In 2015, my wife Kristine and I visited one of my favorite Mexican house museums: The Gene Byron Museum in Guanajuato, the capital of the same state. It lies in the close-in suburb of Marfil, one of a string of former silver ore processing haciendas that were mostly owned in the middle of the last century by a group of Canadians.
They had been originally built to extract the silver from the ore coming from the great Valenciana Mine, the largest and most productive in the world, not far away. As the technology changed, these estates lost their purpose and their value and fell into ruins. When the Byron property was purchased in 1954, there were no roofs left on the main, two-story building. Burros were housed on the lower level.
Gene Byron. a Canadian actress, was born in 1910 and first came to Mexico in 1942. Later, she met the man she married, a Spanish pediatrician named Virgilio Fernandez. Born in Spanish Morocco and eight years younger than Gene, he was raised in Seville, Spain and attended medical school in Monterrey. He had been in Mexico since 1939. Together, they restored the main building into a long, two-story residence to house their creative life together.
Gene died in 1987 at the age of 77 from a smoking-related illness. This was one of many things Dr. Virgilio told us as we sat with him near the entrance on our visit. I had heard he was still alive, but I did not expect to meet and talk to him at the age of 97. Here he is with my wife, Kristine.
Later we toured the house, which was left as it was when Gene died twenty-eight years before. She was a woman determined to leave her mark on life. The house is full of her paintings, including this self-portrait.
The only painting on the main floor that is not by Gene Byron is this portrait of the young Virgilio Fernandez.
As well as art, she was a designer of stone carvings and crockery, and of the gardens that front the long façade, graced by a series of arched windows. The metalwork that appears throughout the house, the light fixtures and sculpture, is all hers.
In its heyday the house was often filled with creative people. Garth Williams, the illustrator of children’s books, died in Marfil in 1996. He was famous for his iconic illustrations of Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web and many others. Another frequent guest was Fletcher Martin, the American painter who studied with the great Mexican muralist David Siqueiros. He retired to Marfil in 1967 and died there in 1979. Artists and writers of that era knew of this house and visited it when they came through, almost like a pilgrimage site. The home of Gene Byron and Virgilio Fernandez was the center of the artistic and intellectual life of the Guanajuato expat colony in the 20th century.
As I walked through those rooms I felt I could hear the echo of those voices. It was a different time for Mexico and for expats. I believe there was less emphasis on retirement and more on living than in today’s colonies in San Miguel de Allende, Lake Chapala, and the beach communities.
This great stone house, built in the 17th century, continues as a center of living culture. Every Sunday there are concerts on the second floor, now one long hall with a vaulted ceiling since the bedrooms have been removed and a grand piano waits on a platform at one end. The vestibule at the concert hall entrance was once Gene Byron’s painting studio.
When we left we stopped at the gatehouse to say goodbye, and to thank Virgilio Fernandez. It was not hard to imagine him wandering through that hacienda, every square foot of which must speak to him of those rich and rewarding times, both the hours and the years. Since silence fell, he has been its stalwart guardian, and has endowed it in his will. He and Gene had no children, but they have left us an ageless memorial to their life and times.