Maybe it's the enormous 400-year-old Fresno, or ash tree, that welcomes with shaggy, open arms at the entry. Or the first room-a home chapel scented with centuries of incense and candle wax and protected by once-vivid santos now mellowed to a pearly patina. Or maybe it's the name, Santa Maria del Nopal: "Holy Mary of the Prickly Pear." Whatever the reason-there are too many to list-the peace that settles over this historic hacienda seems palpable. Newcomers to the hacienda instinctively drop their voices, and their eyes melt into soft focus. The only disturbance is from nesting swallows in the colonnade, their stirrings a reminder that even nature takes sanctuary here.
Setting the monastic standard for decorum for the hacienda are the homeowners, Alfonso and Alicia Hernández, a dignified couple whose movements are deliberate and whose speech is spare and full of content. "The house was built in the 17th century and remodeled in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries," states Alfonso in mellifluous Spanish that his son Ignacio translates to English.
"Our ancestors constructed with the style and layout of the Hispano-Andaluz (Spanish from Andalusia) that they knew. With the passage of time, the Criollos (descendants of Spaniards) adapted the concepts to meet the new needs and climate for what is now a Mexican architectural style."
The evolved style features a low-slung, center- courtyard floor plan, which takes advantage of the high plains breeze found in Mexico. Except for an upstairs gallery and suites, all rooms wrap around the courtyard to form a rectangle, and all are contiguous. Each room has a pair of narrow doors that open into the rooms on either side, so that every space on the main floor is accessible-albeit not efficiently-without having to venture into the open-air courtyard. But in good weather-which is most of the time-the courtyard serves as the hacienda's main artery. Many of the doors leading between rooms, in fact, are swollen shut from moisture and inertia, not having seen service in years.
The courtyard not only is vital for sensible traffic flow but is the focal point of every room. Through wide doorways, rooms open up to its sensory delights: the lulling riffs that flow from its carved cantera (volcanic) stone fountain; the fragrance and color of its jasmine, apple, and fig blossoms, roses, lantana, impatiens, and bougainvillea; and the weathered sheen of its unglazed terra-cotta pavers (called barro perón) that have hosted generations of Hernández family footfalls.
The downstairs includes the chapel, several bedrooms and baths, the formal dining room and parlor, and a main kitchen as well as an "outdoor" kitchen. The outdoor kitchen , one of the hacienda's loveliest and most colorful rooms, features a grill at one end for making carne asada (grilled beef) and a domed oven at the opposite end for baking gorditos (little corn cakes). The sink is made of glazed tiles decorated in the traditional Talavera style. (Talavera- Mexico's majolica-is glazed pottery made from the clays of Puebla). A tiled relief above the doorway also displays the shiny, muted patterns of old Talavera platters.
Tile stairs bracketed with a wrought-iron stair rail lead from the entry to the upstairs gallery-a museum of fine antiques and art that serves as a gathering place for the three second-floor en suite bedrooms and baths adjacent to it. Along one wall of the staircase is a grand vintage tile mural. "It is an allegory in remembrance of my great-great-grandfather, José Antonio Hernández Gamiño, who lived from 1785 to 1855," notes Alfonso. A pair of antique stained-glass French doors create a light tower at the top of the staircase, drenching objects d'art in lavish color. Many of the antiques are heirlooms. But many more are the result of 35 years of collecting by Alicia and Alfonso, who own a fine antiques gallery in Guadalajara, where the couple live full-time in a palatial antique home. (The hacienda is about a two-hour drive away, on rough roads under construction.)
"My father is responsible for how the hacienda looks today-for its decorating," says Ignacio. A painter in his free time, Alfonso composes rooms the way he does canvases, paying attention to color, scale, shape, and balance. Although the hacienda's formal rooms host the most precious antiques, the open-air spaces receive just as much design attention. Furnished with a mix of casual pine and stitched leather, the terraces, pergolas, and patios sport the look most often identified with Mexican design.
Family events always involve the outdoors. "The last large, happy family event that we had was the baptism of our three grandchildren in the house's chapel," says Alfonso. All of Alfonso and Alicia's grown children plus their spouses attended, along with extended family and friends. After the sacrament, everyone headed outdoors to celebrate. "We added a large party tent by the lake for the reception," Alfonso explains.
"This hacienda has been in our family through the good times, but also through the bad times-such as during the Mexican and the "Cristera" revolutions," reflects Alfonso. During the Mexican Revolution, the family was forced to flee the hacienda to safety but returned once peace was restored. Thankfully, these days, good times prevail. "This is the reunion point for the family over holidays and vacations and for big events such as weddings," notes Alfonso. For his son Ignacio, the hacienda is the family's true home. "This is where our most vivid childhood memories were made," he says. "Now, a new generation is starting to make their own memories here."