Yesterday, I walked past an old house – of which there are very few – in my neighbourhood. It’s called Villa Luisa and it’s boarded up. How is it possible, I thought – that nobody cares about it?
I came home and googled.
It’s a sad story.
I found out it was built in 1917 by local architect Jose Ramon de la Sierra Nales (1878-1965) who has many buildings to his name in the city today. For example the Villa Maria in Calle del Duque de Santo Mauro. And number 21 of Avenida Calvo Sotelo. And the Ministry of Finance or Hacienda building (for whom he also worked) by the Plaza Porticada following the fire in the city in 1941.
It was harder to find out about the owners of the villa. I learned about its dimensions – 640 m2 on a site of 1,392 metres. I found a photo of the interior of the villa. And a few articles about a court case. The present owners, Inmobiliaria Cantero Esteban, took the local ministry for Culture to court in 2010. The villa’s owners had offered the building in 2006 as a temporary location for the Pre-history Museum and in court said that the building chosen for that purpose was ill-suited and the decision was political.
When the Google trail dried up, I moved onto the in-laws and got a few more pointers.
I found out it’s a listed building under the Town Hall’s General Plan for Urban Planning 2012. It’s one of 175 buildings in this category in the city. Only 15 buildings were given a higher listing status and another 541 were put on a lower ranking of protection. This intermediary level means that the only building work that can be done is to restore, preserve or consolidate the building. Refurbishments must not affect the structure and must not visibly change the exterior.
And I learned about one of the owners of the villa – the Mendicouague family – who started a leather tannery business in 1761. They had a factory on the site with extensive grounds – Luisa, it seems, was the name of the first Mrs Mendicouague to take up occupancy. However it appears that it was the Ceferino Perez family that commissioned the building. [FYI I revised this paragraph on 19.03.2014 – see my comment below on this date.]
The villa was completed at a time when industrialists were choosing to build summer residences in the city and would travel by horse and carriage down to the fashionable and new Sardinero area of Santander.
I hunted for photographs of the owners of the villa. I failed. I wasn’t able to uncover whether Villa Luisa was a happy home or whether it was improved the family’s place in society. All I can safely say is that it was a convenient base to which the Mendicouague family retreated after a long day in the factory.
And so my story leaps forward to 1990. The tannery operations moved 43km away from Santander to Cabezon de la Sal. The site of the old factory was sold and paid for the new premises. The area around the villa changes completely as apartment blocks shoot up beside the house. The only green space is the 12,000 m2 of parkland which the family transferred to the town hall on the condition that it would be used as a recreational zone.
Next I learn that Pedro Mendicouague’s widow is living in the house and managing the tannery business with significant family input. When the price of leather rose significantly at the end of the 1990’s, the factory ramped up production in an effort to reduce costs. The bet didn’t pay off and ultimately cost the family everything they owned. A local development agency supported a management takeover of the company by the workers – an arrangement which itself went out of business just three years later.
I trace back from the court case in 2010 and see the company named then as the owner of the Villa Luisa was incorporated in 1999. None of the directors bear the name Mendicoague. So I suppose the family lost the house at the time the business went under.
I often brought my kids to play in the Mendicouague park – not realising its name nor its history. This park has been fenced off for a number of years as the town hall is building a 405-space underground carpark for residents on the site in a public-private partnership scheme costing €7.5m. There are many column inches, YouTube videos and Facebook accounts that debated the pros and cons of the carpark and highlighted environmental issues relating to the site. It should be finished in a few months – and I’ll be able to check whether any of the original features from the park are still intact. I do remember it had some of the oldest trees in the city that I, and those on the tree register, hope will survive the work underground.
I am curious as to why the villa wasn’t restored during the recent construction boom when so much building work was carried out. Perhaps there is little interest in a large old house, on a small site, that is overlooked by many apartment blocks. Or perhaps the fact that it is listed is hampering its conversion into something meaningful for this century. As you can see from the pictures – it’s in a sorry state.
I hope something can be done before it’s too late. I’d love to see this building in active use for its 100th birthday in 2017.