22 January 2012
Gustave Eiffel's Mexican house of God
Word that the metal Catholic church buried some 900 kilometers south of the border in Santa Rosalia, a 19th century French colonial mining town, was designed by Gustave Eiffel (yep, of the Eiffel Tower Eiffels) set off a fit of unquenchable architectural fantasies, and as if I had fallen for some provincial, visaless mail-order bride after only seeing a photo, I would have to go to her.
The wise pilgrim would avoid an underwhelming visit by prepping for not Notre Dame or Sagrada Familia but the simple aesthetics of Eiffel's Baja legacy, a prefabricated structure that in other contexts would be brushed off as an aluminum barn. Its design looks to be about as noteworthy as a Monopoly house from the outside, but once through the doors you realize the tulip-shaped etching on the facade isn't merely decorative but actually forms the shape of the interior and probably provides some sort of insulation from the sun's heat (this is the desert and we are in a metal church, after all). The stained glass windows give off a soft purple glow, which actually goes really nicely with all the gold lame the parishioners have hung all over the place.
But according to Angela Gardner, an American architecture student who apparently investigated the church's history extensively, Eiffel was never known to design prefabs anyway. She credits Bibiano Duclos, a Brazilian who graduated from the same Parisian academy and actually registered a patent for prefabricated buildings.
Nevertheless, the plaque hanging alongside Saint Barbara's front door credits Eiffel and so the fairytale lives on. Constructed in France in 1887 and on display in Paris alongside the tower in 1889, it was disassembled and destined for Africa but somehow got lost along the way in Belgium and was shipped to Santa Rosalia in 1895. Or so the story goes.
The church was just a piece of Santa Rosalia's hasty assembly, which happened nearly overnight after the discovery of copper deposits led French mining company El Boleo to settle the area in 1884. Its uncommon mix of Mexican and European architecture make it one of 56 historic preservation sites in Mexico, the only in Baja California Sur. Some 30 buildings -- including the Mahatma Gandhi public library, city hall and the original Boleo headquarters, which now houses a museum -- are protected historic structures, and the locals are pushing for the town to join Zacatecas, Puebla and Morelia as a UNESCO world heritage site.
You feel like you're in the middle of the mountains even though you're only a few blocks from the the coast, and if it weren't for the paved streets and the nightly parade of cars around the town center on Fridays and Saturdays it's as though you've tripped into some Mexican rendition of "Back to the Future 3" whose color scheme took inspiration from a bag of Skittles. And at times you really can't help but feel as though you shouldn't be in public sans hoop skirt, matching parasol and some frigid chaperone named Madame Hortense.
Agenda: Load up on bread, the local culinary celebrity, at Panaderia El Boleo on the main drag. Lap the four or five blocks that make up the historic downtown district with the camera. Watch townie kids jump their bikes off a ramp they've rigged out of pallets and plywood in the zocalo and take a photo in front of the nearby 1886 Baldwin locomotive. Visit the history museum in the old Boleo building, ooh and aah over the antique office furniture and give the eager historian the time of day because he knows things -- random things, noteworthy things -- such as Santa Rosalia being the first town in Latin America to receive a telephone line. Inquire in the new Boleo offices about T-shirts for sale. Light a candle at the Virgen de Guadalupe shrine behind St. Barb's to protect you from flat tires, busted oil pans and any and all travel woes. Bum free wifi while beering up on the patio at the restaurant across the street from the Gandhi library. Announce to the world that this gringo is going off the grid for a few days and saddle up for Mulege, just an hour down the road.
Distance from Tijuana: 938 kilometers.