By ALEXIS ZAMBRANO
One of the most enchanting homes in Mexico— really a private museum— is La Milarca. It is a unique enclave perched amidst the Sierra Madre above the colonial city of Monterrey in the north of the country. Housed there is an incredible array of architectural salvage dating back more than 600 years— fossils, minerals, and Latin American art, as well as many objets de vertu. There are few places I have visited anywhere in the world that are comparable.
La Milarca has been a lifelong project for Mauricio Fernandez, whose passion for collecting started at age 12 when his mother and grandmother took him to visit an antiques dealer called La Granja in Mexico City. It was there he acquired his first pieces, a pair of German etched ruby crystal decanters. Since that day, he told me, he has had an eternal attraction to objects with history behind them.
Mauricio Fernandez’s dream to create this home with a world-class collection of all things he finds interesting and beautiful harks back to the 1970s when he was General Director of Grupo Casolar, owner of Hotel Las Hadas in Manzanillo. It was one of the most stylish hotels at that moment, a magnet for the Beautiful People.
“All the international jet set would fly in or visit us on their yachts,” he recalls. “We entertained guests like the Shah of Iran, the Agnellis, the Goldsmiths, and Mick Jagger. The film Ten starring Julie Andrews, Dudley Moore and Bo Derek was shot at Las Hadas.”
It was during this period that Mauricio and his wife Norma Zambrano— they are my aunt and uncle— developed their vision for La Milarca: “It took a couple of trips to come get a sense of what we wanted to create. Speaking with the hotel’s architect Jose Luis Ezquerra is what guided the idea for us. The name La Milarca is based on a character from a medieval text.”
Norma accompanied Mauricio on his journey of assembling La Milarca and acquiring its incredible pieces of art, but her real passion in life is geared towards her family, philanthropy and the Catholic church. Together with her husband, she has built and been director of several schools for underprivileged children in Mexico, as well as opening three museums and an arts school in Garcia Nuevo Leon. It might be noted that at the same time Mauricio was collecting and curating, he was also helping run an industrial business, serving as a senator, and being hailed as an effective mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia.
When approaching La Milarca, one sees at first glance very little of what is to come. A massive 15th-century Gothic arch welcomes visitors, next to a small wooden door from an 18th-century nuns convent in Michoacan Mexico. As you enter through this small portal, you are suddenly immersed in a turret-like reception chamber whose ceiling was painted with swarms of doves in flight by artist Ismael Vargas.
The house has the smell of oiled wood, partially due to the floors having had special chemical treatments due to their provenance. The large 2 x 12 foot planks were originally part of a train bridge built in the time of president Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911). When it was demolished, they were salvaged by Fernandez.
As you tread towards the staircase, you meet with a mural painted by Juan Torres depicting Fernandez’s family tree, alongside a stunning Rufino Tamayo of a man. As you slowly descend through this space, you are captured by the light of the Gothic arch opening into a small courtyard with a mammoth quartz spear projecting out of the earth.
Suddenly there is a pause— a moment where height is reduced and light is diminished. This is the place where one of Frida Kahlo‘s earliest portraits resides, a small fresco of a young girl. Following this brief embrace, the Grand Salon welcomes you.
When entering a space of this magnitude— soaring more than 60 feet— it is inevitable to look up and engage with the Mudejar style 16th-century ceiling. Originally from a church in Tarazona Spain, the ceiling was purchased by the imperial acquisitor William Randolph Hearst and shipped to New York in 1935. It was originally intended for Hearst Castle in San Simeon, but when the Great Depression depressed even him, Hearst sold the ceiling to a Mr. Carl W. Hamilton.
In 1975, Hamilton sold it to Mauricio Fernandez, and that, dear reader, was the genesis of La Milarca. As Fernandez explained to me, “The principal ceiling was found through a French publication of the time called Connoisseurs des Arts. From that point, it took over seven years for the house to be ready to move in. There was a team of restorers led by Manuel Serrano, Mexico’s leading restorer. They had to deal with putting the ceilings and other architectural salvage back together as they came with no ‘instructions’ or images of their original state. A large construction team led by architect Jorge Ioyzaga worked in conjunction with Serrano to make all the pieces of the puzzle meet.”
Getting back to our tour of the Grand Salon, a large group of collections are housed under this incredible structure, including a superlative collection of fossilized ammonites and a couple of dinosaurs. (As you know, ammonites were marine mollusc animals that became extinct between 65 and 240 million years ago.) Also in this room is Diego Rivera‘s masterpiece of a woman carrying calla lilies.
Next to that is the sword of the Marques Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire and won Mexico for the crown of Spain. Sic transit gloria mundi—Mexico again is free and we have his sword.
In the dining room, a vast array of pre-Columbian objects are displayed in a Spanish refectory chest following a collection of ceramic crowned nuns. After a fossilized slab of an aquatic dinosaur, there is a large portal leading to a courtyard. Located there are a ceramic room, a media room, and a chess tower with even more astonishing ceilings.
The ceramic room contains a large assortment of Mexican ceramic folk art and the largest collection of 17th-century urns from Tonala, Jalisco. The light entering this room is cold due to the shade provided by many oak trees. A group of French Gothic arches here provide a view of the garden, which is flanked by an infinity pool ending in a great Gothic arch.
When walking through the next courtyard, a tower-like structure appears within the trees. Upon entering, there is a small table with a chessboard, set under a small hexagonal Mudejar ceiling that was also part of Hearst’s collection.
To roam around these halls, admiring such a vast array of objects that tell a story of their collector’s appetite for the unique and the sublime, is a truly majestic experience. I leave La Milarca in a state of contemplation, trekking down the mountain with breathtaking panoramic views of the city of Monterrey.