One trip to Mexico was all it took for the country to feel like home for Sally and Jim Estes. Their first time away together was when they vacationed to Puerto Vallarta and traveled down the Gold Coast in 1984, where they were immediately enthralled with the scenery, climate and culture. So enthralled, in fact, that they started renting a condo in Puerto Vallarta whenever they could get away for a week or two, always bringing something back with them to remember the trip. Soon they bought their own condo and began spending the majority of their winters there, eventually collecting enough souvenirs to fill a house—so they decided to build one just outside of Columbia in Huntsdale, Mo.
The Estes’ knew they wanted the homes’ exterior to echo the Mexican flair they had planned for within, so “hacienda” style architecture seemed like the perfect choice. “Hacienda” means “great estate” or “plantation” in Spanish, but the basic designs and construction practices were brought from Spain to Mexico in the 1600s, evolving into an architectural style which works just as well for regularly sized homes. Haciendas are typically crafted from a mix of natural materials like stone, earth, wood and clay tile, creating a wonderful blend of textures and a rustic beauty.
Once construction began in 2002, Sally and Jim left it up to the professionals, instead turning their attention to stocking up for the house in earnest. At a time when many couples would be stressing over the details of their new home, the Estes’ were renting a van and driving down to Mexico to scout out tile and other accoutrements for their new abode. Now every visible thing in their house evokes a special memory for them, which is certainly one great way to make a place feel like home.
When the Estes’ house looms up out of the forest at the end of their long gravel drive, the “hacienda” influence is immediately recognizable. The red tile roof, stucco siding and arcaded entryway are easy to imagine surrounded by white sand and swaying palms, but the place looks just as impressive ensconced in a deciduous glade. Behind a wrought iron fence purchased in Nuevo Laredo, they have a lovely courtyard with a fountain from a tiny town south of the city of San Luis Potosi. “Everybody in this town makes fountains, figurines and columns out of their lightweight limestone; they have a lot of it there in the mountains,” Jim says. “They display it in their front yard, so you just go from yard to yard looking for what you want.”
Above the front door is a stained-glass half moon, one of four the Estes’ commissioned at a gallery in the Puerto Vallarta marina to approximate the look of Mexico’s rounded-top doors, which they were unable to find in the U.S.
The foyer’s high ceilings and cool tiles announce that the home is just as much “hacienda” inside as out. Pops of vividly colorful art add a bit of whimsy, like the wall hanging made of yarn and beeswax Jim bought from a Huichol Native American manthat depicts the dreams of the shaman who made it. Front and center in the foyer is a huge sculpture of a humpback whale. “It was one of 30 that were done by the artist Octavio, and he sold them for the purpose of funding a 50-foot whale at the entrance to the marina at Puerto Vallarta,” Jim explains.
He slowly climbs the wooden staircase that wraps around the back half of the foyer, commenting that he doesn’t come up here much. The staircase’s edge is lined with clay pots, many of which are covered with fine patterns of lines and curves. These were hand-painted with human-hair brushes by residents of Mata Ortiz, a small village known for their ornate pottery in the state of Chihuahua, which Jim heard of through a colleague. “On one of our trips, we decided to see if we could find Mata Ortiz,” he says. “Well, we did. We had to cross a river and travel about 20 miles on a gravel road, but we finally found this town.”
The Mata Ortiz’ pots were so impressive that Jim felt compelled to return a few yearslater on a business trip. He was thrilled to meet Juan Quezada, the man responsible for reviving the ancient Mesoamerican pottery tradition in Mata Ortiz, bringingwealth and fame to the village and himself as a result.
At the top of the stairs is Sally’s collection of Native American musical instruments, which includes a rain stick and a tribal drum that their grandchildren often play with when they visit. There’s also an unusual lamp they bought in the city of San Miguel de Allende that, although beautiful, he says is a nuisance because changing the light bulb means climbing an 11-foot ladder.
Back down the stairs and through an arched hallway is the door to a bathroom, which is decorated in a rainbow of decorative tile, complete with matching ceramic sinks, towel racks, toothbrush holders and soap dishes. These were the first items they bought for their new home, and getting them home safely was no simple task. “Sally carried them back in boxes,” Jim says. “She met me the first day of Mardi Gras at the St. Louis airport. I remember her coming down the concourse with Styrofoam containers full of sinks.”
Like every other room in the house, the kitchen is bright, airy and covered with more decorative tiles, which were the Estes’ main reason for renting a huge van and driving it all the way to a Mexican city called Dolores Hildago. “We found their brochure and went to a factory there,” Jim says. “Neither of us spoke Spanish, especially back then. When we found everything we wanted, we said, ‘We’d like these things,’ thinking that they would pull them off the shelf and give them to us. Well, they had to make them.”
Beside their kitchen are a sitting room and the master bath, but Jim heads downstairs into the basement,where a painted, upside-down tree is displayed roots and all. He explains that the painted tree, called a cudgel, was one of many entered in University of Missouri-Rolla’s Kappa Alpha Order’s cudgel competition, in which fraternity brothers cut a tree down, paint it, run a race with it on their shoulders and then display it for a panel of judges. The tree was given to him in 1997, the year he was National President of KA, which he joined in college and still volunteers for.
Behind the tree is a glass case with more Mata Ortiz pots along with a few Pre-Colombian pots Jim bought in the 70’s while he was supervising the management of a hotel in Bogotá. After befriending a tourism policeman named Guillermo, he didn’t have to worry about getting the pots home intact. “I’d come into the airport and ask, ‘¿Es Guillermo aquí?’ and Guillermo would come and escort me all the way onto the plane.”
Two Tickets to Paradise
While building and decorating a home can be an arduous process, the Estes’ have enjoyed every moment of it. Getting closer to the wonderful history and heritage of Mexico has made their home feel nearer to the sun and surf, and has also brought Jim and Sally closer together. Though the Estes are now ready to retire to Mexico full-time, they won’t have far to move in spirit; having spent so much time there has already made the country feel like home.They belong to an English-speaking church, Sally plays the clarinet for the Puerto Vallarta Chamber Orchestra and they plan to get more involved in the community by doing volunteer work.
Downsizing to a condo means they won’t have as much space to store all their treasures, so as long as it’s within reason, they’re willing to sell part of their collection along with the house. After all, they don’t need reminders of Mexico when the real deal is just outside their front door.