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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Casas Gemelas — French legacy on the Paseo Montejo

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On the Paseo Montejo, between Calles 45 and 43, two homes catch the eye of everyone who passes by. The Casas Gemelas are a pair of French-style mansions built in the early 20th century.

Mérida’s twin mansions, with French Renaissance features, were designed by French architect Gustave Umbdenstock (1866-1940), and Manuel Canton Ramos, who also oversaw the building of the Palacio Canton, supervised their construction. Photo: Manuel Cohen.

While the two houses are not entirely alike, at first glance they would appear to be, and in allusion to their almost identical resemblance, they were named the twin houses. They are also sometimes referred to as Cámara houses since their first owners were members of the Cámara Zavala family.

Construction of the Casas Gemelas began in 1906 and they were inaugurated on Dec. 24, 1911. Their French style is the work of the Gallic architect Gustave Umbdenstock, who also built the  Pont du Carrousel in Paris, commissioned by the engineer and architect Manuel Cantón for the Camara family.

The plans for the houses were brought from France by the brothers Camilo and Ernesto Cámara Zavala after winning first place in urban architecture at the World’s Fair in Paris, as they wanted both buildings to have a European style.

The inside of Montejo 495. The original interior design was chosen by Gustave Umbdenstock in 1911. Photo: Courtesy

They each have 10 bedrooms and eight bathrooms, as well as a basement and a half basement; an office, and a living room, among other spaces.

The Art Nouveau chandeliers, friezes and tracery, Carrara marble, columns, baseboards, ironwork, stained glass windows, and, in general, the decoration and furniture, are all from original European firms that Gustave Umbdenstock himself chose in 1911.

The mansions are a reflection of the economic boom that Yucatán experienced during the Porfiriato period thanks to the cultivation of henequen, known at that time as green gold.

One of the properties was left unfinished until it was acquired by its current owner, Mario Molina. The second property was bought by Fernando Barbachano, whose family turned it into a museum.

Although the second Casa Gemela is still occupied, Montejo 495 offers guided tours from Thursday to Sunday. Photo: Courtesy

“It needed to stop being an urban legend and become a fact,” said Maruja, alongside her sister Cristina Barbachano Herrero. The pair lived in the mansion since the 1960s, which, they say, has not undergone any structural modification in style or decoration. They have tried to keep it intact to preserve the memory of their ancestors.

Although the first Twin House is still occupied by its residents, care is taken to ensure that the museum operations of the adjoining house do not interfere with their daily lives. 

Today, the mansion is known as Montejo 495. The space is open to the public, offering guided tours from Thursday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Check prices at the box office. Admission is free for children under 3 years old.

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