Paradise for home remodelers

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Evalynne Engle came to this large yet laid-back southern Mexican city from Nevada, not to battle her home-renovating addiction but to indulge it.

“I have a disease called remodeling-itis,” said Engle, 61, a retired interior design and painting teacher who moved full time to Merida this year.

She and her husband, Bill, 63, are rehabbing an Art Deco-period row house on a narrow street downtown. They paid $55,000 for it six years ago and are in the midst of a $75,000 update that includes a rooftop patio and a plunge pool in which to escape the tropical heat.


They aren’t the only ones jumping in.

With its seductive charm and large inventory of relatively bargain-priced architectural homes, Merida has become a magnet for Americans. They have snapped up historic places in the El Centro core, fabulous 1950s moderns on the city’s fringe and haciendas in the surrounding countryside.

A few thousand gringos, as these expatriates refer to themselves, are believed to make Merida, their home at least part of the year. Apart from English, their common language appears to be real estate.

“If you go to a gathering, half the conversations are about buying and selling,” said Joan Farrell, 70, who moved in March to a two-bedroom place in El Centro that she bought and renovated for $110,000.

Farrell is still getting accustomed to the area’s heat, dust and lack of green spaces, a major change from her old home in Asheville, N.C. But her property tax bill is pure relief: $150 a year.

The influx of American rehabbers has pushed up prices in some parts of the city. It also has some fretting that Merida is destined to become the next San Miguel de Allende, the hill town in central Mexico that has drawn so much Yankee gentrification that purists grouse that it’s losing its Mexican soul.

Veterans say those fears are overblown. Merida’s metro area boasts nearly a million people. Most newcomers are Mexicans looking for a better quality of life in Yucatan state’s capital of government, education and medical care. Foreigners won’t reach critical mass any time soon. And those who stick around are likely to be changed by the warm and gracious Yucatecans, rather than the other way around, said Paul Ziegler, who moved from Atlanta in 1998.

“There is a softness of being that just grabs people,” said Ziegler, 67. “There’s a magic to this place.”

Merida got its first makeover from Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo “The Younger,” who began dismantling the ruins of an earlier Mayan civilization in 1542 to build anew.

The city’s economy flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries thanks to henequen, a cactus whose sinewy fibers were in high demand for making rope.

Mansions sprouted along the Paseo Montejo and other fashionable streets. Trade with Europe, the Caribbean and the United States brought a melange of architectural styles. Stroll Merida’s streets and you’ll spot French and Spanish colonial, Italianate, Art Deco and Victorian structures, not to mention Federal and Moorish influences.

The wealth sparked a cultural boom. The city’s 1908 opera house, the Teatro Jose Peon Contreras, has been restored and is home to the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra plus touring theater productions, concerts and ballet. The city has several museums and art galleries.

The Merida English Library has 17,000 English-language books and holds a lecture series, garden tours and a monthly expat mixer.

The scene is attracting younger urbanites such as John and Melissa Rogers, who are coming to Merida years before they’re eligible to join AARP.

Burned out by high-pressure jobs in New York, they cashed out of their U.S. real estate five years ago and bought a house on a remote stretch of Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Sun and sand proved just the tonic for a couple of years -- until they stumbled onto Merida.

“We got the gringo-in-paradise thing out of our systems,” said John, 42, former senior vice president of post-production at Miramax Films. “We were ready for something a little more cosmopolitan.”

The Rogerses, who don’t work, are in the home stretch of a $300,000 renovation of a 3,800-square-foot, century-old home in El Centro, which they bought two years ago for $95,000. They walk to the market, restaurants and cultural events much like they did in Manhattan.

Although the historic center is the focal point for American renovators, it isn’t for everyone. Old homes need constant maintenance. Streets and sidewalks are narrow. Off-street parking is almost nonexistent. Noise, traffic and bus exhaust come with the territory.

Some find that the romance of schlepping groceries in Merida’s ferocious summer heat fades quickly.

“Everybody comes down here with one eyebrow on their head,” said Ziegler of Americans’ Frida Kahlo fantasies. “They have these dreams of wearing a huipil [an indigenous blouse] and shopping in the market. They do that for about half a week and they’re sick of it.”

Ziegler and his partner, Merida-born painter Samuel Barrera, live outside the city center in a ‘60s retro home that would fit right into swinging Silver Lake. Zeigler first visited Merida in 1986 on a vacation to view Haley’s Comet. The city still hasn’t lost its stardust for him.

Others, however, are packing it in. Oklahoma native Grant Spradling, 78, has lived almost 20 years in El Centro. Over that time, he said, he has watched Merida’s population nearly double and traffic explode. His colonial home with the secret garden is stunning but, he said, its upkeep is daunting.

Spradling and his partner, Clifford Ames, will be house-hunting soon in Amarillo, Texas. That city is quiet and affordable. The couple will be close to Ames’ family and good healthcare.

Spradling said the days when writers like him rented rooms in Merida for $30 a month were long gone, like many of his old artist friends. He said he’s taking away fond memories and leaving Merida to the new breed of fixers, speculators and “go-getters.”

“A lot of them are coming because it is good business,” he said. “Still, I wonder why they couldn’t stay up there and make money?”