(Photo by Maynard Parker from House Beautiful Jan 1951)
After seeing this photo of a beautifully unique house in Mexico posted by Mid Century Architecture historian Pierluigi Serraino, I was intrigued to read that its exact whereabouts were unknown. It seemed that the home was perhaps lost forever. The only location information linked to it was that it was built near the town of Taxco, which lies about 100 miles South-Southwest of Mexico City.
Built for Sonya Silverstone in 1949, it was designed by the architectual duo Robert Anshen and William Stephen Allen, best known for creating many of the Eichler house designs (although Anshen seems to be given more credit for this one). It graced the cover of House Beautiful's January 1951 issue and many pages were devoted to it.
As you can see from the photos, the house was characterized by imposing stone walls and monumental cantilevered beams cast in concrete on site, reminiscent of giant elephant tusks. The structure became increasingly open as you walked through it, with a 'central spine of light along the length of the house' (Penick, 2007) and even areas where the ceiling planks acted as louvers. There was an undeniable connection to the outdoors here, as Sonya requested.
The house was also featured in an extensive spread in Architectural Forum Jan 1951:
Finding the Silverstone House
Given the incredible urban sprawl of cities in Mexico, finding the house seemed like a daunting, if not impossible, task. To help locate it I needed more information about the structure, its orientation and any surrounding geographical features.
I did some Internet digging and found a site plan and perspective as featured in the January 1951 article on the house by House Beautiful Magazine.
Narrowing Down the Search Area For the Silverstone Home
Two clues helped me hone in on the house:
1. This excellent thesis by Monica Penick from 2007 which contained the following paragraph:
'Anshen & Allen were challenged by a difficult site: A long, narrow valley and bisecting waterfall. They responded by orienting the house parallel to the valley, and alongside the stream and waterfall. These topographical restrictions provided a visual counter to the house, and augmented the connection of the house with the land. Given such a pristine natural setting, the architects made a concerted effort to remove any architectural barriers between the exterior and interior of the home, uniting the two both visually and physically. As such, the house adhered to the first principle of the American Style: fitness to purpose and site.'
2. This article on the house featured on the House Beautiful cover as shown above. Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 1952.
The vital sentence was 'The house, on a jeep road about 10 kilometers from the famous silver mining town of Taxco...'
Pinpointing the Silverstone Home
Next, I set about looking for waterfall sites further out. Eventually I came across this structure oriented North-South that fit the site plan approx 6 miles East of Taxco.
The site is known as Mil Cascadas which translates to 'A Thousand Waterfalls'.
I wasn't 100% sure it was the site but to my surprise, the location had a Google site pin and when I clicked on it the shared photos from the area confirmed my guess. Below you can see the unique concrete beams and the concrete block fireplace.
All that remains are the cast concrete beams with steel rods between them, the stone pillars, and the fireplace.
The stone ponds built to dam the waterfall still hold water and look remarkably like Taliesin West's reflecting pools and the location is absolutely breathtaking.
What happened to the Silverstone house?
Nowadays It's a well known attraction for canyoning, cliff jumping, abseiling and playing in the waterfalls. According to this website, the area became known as Cascadas Granadas as it was the only local spot where Pomegranates grew.
Sonya Silverstone was well liked by the workers who appreciated her fair treatment which led them to nickname her 'Mother'. Apparently there was some disagreement about unpaid wages and when the owners left one year (1990), the workers who maintained the house and grounds left and never returned. After being left vacant for 5 years, the local population decided to take back and open up the site for public use. I'm not sure how accurate the dates are as I would have guessed it was abandoned many years earlier.
There is also the matter of Sonya Silverstone's relationship with Antonio Pineda, then a young silversmith from Taxco who had burst onto the west coast arts scene and whose work was prized by celebrities. Pineda is named in the Architectural Forum article as the on site supervisor. In 'Abrazando el Espíritu: Bracero Families Confront the US-Mexico Border' By Dr. Ana Elizabeth Rosas, letters from Silverstone to her lover, Antonio Pineda in 1942 are said to have been confiscated and undelivered by the US postal service because she was encouraging him to emigrate to the USA.
Although it appears that people are unaware of the architectural significance of the structure, we can only hope that one day the site is recognized and some sort of restoration, if only a roof, is undertaken. The website linked to above also mentions that 'a I, for one, am looking forward to a future visit of this amazing site.
Here is a selection of the shared photos online:
Here are some photos of the waterfalls themselves:
Source 2007. Monica Michelle Penick Dissertation for PhD Phil, University of Texas at Austin.
Source of some color photos of the SIlverstone house
Source Mils Cascadas Google site (click on the photo top left to see other shared photos)
Source of Mils Cascadas (Waterfall Photos)