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House Talk

No. 26 - January, 2008

Casa Catarina: A Bay Area Couple Prepare for Retirement in Style
A talk with Kathrin and Dennis Parsons

During their years in the practice of real estate, Judith Glass and Sheila Sabine often meet people who are preparing to retire but just don't know what the next step might be. One adventuresome couple, Kathrin and Dennis Parsons of Sonoma County, decided to establish a secondary residence in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. This charming colonial town is located at an elevation of 6,100 feet in the mountainous central region of Mexico. San Miguel was founded in 1542 and has a rich history blended with influence from both the ancient Chichimeca Indians and the Spanish. It has an historical center which was declared a national monument in 1926 and the city discourages any neon signs or present-day architecture. Most of the churches, official buildings and private dwellings date from the 17th and 18th centuries. In her college days, Kathrin had studied art at the well-known Instituto Allende. She had always dreamed of owning a home here.

Kathrin and Dennis spent a month in San Miguel combing through every corner of town, searching for the right abode. One day they decided to explore a very tiny one-block street called Calle de Suspiros. The street sign says it was so named in the 17th century because it was the private lane for lovers. They happened to notice a “for sale” sign in the window of one of the dwellings. They knocked on the door and met a lovely older couple in their eighties who could no longer manage the stairs in their residence and wanted to build a single story home on the outskirts of town. The current owners wanted to build their home before moving, so the Parsons came up with a clever financing plan. Since almost all of the homes in Mexico are purchased for all cash, they decided to make four payments spread over a period of time. This solution was agreed upon by everyone. The Parsons waited another year before they could actually take possession of their new home.

The house had four bedrooms, three and one half baths and almost three thousand square feet of living space. The interior was very plain with all white walls and white tile floors. The lighting was very poor and the roof top garden was adorned with a plain cement floor, a propane tank and a TV dish. However, it had astounding panoramic views of the entire village. Kathrin and Dennis began making plans and they decided that Kathrin would stay in Mexico for four months to supervise the remodeling project while Dennis would go back and forth to the States at regular intervals to complete his work projects. Kathrin, having been born into a family of talented artists, was excited about the creative challenges she faced. She rolled up her sleeves and began organizing her crew. The existing garage was impractical so it was transformed into a charming front room/office. Instead of discarding the hand made garage door, it was hung on the interior wall of the front hallway as an art piece.

The house was crying for color at every turn. Kathrin had fond memories of her mother mixing cans of paint in her family garage to adorn the walls of the homes her architect father was designing. She felt very comfortable following the one-hundred-year-old tradition using water based non-acrylic paint. The colors were much softer and the color results much more exciting. After all, people had been painting the walls of San Miguel in this manner for several centuries. She chose colors from the hand-made tiles in the bathrooms and kitchen. So for example, the master bedroom is boldly painted a vibrant mint green and orange to match the existing bathroom tile. The second bedroom, as well as the kitchen, have many shades of cobalt blue walls, and the third bedroom is painted a sunny yellow. One of the living room walls is a warm red and the side wall has a mural of red, yellow and gold. Each bedroom is a masterpiece of design and color with accent trims of painted scrolls and cords which look like stencils but have been carefully done by hand. These details have been carried out in the living room, dining room and kitchen as well.

Kathrin made additional structural adjustments by knocking out walls and replacing the empty spaces with glass doors to reflect more light. She designed a fireplace on a paper napkin and that design later became a reality in her master bedroom. She added two more fireplaces in other areas of the house. According to Kathrin, she kept what was good and just made more of it. To the existing arches and grill work, she added beautiful grill work to the front windows and more grill work on some of the patio walls. She also created a magical setting on the top floor patio garden. Her workers, some being twelve-year-old boys, carried heavy materials up to the top floor to create a lovely brick floor, walls and tile roof. They mixed all the concrete on the spot and did all the work by hand. She then added tile fountains, comfortable outdoor furniture and an abundance of green plants and blooming flowers.

Another part of the magic of the house is the lighting. Kathrin added recessed lighting and dimmer switches to every room. At night, the five fireplaces (gas-operated) combine with the excellent lighting and soft candles to create a truly romantic setting. One of her biggest challenges was the inexpensive existing doors on all the closets. New doors were very expensive. Her clever solution was to install mirrors on all the doors and add colorful wood trim to match the decor of each room.

Finally, on to the furnishings. The previous owners left a dining table set, a white leather couch and chair. Kathrin's challenge was to furnish the entire house with taste and still remain on a budget. She had much of the furniture made by the local crafts people who have always produced some of the finest colonial pieces in all of Mexico. Because San Miguel is also famous for its metal work, which has been greatly influenced by both the Spanish and the Morocco, she had chandeliers and lights made to order as well as carpets to match the color scheme of each room. She found used furniture as well as unpainted furniture which she later painted to match her colorful scheme. She added art from her family collection, including some great painting done by her father. Being a world traveler, she had saved rugs and tapestries from Kashmir, fabric from India and collectables from other parts of the world. To complete the dishware and other household objects, she only had to walk along the narrow cobblestone streets to the local markets which offer a world of beautiful objects.

It is impossible to describe in words the magic of San Miguel. It has been a haven for artists and discriminating travelers for centuries. Casa Catarina sits like a princess in the midst of this colonial paradise. To learn more about this lovely home and the possibility of renting it, please visit the website at www.san-miguel-house-rentals.com (property I.D. #32 Casa Catarina) or contact the Parsons at 707-321-1905.

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