A handcrafted college campus

The Hacienda Santa Clara is a former maguey producing facility which was in ruins when Pablo and Barbara Marvin found the property over six years ago. They were looking for a suitable site to found a study abroad center, with the aim of presenting the best of Mexican culture and society, not to mention house an important collection of original Mexican art. This facility officially opened in 2015, keeping the original name.

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Hand painted door panel with metal pieces called milagros (miracles)

What distinguishes Santa Clara from other projects of this type is the construction of the facility and the symbolism behind it. While the idea was not an exact reconstruction, the ruins did provide a basic blueprint. There is a main house and chapel, but the original corral area is now the main dining hall. The chapel keeps the basic Latin cross layout, but the interior is designed to be used as much for secular functions as for religious ones, noted in part by the substitution of wind chimes in the bell tower.

However, most important “conservation” aspect of the product has been how the ruins have been rebuilt. The chapel and main house, and to a large extant, student dormitories, shun modern construction materials such as cinder block and plywood, never mind plastic or sheet rock. Walls are of rough-hewed local stone, with spaces filled with smaller stone pieces using only a minimum of cement. Roofs are of red ceramic tiles, laid over real solid-wood beams.

The result are handcrafted buildings, made much the way of the original buildings from centuries ago, but rather than feeling old and time-worn, are modern.  There is a solidness and artistry to the structures, which are impossible to obtain with mass-produced construction materials.

Every stone, every roof beam and tile, every window and door frame and every piece of furniture were placed by hand and/or, and in many cases, made from raw materials on site. Don Pablo says that unlike modern hacienda-style constructions, which he called “surreal,” Santa Clara was built with materials on hand, using the knowledge and skills of local people, much the way real working haciendas were built.

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View of a stone arch in the chapel

The project has made use of talented craftsmen such as Octavio Muñoz, who gave us an extensive tour of the woodwork which he has spent six years of his life designing and executing, everything from restoring old furniture and some pieces from the original structures, to laying solid wood ceiling beams, to flooring in alder and mahogany, building new furniture, often from scrap from other projects, to participating in creating a large statue of the Archangel Michael, his first and only foray into an artwork.  Much of the wood is like that of the original hacienda, such as the use of mesquite for windows and doors.

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Octavio Muñoz inspects a table.

Don Pablo said one reason to so all this work was to showcase the creativity and skill of the Mexican labor force, which often goes to waste as both skilled and unskilled labor is paid too low. He believes Santa Clara demonstrates just what Mexicans are really capable of when they receive the proper support to do quality work.

Hacienda Santa Clara’s purpose is to encourage and support foreign students, especially those from the United States, to spend formative years outside the country. Pablo and Barbara believe this is important not only culturally, but in a very real business sense. It is expensive to send workers abroad, and those without proper introduction to intercultural experience are very unlikely to to make the kinds of connections businesses look for with their overseas personnel. One way to do this is to impress these students with the quality of their surroundings and counter much of the negative seen in the media.

Hacienda Santa Clara is located about 40 minutes outside of the city of San Miguel de Allende in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, part of the economically important Bajio region northwest of Mexico City.

More photos

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