San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Adobe lover preserves architectural heritage

Marlene Montoya, a Costa Rica expat and lover of all things adobe, understands that life and beauty come from dirt. After all, the Book of Genesis says, “God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” As God did for Adam in the biblical tale, Montoya does for old adobe houses in Costa Rica. Except that in her case, there are a couple of extra ingredients in the mix: straw and cow manure.

Surrounded by trees and a garden in the western San José suburb of Escazú is Montoya’s most recent adobe renovation project. She and her trusted team of adobe-savvy builders have worked since February to restore her historic, 300-year-old home. This is the fourth adobe house to which she will have given new life, and she expects the project to be complete by April 2011.

Montoya has always loved the historic look and the closer-to-nature feel of adobe construction.

“I fell in love with adobe houses here in Costa Rica. I loved them and thought they were beautiful,” she says. “[My husband and I] had this chance to buy an old adobe house about 50 years ago, and we bought it. We sort of halfway restored it [back then].”

jorge nunez

Jorge Núñez displays the mixture of mud, straw and manure used in adobe construction.

Katie Onheiber | Tico Times

Montoya has devoutly preached the merits of adobe ever since, trying to convince property owners to fix up their beautiful old adobe homes rather than tear them down. She sees the destructive act as a terrible waste, something like intentionally driving a ’57 Chevy straight into a tree.

“Here in Escazú there are beautiful old adobe houses, but what do people do? They just knock them down,” she says.

The houses are growing increasingly rare as more people opt for homes built with materials that require less attention and maintenance. The houses are made out of dirt, Montoya explains, and many of those that remain standing, after having been around for hundreds of years, are crumbling away, neglected.

Jorge Núñez, adobe expert and head contractor on Montoya’s restoration project, agrees, and notes that the rarity of adobe houses has increased their historic value.

“The people who take care of their adobe houses around here are few and far between, so the houses that are still around are numbered,” he says.

Montoya believes that adobe houses should be cherished and cared for as a way to help preserve Costa Rica’s traditional flavor.

“It’s Costa Rica’s heritage,” she says. “I know people who come here from the States and say, ‘I don’t see anything typical here. It’s all pure Miami.’ My desire is to preserve some of the old buildings of Costa Rica so people will realize what they were.”

marlene montiya

Expat Marlene Montoya

Katie Onheiber | Tico Times

In addition to being historically important, the buildings are cool in hot weather, warm in cool weather, and stand up to the elements for centuries, unless toppled by an earthquake, that is. But at least when that happens, the adobe bricks, which Montoya simply calls “adobes,” can be reused.

Her restoration project uses tens of thousands of recycled and scavenged adobe pieces lovingly salvaged from demolition sites.

When a heavy earthquake shook Costa Rica in 1991, effectively bringing down many of the country’s remaining adobe homes, Montoya and her husband sifted through the wreckage, rescuing as much of the precious building material as they could.

“Like archaeologists, we went to the houses that had fallen, digging out all the adobes that they were just going to throw away, of course. We gathered up truckloads of old adobes and stored them at our house,” Montoya says.

Not only does each adobe brick used in the restoration tell its own story, but the other materials do as well. The 100-year-old oak ceiling beams were purchased from demolished office buildings in San José, the clay roof tiles are scavenged, and the cristóbal wood floorboards – which cost $8 per inch if purchased new – were saved from piles of scraps and firewood.

The history of the materials complements the 300-year history of the house, which, according to Montoya, was once the site of a flour mill and then, years later, was traded for a piano.

“We’re working really hard to do this restoration right,” Montoya says. “The house is going to last another 300 years.”

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