The Popenoe House, Antigua’s Best-Kept Secret

Antigua, Guatemala is perhaps the best known colonial city in Central America. It is certainly the most studied and most admired by visitors from all over the world. Still, this little gem embedded in the heart of Guatemala holds secrets known only to its inhabitants. This is the case of “La Casa Popenoe,” a former residence built in the seventeenth century, which is today the best-preserved Spanish colonial house in Antigua. Its many peculiarities start with its name, which does not owe to the Spanish settlers who built it but, rather, to Wilson Popenoe, a US citizen who acquired the house in the early 1930s and made it home to his family.

This Spanish mansion which honors an American pioneer offers extraordinary insight into the evolution of Antigua and its people over the past centuries. In many ways it is a stone portrait of the history of the New World. The first version of “The Popenoe House,” was located in the center of town, a short distance from the Church of San Francisco. It was built in the mid-sixteenth century, during the reign of Philip II of Spain, only a few years after the arrival of the conquistadores. A century later, the priest Juan de Torres erected on its foundations a new house, which is essentially what we observe today. Over the following centuries, defying earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the house changed ownership several times, until finally Wilson Popenoe, who had come to Guatemala as an agronomist working for the United Fruit Company, bought it in a very dilapidated state.

Thus, we are talking about a very special place, a place that had already been permanently inhabited long before the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Very few houses in America can make this claim. Its excess of history survives within its walls, beckoning us toward a world that has long ceased to exist. The Spanish colonists replicated the architecture of their home country, adapting it to the local environment of the remote but paradisiacal Captaincy General of Guatemala, which was the border territory of a Viceroyalty called New Spain. The Popenoe House is both Spanish and Indian. Starting with a layout characteristic of houses in southern Europe, its different owners have created a charming garden of delights in the center of Antigua.

Wilson Popenoe, a man trained in botany and possessed of considerable humanistic cultural interests, took an heirloom that fate had placed in his hands and set about restoring its value. And it is to Popenoe that this mansion owes its last and perhaps its most perfect historical iteration. The agronomist’s work was so perfect and admirable that within a few years the old house of Doña Venancia came to be called, simply, La Casa Popenoe. For Popenoe, recovering this jewel was one of his life’s greatest obsessions. And a very pleasant effort it must have been, because, as the property’s owner, he was able enjoy firsthand the fruits of an historical restoration that brought to life before his very eyes the exotic past of his adopted country.

Popenoe House main patio detail

Wilson Popenoe died in 1975 and the house was inherited by his descendants who, decades later, transferred it to the prestigious Guatemalan institution of higher learning, Universidad Francisco Marroquín. UFM has spared no effort and no resources in preserving Popenoe’s legacy as well as that of the 300 years of history that preceded him. In charge of this project are architect Lorena Lemus and archaeologist Alberto Garín, who, besides delving deeply into the work of Popenoe, also strive to maintain the house with great detail. Garín, a native of Spain, has recently commissioned excavations that have shed new light on previously unknown aspects of the house’s history. The challenge of these two scholars is to keep La Casa Popenoe as the best example of a colonial house not only in Guatemala but in all of Spanish America. At present, it appears that they have achieved just that. Those who enter the house can attest to how truly unique it is, to how radically distinct it is from the usual circuits of mass tourism. Indeed, it is a place reserved for genuine connoisseurs.

Where else can one find an archaeologist offering personally guided tours of the monument that he himself struggles to preserve? Surely, this is one of the features that make this home special. Perhaps best of all, it is available to anyone. La Casa Popenoe is open to all visitors, although, as with any good thing, one must make a small sacrifice and arrange the visit in advance. Tours are guided and personalized. Maybe that’s what makes The Popenoe House one of the nicest experiences in Antigua. Treat yourself. You will not regret it.

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