate into a surrealistic showplace that shocked his fox-hunting neighbors with its lavender exterior walls. and plaster sheets draped over the windowsills, as if drying in the sun.

He was wed, in 1931, to the beautiful dancer Tilly Losch. When the marriage faltered, James tried to win her back by hiring an unemployed choreographer named George Balanchine to create a season of ballet for her. When the 1933 season was over, Balanchine sailed for New York, and James and his wife ended their liaison in a juicy divorce trial that made headlines in all the London newspapers.

By the time James discovered Xilitla, he had been living in the United States for nearly a decade. He was a familiar figure at Hollywood parties, a man more famous for his wealth and personal idiosyncrasies (he washed his hands incessantly and traveled with suitcases filled with tissue paper, which he used to protect himself from dirt) than for the incomparable collection of surrealist art he had accumulated or the richly symbolic poetry he had been writing since his youth but no longer tried to publish.

In collaboration with Plutarco Gastelum, who had married a woman from Xilitla, James starting building an elaborate house in the early 1950s on a Xilitla street too steep for vehicular traffic. (It's now a surreal but charming six-rrom inn called El Castillo.)

Outside town, on a thickly wooded hillside alive with orchids and the white rush of waterfalls that fed a succession of crystalline pools, he got the inspiration for Las Pozas. His first idea was to create a new Garden of Eden, a nature preserve for tropical plants and animals from all over the world. But after a freak frost killed all his orchids in 1962, he began planning a different kind of garden, one in which nature and art would live together in mutually reinforcing harmony.

There is no evidence that Edward James ever read the fantasy "Arnheim," in which Poe identified landscape design as the highest of the arts. But like Poe's paragon, James commanded resources far beyond those available to the most ambitious environmental artist today. Indeed, the words used by Poe to describe the domain of Arnheim neatly foreshadow James' plans for Las Pozas: "A landscape whose combined vastness and definiteness--whose united beauty, magnificence, and strangeness--shall convey the idea of care, or culture, or superintendence of beings superior, yet akin to humanity."

Over the next quarter century James lived the life that Poe imagined for Ellison: "devoting his enormous wealth to the embodiment of a vision." Although James continued to travel abroad, he solicited no help from architects or engineers for his Xilitla projects. Far from the centers of international culture where critical acclaim had eluded him, James spent an estimated $5 million, from the early 1960s to the early '80s, creating a work of art whose only function was to satisfy the "master passion" of the soul that Poe called "the thirst for beauty."

James' medium of choice was reinforced concrete, often mixed with colored dyes before pouring. Inspired by the vivid colors of tropical sunsets, the natural shapes of jungle vegetation and his own highly eclectic taste in architecture, he drew rough sketches in pencil, and his Mexican foremen and workers turned them into reality, often adding fantastic touches of their own. When James was away, his friend Gastelum oversaw the work. To mold wet concrete into the irregular contours that James favored, local carpenters pieced together, out of tiny scraps of wood , hundreds of one-of-a-kind forms that are works of art in themselves.

Since James never finished anything and the ever-present humidity of the rain forest has taken its toll, I was confronted last winter by a landscape strewn with what seemed at first glance to be ancient ruins. The scale is so vast--36 structures extending over 80 acres of jungle--that no single view can encompass it all. Aerial photographs show mostly the tops of trees. There are no maps to guide explorations; no right or wrong way to follow the moss-covered maze of stone walkways, stairs and bridges that link the fanciful structures.

Even up close his creations resist conventional labels. Is that open-sided turret the skeleton of a giant bird cage or the stub of a topless bell tower? To what unseen landing was that free-standing spiral staircase meant to lead? What nonexistent wall are those broken-off buttresses straining to support? Based on the recollections of James' friends and passages from his letters, some of these structures have been given names that do little to clear up the confusion: the House of Glass, the House Destined to Be a Cinema, the House With Three Stories That Might Be Five, the House With a Roof Curved Like a Whale.

Wherever I walked, I was accompanied by the sound of water, either the rush of nearby falls or the dripping of recent rain from the forest canopy onto the concrete follies that James scattered throughout his domain. A ripe smell of mold permeates the air. With few exceptions, the buildings have no walls, so that after climbing a dizzying flight of stone steps to a mildewed concrete platform, I found myself staring out across a shadowy tangle of trees, ferns, vines and flowering shrubs (some native, some planted by James) together with their concrete facsimiles: the thick-leaved stalk of a giant lotus, each petal the size of a person's head; a row of fat little columns that belly out near the base like the trunks of banyan trees; a screen of 30-foot-high columns that resemble bamboo shoots, so thin they tremble when touched.

Other columns with floral or mushroom shaped capitals proliferate even where they have nothing to hold up. The tops of most columns are stained with tears of rust that run down from the exposed ends of iron reinforcing bars; the bars left protruding from the concrete so that James could keep adding new structural elements as his vision exfoliated.

Everywhere I turned in the green glades of Las Pozas I had the impression of being, as Poe said, "enwrapped in an exquisite sense of the strange." Some find the spectacle disturbing, some find it exalting. Is this art collaborating with nature or competing with it? My guess is that Poe, despite his unrequited lust for order, would have been enthralled.

*

At his death, Edward James left a portion of Las Pozas to the town of Xilitla as a public park; the rest is in private hands and there is a small admission charge for entry to that segment. Both sections should be visited. Fifteen of the most impressive structures are near enough to the entrance of the private park to be seen in a single day.

At present, the survival of what James created is by no means certain; unless more strenuous efforts are made to keep back the jungle, shrouds of vegetation will eventually cover even the largest structures. Most of Las Pozas is still in private hands; the bulk of the estate was left to Plutarco Gastelum's oldest son, also named Plutarco, who has tried to safeguard some of the more endangered structures with the help of funds from a foundation that Edward James set up in England.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK: Mexico's Xanadu

Getting there: Mexicana Airlines is the only airline that flies to Tampico, with one change of planes in Mexico City. Lowest advance-purchase round-trip fares start at $575. Or fly nonstop into Mexico City on United, Delta and Aeromexico and transfer to Mexicana. Lowest round-trip fares to Mexico City start at about $325.

Rent a car in Tampico and drive, preferably during daylight hours since the roads are narrow and winding. From Tampico it's about a 3 1/2-hour drive.

Where to stay: El Castillo, O'Campo 105, Xilitla, S.L.P., CP 79900, Mexico; tel. 011-52-136-50038; fax 011-52-136-50055; six rooms $40-$72, including breakfast.

For more information: Mexican Government Tourism Office, 1801 Century Park East, Suite 1080, Century City, 90067, (310) 203-8191; fax (310) 203-8316.

--G.J.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
75°