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Ilona’s masterpiece: A Connecticut couple’s blank slate becomes a living memorial

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Craig Saunders
Craig Saunders
Craig Saunders had a 50-year career as a Connecticut architect, where he was involved in many outstanding projects, notably the Sport & Medical Sciences Academy High School, Loomis Chaffee School Richmond Hall, and the historic renovation of Noah Webster Elementary School.
Craig and Ilona Saunders turned a blank slate into a thoughtfully laid-out garden in Mérida, Yucatán. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

We first came to Mérida in 2004, our second trip to Yucatán, the first having been devoted to Chichén Itzá, Tulum, Puerto Ventura, and Isla Mujeres.

This second trip was a circumnavigation of the Peninsula and began in Mérida, which we used as a base for exploration of Uxmal and other archaeological sites to the south, some of the convent towns and north coast, and the bird sanctuaries at Celestún. We stayed in the master suite at the Casa del Balam, charming but impossibly noisy. The hotel featured a most beautiful colonial-style courtyard (still there) and allowed dinner service in the courtyard next to the fountain, catered by the in-house restaurant (still does).

We loved the feel of the part of Mérida centered around the main square cathedral and Parque Hidalgo with its magnificently decorated church, where we saw several society weddings. The rest of Mérida seemed dusty and neglected. The magnificent Paseo was dark and proliferated with brooding, abandoned houses. The only restaurant on the entire Paseo was the Impala, which must have emerged around 1958, the year its eponymous Mark was introduced by Chevrolet. It is possible that the ice cream shop near Calle 41 also existed at that time. So we stayed our few days, then pushed on through Campeche, Edzna and its Hacienda Uayamon, Calakmul, Bacalar, back to Tulum (a delight then), and eventually home, not giving Mérida much more thought, even as a retirement option.

An artful water feature serves as an axis to unite the home with the backyard’s elements. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

Fast forward 12 years. Ilona had contracted a rare form of cancer and that combined with cardiac AFIB (a side effect of her first very major operation) made New England winters unendurable. I would leave each day and return from work to find her wrapped in a blanket, huddled by the gas fire in the garden room.

Ilona loved our Connecticut house and the gardens she developed there over 33 years, but it was time to move on.

Sometime around 2014, we made our last trip to Vieques, which we had been exploring for perhaps 10 years as a retirement option. We loved the secret beaches and the central spine of mountains and thought to avail ourselves of Medicare there. The entire medical structure was not up to Ilona’s needs. In fact, we were concerned the entire time we were there that a situation might arise that the local resources couldn’t cope with. We also seemed bombarded with HGTV programs advocating the charms of Mérida and the reasonable cost of renovated housing. So in late winter of 2014 we rented our first house in Mérida for a month. I was working 30 hours a week in architecture at the time and another 15-20 hours teaching in the graduate program in architecture at the University of Hartford. I could, however, get time off between about Dec. 15 and Jan. 25. And so to Mérida we came.

Over the course of three years, we rented three houses of different styles in several neighborhoods. We loved it; the cheery “buenos dias” in the morning, the local markets, the plethora of choices in restaurants, the parks, museum specialty shops, the whole Magilla. In April of 2017, the last of our golden retrievers died, leaving Ilona free to plan for a new life outside of Connecticut and outside of the US where the political situation had become untenable.

By early summer we had sold the house and were ridding ourselves of 30 years of prized possessions and, bibliophiles that we were, hundreds of books. In early September, in the final throes of packing and organizing, tragedy struck. A recurrence of Ilona’s cancer. This time in the form of two small lesions on her liver (the most common form of recurrence of this cancer). As a demonstration of Ilona’s spunk and determination to move to Mérida, she was operated on by Nov. 3, and we arrived in Mérida on Dec. 1, 2017, we took the first direct (but short-lived) flight from Atlanta to Mérida. We were greeted by the governor and a brass band and our pictures were on the covers of all the local newspapers.

Passengers, including Craig and Ilona Saunders from Connecticut, are greeted by the governor on Aeroméxico’s inaugural flight from Atlanta to Mérida on Dec 1, 2017. File photo

We had prearranged to rent a house while we searched for a property to suit us. On the third day there, while on my walk, I came upon a house with a large for-sale sign. I asked my agent about it and was told I wouldn’t like it. The owner was difficult and the layout was quirky but it had a very large garden and pool.

Initially, we thought we would buy something similar to what we’d always rented in Mérida, the proverbial two-bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, $250,000 with a large enough garden and real dirt to plant things in the ground, not in pots. Dream on! We found many Mérida houses shared a predictable sameness — guest bedroom in the front (with traffic), a tight galley kitchen that also acted as primary circulation, and while the rear of the house adjacent to the garden often exploded with architectural hijinks, the interior and front of the houses were murky and dark, often due to INHA regulations. As many Mérida houses are conceived as short-term rentals, actual closet space and any kind of long-term storage were virtually non-existent. We quickly discovered that houses that were perfect for a month-long getaway were impossible as long-term housing. One or more bedrooms would have to be given over to closets and storage. Gardens were an even bigger issue! Ilona wanted to grow indigenous materials in indigenous soil, such as it is.

Our search for a house took us to between 30 and 50 properties. We saw none with usable open space with natural soil for gardening. Oh sure, there were two-foot-wide strips that could have had indigenous soil but more likely concrete eight feet or so down. We looked at wonderful houses by renowned architects, but all their outdoor spaces were totally concreted over. We were told that locals and gringos alike preferred to garden in pots. As an aside, free-draining soil gets rid of excess water at two inches an hour.

Personal photos capture Ilona Saunders’ playful spirit. They were on view for guests of her memorial celebration in 2021. Photo: Yucatán Magazine

“Bah humbug,” said Ilona. “I want layers and waves of planting.” To be fair, a few contemporary architects also understand gardening. Reyes Rios and Larraín come to mind. After all, we were living in a house they designed. However, none of their houses were available and with Ilona’s poor health we were wary of a ground-up new house or extensive renovation.

The idea of the rather large house with a large garden that I had seen on a very early reconnaissance began to gather appeal. A new agent showed us the house, and to our surprise, none of the issues the previous one had objected to were deal-breakers. Some of the design choices that were objectionable we thought we could address with a minimal outlay of funds. Consequently, we made an offer (on the low side) and it was accepted by an owner motivated by a planned return to Europe. The eyesore was ours!

The property is 60 by 150 feet, enormous by Mérida standards. The footprint of the house is 50 by 50 feet with a 13-foot-deep loggia across the south-facing garden. The garden measures 50 by 100 feet, half of which adjacent to the house is dominated by lawn, or at least the ubiquitous crabgrass that is a stand-in for the lawn in the Yucatán. Beyond the lawn is a very large pool 21 by 42 feet, flanked on the east by a bodega housing pool equipment and the laundry and on the west by a reasonably wide swath of crabgrass. At the southern end of the property stands a large palapa, 20 by 45 feet, which contains a seating area, bar, and summer kitchen with an adjacent full bath plus an outdoor shower.

Craig Saunders’ rendering shows how pathways and a fountain water feature connected the backyard’s scattered elements. Softening the hardscape are Ilona’s plantings, which emulated the layered effect she perfected in Connecticut. Graphic created for Yucatán Magazine

The primary design issues to resolve were capped by the fact that the house, the pool, and the palapa were separated by lawn. The only acknowledgment of connective circulation was a stepping-stone path through the grass to these primary features. Typical rainy-season afternoon monsoons, let alone running the sprinkler system, would turn the stepping stones into a muddy bog. Clearly, an architectural plan had to be developed to supply the necessary architectural linkage between the garden’s physical elements. As Ilona more succinctly phrased it, “There’s no there there! Grass is boring!”

Prior to starting the architectural changes which were still in development, however, we began to address the unremitting blandness of the garden’s walls and structures — a totally uninspired medium beige providing absolutely no articulation or celebration of the forms of the practical structures of the garden. Our guide was a monograph on Luis Barrigán, a Mexican architect who achieved international recognition in the 1960s during my years as an architectural student. He was renowned for his fearless use of intense color. Using his inspiration, we painted the bodega magenta, the back bathroom purple, the wall between them a sharp pink and the rear wall under the palapa a golden yellow. Ilona’s response was, “not enough” (color that is) in what we had begun to think of as our Mexican village. We added intense color to all the remaining walls including the loggia and rear of the house. I never thought I’d begin to think of hot pink as a neutral background, but to the vivid green of the Yucatán, it is.

Pink is the new beige, Connecticut-born Craig Saunders discovers while experimenting with colors in his Mexico home. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

 A contour survey would show virtually no contours here, but the property contains one enormous natural feature in the form of one enormous ceiba tree, perhaps as much as 100 years old, 100 feet tall and with a girth at its base of between six and seven feet in diameter. This monster tree stands at the western edge of the property against the wall. It is a significant focal point because of its enormous size, elegant structure, and 70-feet diameter shade canopy 40 feet above the ground. It was not positioned such as to be able to be incorporated into the garden plan except as an enormous piece of elegant sculpture that is a focal point because of its size and beauty.

The purpose of hardscape in our minds was to provide clean, raised access to the palapa at the rear of the property and the small attendant structures in between. It obviously had to be attractive and produce a balanced graceful architectural solution. There is no evidence that any thought was ever given to the architectural relationship between the pool and palapa and the house; no alignment of architecture or structure, no axiality, no recognition of one by the other. In addition, we agreed that there ought to be a terrace adjacent to the loggia to support sitting or dining under the stars or even dancing. There also needed to be terracing adjacent to the pool broad enough for lounge and occasional seating. We also felt a water feature referencing hacienda watering systems or elegant early Mérida great houses were important, especially for the sound of water.

Ilona and Craig’s yard in Mérida manages to tie together restful seating areas, including lounge chairs and a vine-covered gazebo, as well as a palapa that was put to use by caterers when friends gathered to celebrate Ilona’s memory. Photo: Lee Steele / Yucatán Magazine

The softscape combines Ilona’s aesthetic vision with our gardener Jorge Lara’s intimate knowledge of plant materials, soil (such as it is), sun, shade, and water requirements. To my knowledge, Ilona never made a drawing of the garden. She designed by intuition, feel for color, texture, and combinations with an uncanny eye for putting together unexpected combinations that somehow worked. Her drawings were done with a sharp stick to indicate to Jorge and the workmen the geometry of a bed she was planning, guided in part by Svetlana Aleksandroff’s Plants of the Mayan World. Despite her delicate health, Ilona made innumerable trips to the local viveros propped on a pillow to protect her sensitive backside from the exposed springs of Jorge’s truck. Ilona believed, rightly so, that a garden once begun was not a static thing; that as she continued to plant and adjust, the garden itself was morphing and adjusting and evolving its own plan. She was like the conductor of an orchestra, but one who delighted in deviations from the score. Case in point: the enormous elephant ear plant, the seed for which came hidden in the soil of a lovely variegated plant placed behind a bench on the terrace, a very beautiful variegated specimen that is now dwarfed by a factor of 10 by its unintended neighbor. Ilona didn’t tear out the elephant ear, but rather celebrated it by creating a special place for it in her plan.

In early stages, Ilona and Craig Saunders’ garden takes shape, with a stone path and a trough-like water feature connecting the backyard’s scattered elements. 2019 photo: Facebook / Ilona Saunders

The wandering juxtaposed bands of dark green fern and the variegated shrubs. The bright red ginger flowers. The illuminated traveler palms. The palms that aren’t supposed to grow in the sun but do. The sprightly foxtail that delightfully fulfills its role as centerpiece of the main bed. The dark red dracaena that shouldn’t compliment the magenta bodega but somehow do. The lobster claws that reflect in the right light-like Japanese lanterns in the pool. We continued Ilona’s vision after she was gone. The purple Petunia Mexicana that stood in a bucket rooting by the outdoor shower now forms a beautiful bed there. The bright yellow golden druanta which we bought at the Slow Food Market the weekend before she died is not only planted but has offspring. The jasmine also not planted when Ilona died is now in a pot outside the French windows to the master bedroom providing a delightful scent.

My favorite time in the garden is sunset just after a violent late thunderstorm. The light is eerie. The colors of the walls and plants intensify dramatically and the garden is iridescent.  She named our Mérida house Villa Aventura because she wanted it to be her last adventure. It was. 

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