GUATEMALA CITY – For most people, home is where the heart is; but for Gerri and George Chester, home is where Guatemala is – whether they’re in Florida or Antigua.
The retired U.S. Foreign Service officers had spent their lives moving around every couple of years for work. So when they decided to retire to the U.S. state of Florida over a decade ago, they were ready to settle down and build their dream home. However, since their last placement was in Guatemala, the couple wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to the country they had called home for the previous six years.
“We fell in love with it here,” admits Gerri. “It was our last overseas assignment, our kids grew up here and we just loved the Spanish colonial-style houses.”
Frustrated with what they found in the southern United States housing market, the former diplomats started searching for inspiration for their dream house on the cobbled streets of Antigua, 30 kilometers from Guatemala City.
“We went through all these magazines looking for ideas, but couldn’t find anything,” says George. “Then we went over to a friend’s house that was designed by [Guatemalan architect] Franklin [Contreras]. We saw it and immediately wanted one.”
The Chesters flew Contreras up to Florida to walk over their lot and see what he could come up with. A couple of days later, he sketched something on the back of an envelope and the project began.
“Franklin’s unbelievable,” says George. “He provided the spark; starting with a clear piece of paper he designed everything. We could have got furniture in the U.S., but we only wanted Franklin – the man’s a magician.”
To comply with Florida’s building codes, local draftsmen translated Contreras’ initial design, and just over a year later, during Christmas of 2001, the custom-built four-bedroom house was completed.
“We prepared most of the construction details here and sent them over to the States,” says Contreras. “We shipped the two corridors [porches] with all their pieces, the wrought-iron balconies and railings, the stone work for the fireplaces, old doors – even the roof tiles were quantified and sent to provide the right exterior look to the house. That was the uniqueness of the project. Gerri and George wanted the real stuff.”
With a sunken fountain, grills over the inset concrete windows and gargoyles rather than guttering, the Spanish colonial-style house appears to have been plucked from the streets of Antigua and placed in Yulee, on the coast of Florida.
The house is not only Guatemalan on the outside, but also is filled with Guatemalan features on the inside, too.
After building the pieces in Guatemala, Contreras took them apart, numbered them and shipped them to Florida in a 40-foot container, which also contained custom-made beds, a Guatemalan Art Nouveau chair and five pairs of antique wooden doors.
“I think the real challenge was for the builder in the U.S. to use my design and adapt it to comply with all the regulations, codes and building processes so that it was livable and coherent with the Florida environment,” Contreras says.
“I know how difficult it is even to change an outlet in the U.S. if you don’t have the right certified electrician with his license, insurance and so forth. We did our best to send instructions on how to put together all the pieces of the terraza española and other details, but this was a totally different language for the contractor.”
With its soaring cathedral ceiling, 26-foot fireplace and outdoor swimming pool, the Chesters’ dream home is a perfect replica of an 18th century luxury Guatemalan home.
With careers that have taken the couple all over the globe, the Chesters have accumulated an impressive collection of eclectic items along the way – including Belgian stained glass windows and a 9-foot, 19th century French farm table. Their diverse array of global purchases, which typifies their past, even dictated that the rooms were designed to fit the furniture, not the other way around.
The unique abode, which is located on the waterfront in a secluded part of Nassau Valley, is surrounded by oak trees, four miles from the nearest grocery store.
Although the initial idea for a Spanish colonial residence in their home country presented them with a few challenges, the finished version bottles the essence of Guatemala – providing Florida with a flavor of Antigua.