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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

A rural renovation in Yucatán follows rock-solid tradition

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David W. Keelan, a Pennsylvania native who left Mérida for a more tranquil life in Dzoyaxché, a small comiseria south of the city. He is taking the natural approach in restoring a home there. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Peace will come again, one day, to David W. Keelan’s modest property in Dzoyaxché.

But that won’t happen until the contractors are gone, including Don Pedro, a bricklayer whose grandfather and mother once lived in this 100-year-old house. Then David will finally have the peace and quiet that drew him from the Centro to this remote community. 

A three-quarter wall was removed and replaced with an open bookcase to bring light and airflow into the main part of David W. Keelan’s house in Dzoyaxché. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine
In 2021, David W. Keelan examines his future property in Dzoyaxché. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

The property was abandoned for years, possibly decades, before it was put on the market and, through word of mouth, was encountered by central Pennsylvania native David W. Keelan. 

His home is in chaos, but the tranquility of the rest of Dzoyaxché has a hold on David, who is in his late 50s and retired after living in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. He says he’s always gravitated to the country. 

When he first saw it two years ago, its 15-foot stone walls were supported by old wooden beams, seemingly defying gravity. It was basically a single room, divided by a three-quarter height wall with a cutout, just a meter or so from a quiet road. It was years from being possibly irretrievable. 

Don Pedro, whose mother and grandfather lived in this simple roadside home, helps David W. Keelan rebuild the crumbling structure. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
A local woman greets future neighbor David W. Keelan, who’s looking at a ruin to convert into a contemporary home. Two years later, the home is inhabitable and furnished, with lots of work still to be done. Don Jose, center, remains at the heart of the project. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

Some scribblings on the walls indicated that the place hadn’t been entirely overlooked. Layers of trash buried in the backyard were clues that the property had become a neighborhood dumping ground for household trash, tires, and, to his astonishment, shoes.

“Every day, I have found so many shoes, I could have started a shoe store,” David says. “All kinds. Women’s shoes, men’s shoes, baby shoes, kids shoes, it’s incredible.”

David W. Keelan’s rear terrace preserves his Dzoyaxché home’s original character. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

The three-quarter wall is gone. The original space is now divided by an open bookcase, with a living room set up on one side and a bedroom on the other. There’s also a large crate for Penny, his lethargic and sweet-natured terrier mix, who watches us from a distance. 

David hired local workers to bring the property back to life. One of them is Don Pedro, grandson of a previous owner, who was most recently building a stone wall along the front sidewalk. 

Doors in the front were converted to windows, and entry was moved to the side wall, which is less prone to flooding. In the rear, garden paths have already been blocked out with pebbles, and a casita is planned for a future phase.

A natural filter pool is a work in progress at Dzoyaxché. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

On the day we visited, the new natural-filter swimming pool was a sticking point while workers tried to locate the source of a persistent leak. About a quarter of the pool’s footprint is a stone, sand, and charcoal filtration system, which will be topped with plants when it’s completed. “And if they’re the right plant and mature enough, the algae doesn’t stand a chance to keep competing.” He’s hoping enough dragonflies discover it and make it their habitat.

From there, water will rush to the other side, where a spout, concealed with stone, will provide aeration. The design is something more commonly found in European countries, so finding someone to build it properly here was a challenge. The main thing, of course, is that the pool is naturalistic and blends in with its surroundings. 

Hacienda San Nicolás Dzoyaxché. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

David has gone through pains to use what’s already on the land. He has plenty of rocks to spare. Garden soil was found by washing stones through a mesh screen. 

A contemporary closet, kitchen and bathroom are new construction, as is the terrace, and when it’s all done, the outhouse will become a pizza oven. He’s got a flat-screen TV and good internet service. Other than that, the restoration is traditional, with local builders employing techniques that were handed down to them. 

That works well, for the most part, despite his limited Spanish. Part of the bookcase, for example, didn’t come out as planned when some instructions got lost in translation, something David admits has happened more than once. 

David W. Keelan’s home in Dzoyaxché is cleaned up and sheltered by a new wall, but there’s still a lot to be done. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

He still does some grocery shopping and all his banking in Mérida, with the local tiendas tiding him over with basics between excursions. “I’ve gotta find a lavandería because I don’t have a washing machine,” David says.

The community, 30 minutes south of the Periférico, is in the southeast corner of the Cuxtal Ecological Reserve, a 27,000-acre protected area known for its half-dozen historic haciendas and cenotes. Half of Mérida’s water comes from this region. It is also home to 168 species of birds, most of them migratory.

He says, most assuredly, that he has left the busy Mérida for good. The unfinished project is already home to David, who’s “trying to stay out of the way” of the contractors. He has all he wants, and needs, right here.

Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012.
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