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Exploring Casa de los Venados, a private home and museum in Valladolid

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
The entryway at Casa de los Venados in Valladolid, Mexico, only hints at what’s ahead. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

Its name is not to be taken too literally. Its English translation is House of the Deer, but there are no live animals except for an adorable terrier. And Casa de los Venados is grand enough to be more accurately described as a casona.

Of course, it’s what’s inside the casona that has attracted the world’s attention for over 10 years. Casa de los Venados is home to the largest-ever private collection of Mexican folk and contemporary art. And it’s open for guided tours by appointment. 

The center courtyard at Casa de los Venados. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

Over 3,000 pieces, mostly wood and clay and all museum quality, are placed throughout the giant home, not far from Valladolid’s main square. 

“We acquired most of our collection directly from the artists,” says John Venator, a retired executive from Chicago who with his wife has spent over 35 years collecting pieces.

The Venators found their home here over 20 years ago after years of searching both Valladolid and Mérida. It was Valladolid’s lack of diesel-belching buses that drove them to the much smaller, more laid-back colonial city. 

John Venator of Casa de los Venados, his home and private museum in Valladolid, Mexico. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

He still remembers first noticing the property. On the way to a late lunch, they passed the building which they suddenly noticed had a sign, casa se vende, and a Mérida phone number. They called and reached “an aged lawyer for an even more aged client who had inherited this house,” John recalls. 

Soon after touring the 18,000-square-foot ruin, he called home to Chicago to tell his wife: “It’s big, it’s wonderful, the footprint is fabulous, there’s a huge central patio, all three rooms are five meters wide, the ceilings are eight meters. She said: ‘From what you tell me, we both like it, make an offer.’ That night, we made an offer.”

The rear of Casa de los Venados has a surprising set of water features. Photo: Lee Steele

For an architect, the Venators looked up William Ramirez Pizarro after learning he was involved with restoring Hacienda Xcanatún — a plantation-turned-resort north of Mérida. 

“My fear it was some big expensive architect in Mexico City. Turns out to be a very young couple, William Ramírez and his wife,” John recalls. 

Ramirez agreed, following John’s guidance that they wanted it to look like “Luis Barragán bought it and simply remodeled it.” 

The mascot at Casa de los Venados stands guard in Valladolid, Mexico. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

The project took eight years — partly because it was “pay as you go” and partly because the Venators were still busy in Chicago, only occasionally traveling to their vacation home in Cancún. 

“The rest was just a damn big project, it took a lot longer than we thought,” says John.

But the house was slowly evolving as an escape route for a busy career as president and CEO of an international trade association. “I spent much of my life on airplanes for almost 20 years. I missed anniversaries, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, my wife’s birthday…” John says.

A commercial kitchen makes large events possible at Casa de los Venados. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

The Venators have left the United States completely — as well as Cancún. But their lives haven’t stopped being busy.

“We never intended this place to be holding concerts and having groups for fundraisers and giving tours,” John says. “The house made that happen.”

Casa de los Venados asks visitors to make a donation of at least 100 pesos for local charities. It is also equipped with a professional kitchen and is available for private events. Tours are in English and Spanish. Calle 40, 204 near 41. 985-856 2289, javenator1@gmail.com.

A version of this story appeared in Issue 3 of Yucatán at Home, a printed edition of Yucatán Magazine. Subscribe here or pick up an issue.

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