The House Whisperer


I am writing this post in Mexico, sitting on a patio with the sun in the sky and a laptop upon my lap, looking at the notes I brought down with me and wondering, just what was the fuss, anyway?

In Norteamerica I call myself a “house whisperer.” Houses tell me what they want, whether I own them or not. I believe it’s in my DNA. I once had a great uncle who couldn’t enjoy himself at a restaurant if a painting or framed print across the room was at a tilt. That’s me too. Both Uncle Fran and I would have to get up and cross the room to straighten it, before lifting a fork to our Caesar salads. Other people, they tell me, are not like this.

For years now an exterior shutter has been missing on a house across the street from where I live. In the time in which a family has rented the house, they’ve seen their careers flourish, their small sons grow, and a rambunctious black Lab settle into a mellow dog. Had I been renting the house, the first thing I would have insisted is that the owner replace the missing shutter. I’m not sure I would have thought that all the rest could happen without it.

How did I get this way? Every house I knew in Connecticut was lived in. It was in visiting my grandparents in Naples, Florida that I first turned into a voyeur of houses. A continual crop of model homes came up, and we went down there, every winter. I had never experienced anything like it, the sheer pleasure of walking through empty spaces…. and completing it in one’s mind. Afterwards I worked on all the floorplan handouts, made improvements in space planning, drew in the furniture, and thought in terms of color schemes. I was hooked.

It was one quick slippery slope from the child who rearranged her parents’ furniture in the night, to the one who drew floorplans on a pad of graph paper in the backseat of the car, to a design firm in San Diego. But that’s just where I was when I first heard of Las Brisas, in Ixtapa, Mexico. Where I am now.

Las Brisas was a Camino Real or Westin Hotel at the time. The principal of the firm was the only one of us who could afford to stay there, and he gloated about it upon return. In my memory I almost think he was the one who designed it. In any case, he impressed upon us that ancient Mayan temples were the inspiration for this hotel. Each floor, as it ascends, is shorter, and the hotel climbs to an open air lobby at the top. To walk the stone floors of open air corridors is meditating. It is remarkably minimalist and contemporary looking, a composition in stone, color, and water rushing in aqueducts.

Now that I am finally here I indeed feel like I’m in a monastery. There is a cloistered air about it, despite its openness. And though the hotel may be filled, there is never any sense of a crowd. As guests we experience wingspans of space, privacy, and remoteness. The beach is private. A hammock hangs on each room’s terrace. Time stands still. Each day is like the day before.

Tropical magic is at work for me here. Everything that was interior is turned inside out, toward the outdoors. Working with the materials at hand, roofs are thatched, flooring is continuous with terrace, and furniture is built-in, eliminating the clutter of legs. I realize I am saying this at a resort, but our wants are really quite simple.

The same thing happens in the San Juan Islands, where so many software developers who made their fortunes in Seattle build second homes of logs in the woods at waters edge to live the simple life. There is a Marie Antoinette in us all apparently. It can cost a lot or we can find it where we are by scaling back. I don’t have any problem seeing that. But then the principle of that same firm in San Diego made sure that all his designers realized a Portuguese fisherman’s cottage built with straw in the plaster walls has more integrity, and is more beautiful, than anything we might hope to do in the finest residences in La Jolla.

Not a day goes by that I don’t thank him for that.


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5 responses to “The House Whisperer

  1. Elizabeth Yourgrau

    Your slightly younger sister thinks this is an accurate glimpse of some of your many artistic sensibilities. Didn’t realize Uncle Fran also had a hard time sitting in a room with a crooked picture or God Forbid, some plastic fruit!
    You’ve helped me hone in my artful confidence and ability to appreciate and add some beauty wherever possible.
    Fondly and vividly remember going through many model homes with you and then coming back to Grandma’s house to diligently work on floor plans.

  2. Lynn Dunn

    I always enjoy visiting new places with you as your artistic eye and creative mind see beyond what most people do when they look at a structure or a work of art.

  3. Ahh… (where’d we be without sisters?)

  4. How beautiful you write – I am spechless when I read your blogs – you take my breath away!

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