A LABOR OF LUCK

Special to The Times

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

MICHELE CONNOR calls her ranch "a hunting lodge where there's no hunting," 20 acres greened by fields of alfalfa and shared with six dogs, 10 horses, a dozen sheep and a couple of burros, not to mention the chickens, geese and peacocks. It's a scene that reminds Connor of childhood, when she would play with dolls and imagine an escape far from the city.

"I would make little corrals and play with little animals," Connor says. "That was my fantasy. And it has come true."

For anyone who has experienced Connor's Rancho Las Palmas, the place does play out like some sort of daydream. From a quarter-mile away, the hand-built retreat rises as a long, two-story arc of exposed adobe brick topped with a palapa roof, the hundreds of woven palm fronds hauled in from the faraway jungles of the Huastecan tribe.

This is a land of visionary builders, after all. Here, about 20 minutes outside the resort town of San Miguel de Allende, legend has it that the architect behind the landmark 1880s pseudo-Gothic church relied upon postcards of European cathedrals to design the facade and spires. Successive generations of builders, Mexican and foreign, have embarked on their projects with few permits and fewer inspections. Plans, if they exist at all, are just a jumping-off point.

It helps that the local albaniles (masons) are legendary for their ability to create just about anything: the Gaudi-esque, the neo-Colonial, even riffs of Mexican master Luis Barragan.

For former Angelenos such as Connor who have fallen in love with the land -- an estimated 11,000 Americans have relocated here -- it also helps to have a creative vision and a sense for adventure.

"We didn't have an architect," says Connor, an artist who with then-husband Joseph Smith set out to build Rancho Las Palmas in the mid-'90s. "Joseph drew a line in the sand and said, 'This is where the main house will be.' "

The house, called the "main salon," turned out to be the biggest of seven buildings the couple eventually constructed -- and probably the only palapa building of its size for hundreds of miles. Smith, a rare-plant collector and exporter, had seen the Huastecan-style palapas on his trips into the jungles of neighboring San Luis Potosi state.

"We had this group of five men come with palms cut right after the full moon," Connor says. "They had all the transportation permisos lined up weeks in advance so they could rush here and put them on when they were still green, so they would dry on the roof. Joseph loved palapas. To Mexicans it evokes the good life."

That's one of the idiosyncrasies of building in Mexico. The cutting of trees for lumber is tightly controlled by the federal government, so Guanajuato, the state Connor calls home, is a place of adobe and stone, of tile and wrought iron. It has been poor in wood ever since the Spanish deforested the area 300 years ago to provide timber for their silver mines and fuel for their smelters.

Most of the wood that's available is slow-growing mesquite, thorny and dense. Though nearly termite-proof, mesquite is hard to work with, so it's relegated to plows and tool handles, doors and frames, and only the heaviest, most cumbersome furniture.

But enter Rancho Las Palmas -- named for the trees that line the driveway and dot the grounds -- and wood appears everywhere: ceiling beams, columns, banisters, stairways. It's laid in parquet on the floor and is bent and twisted around windows. Some of it comes from Connor's mesquite trees, but the majority is the result of being in the right place at the right time.

IN Mexico you plan for what you can and take advantage of everything else: a devaluation of the peso, a hurricane, a man in a truck selling 100-year-old doors from an abandoned rancho. Connor can thank migrating birds -- herons and egrets mainly -- that came to San Miguel's Juarez Park looking for tall trees in which to nest.

The egrets were the logo of the local Audubon Society but a nuisance to others, sonically as well as hygienically. In an effort to drive them away, the city government topped or felled many of the mature cedars, producing a sudden supply of legal timber.

"This beam is one big reason why we designed the house as we did," Connor says, pointing to a central support in the main salon made from one of those cedars. "Getting these huge beams is impossible in Mexico, and it determined the size of this room. Otherwise it probably would have all been cement and stone and brick."

The salon is scaled like a resort lobby, an echo of the retreats along Mexico's tropical coasts.

"We made this very much like a hotel, where you do your entertaining and eating," Connor says of the main building. "There's even an office in the back, and all the bedrooms are private."

When Connor first started riding horses in the countryside here, she noticed that the adobe-walled horse stalls were toasty on the coldest mornings. As much as Joseph wanted palapa, she wanted adobe. Now, even in winter and despite the high ceiling, the salon remains warm inside.

The building, which sleeps 10, shows signs of Connor's peripatetic past: A massive white fan hanging over the main room is copied from the exclusive Jonathan Club in downtown Los Angeles. ("Doesn't work well at all," says Connor dryly.) The candelabrum next to it is copied from Vermont's Twin Farms resort. On the wall hangs one of Connor's controversial "Cristo" pieces, a series of painted balsa Crucifixion statues that started with "Dalmatian Cristo," splotched with the fur pattern of a beloved dog, followed by "Absolut Cristo," "Marlboro Cristo" and "Oil Cristo."

The biggest design influences, however, are the most subtle. They hark back to her youth in Tokyo.

The child of an expat businessman, Connor lived in Japan until she came to study at USC at the age of 18. She earned a bachelor of fine arts degree but couldn't make a living as an artist, so for the next 15 years she worked in Japanese TV and radio in Los Angeles as a production assistant, photographer and interviewer. It was a time of endaka, "strong yen," and she gradually moved west, from downtown L.A. to Fairfax to Topanga Canyon.

In 1989, burned out and needing a rest, Connor spent a week location-scouting for a new home in Mexico, visiting Taxco, Cuernavaca, Acapulco, Mexico City.

She settled on San Miguel because, she says, it was woman-friendly and had art supply stores. She came back to California briefly to pack up and rent out the Topanga house, then took early retirement to ride horses, raise dogs and explore what she calls the "serial Catholic" themes in her art.

It was a decision that her family still doesn't understand.

"Mexico was a wild card for them, like it is for many Japanese," she says. "They think it's just a lawless country where things are out of control. Some of my family still have never come."

WHAT those family members are missing. The master suite where Connor spends most of her time feels very inaka, Japanese country-fied. The bedroom, perched halfway down the bluff from the main salon, is ribboned with sculpted cedar trunks and mesquite and framed in rock. The ceiling is low, and there's an o-genkan (entrance hall) where you take off your shoes. Beyond the noren, a traditional Japanese cloth room divider, there's a rock-sided soaking tub copied from a traditional inn in Miyakami.

Tibetan prayer bowls sit on slabs of slate protruding from the rock.

"The house doesn't feel overwhelming or overdone," says Nadine Goodman, a San Miguel resident for more than 25 years and head of a women's health organization that Connor has supported. "Maybe it's the Japanese influence. Everything is built with and into the environment, so it feels rustic and peaceful, minimalist but also luxurious.

"There's this wonderful flow between buildings. Michele loves the outdoors, and it shows."

Connor points to rough stone walls covered in deep lichen patterns.

"Most Mexican builders wouldn't use it because it looks 'dirty,' but we liked it because it looks old."

Connor and Smith, whose divorce became final last year, lived with a crew of 30 during the five years of construction, adding stables, guest rooms, an art studio, a lap pool and pool house, outbuildings. They did make some mistakes -- the water from their well, which is about 90 degrees, wasn't hot enough for a radiant-heat floor, and the slate used on the custom-built stove top kept exploding. A passive solar heating system for the pool was installed but, typical of building projects here, it's missing some pieces, and the guy who built it vanished.

"It could work," she says, sardonically, and most of the time she doesn't need it. Hot water from the well heats the lap pool and then gets cycled down to gardens and alfalfa fields down by the river.

Back in the pre-NAFTA days, when Rancho Las Palmas was being built, if one wanted a comfortable bed or Viking stove, it was generally easier to load a trailer and drive everything down from Texas.

Nowadays, shoppers can get just about anything within a short drive of San Miguel: 500-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, memory foam mattresses, plasma screens, convection ovens. (Please see accompanying box.)

But that's not why Connor has chosen to stay.

On a typical day, she gets up before dawn, swims a mile and a half in her pool, bikes to her trainer's stables for show-jumping lessons, then spends the afternoon in her art studio, the Laja River landscape just outside her door.

"I've had my eye on living by the river somewhere ever since I came to San Miguel," she says.

"It was this obsession that wouldn't let go of me. The Rio Laja had this incredible pull."

home@latimes.com

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Where to shop for furnishings

FOR the many Southern Californians who relocated or built second homes in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, finding building materials such as timber wasn't the only challenge. Quality furnishings were often scarce too.

But in the last few years, the hunt has gotten considerably easier, thanks to the Fabrica La Aurora art and design center. The former textile factory is San Miguel's open-to-the-public version of the Pacific Design Center.

On Calzada de la Aurora, at the edge of town via the road to Dolores Hidalgo, the 4-year-old facility has become a major resource for builders, architects, interior designers and homeowners.

In the Aurora's 30-plus stores and galleries, shoppers will find the work of internationally known artists, as well as the offerings of furniture makers, antique dealers and one of the best architectural bookstores this side of Hennessey & Ingalls. Browse through fine linens, church pews, massive stone columns, even architectural plans.

All this plus hand-dipped chocolates and a wine bar.

For a directory of merchants, directions and other information: www.fabricalaaurora.com.

-- Jeff Spurrier

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