Edward James (1907-1984) -- British millionaire, art collector, poet, dreamer, playboy, friend of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Aldous Huxley, George Balanchine, and Noel Coward -- left behind a monument to his fantasies in the rain forest of Mexico's Sierra Gorda mountains. Built over 20 years, this surrealistic assemblage of concrete sculptures exists in decaying splendor at an out-of-the-way site on the Las Pozas River.
In 1960, a sudden and unusual snowfall and freeze at Las Pozas destroyed James' collection of 18,000 orchids, his personal delight and hobby. The freeze also killed some of the animals and birds he had nurtured in special pens and aviaries. James vowed then that the next flowers on his property would not suffer the same fate.
An enormously wealthy man, James often traveled to Paris, London, Rome and the Far East. Shortly after the freeze, he went to Los Angeles to visit friends and to buy surrealist art. While there, he saw Simon Rodia's Watts Towers for the first time. He was tremendously moved by Rodia's dedication, artistic brilliance and construction genius. In fact, he was so impressed that he gave the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts a valuable antique printing press. Later, funds acquired from the sale of the press were used to build the Los Angeles Watts Towers Art Center, a city-owned facility for art education next to the towers.
Inspired by Rodia's work, James returned to Mexico, where he began a quarter-century of designing and building the structures known as Las Pozas. In 20 acres of jungle, James created more than 200 steel-reinforced cement constructions. Each structure is actually a free-standing sculpture carefully designed on James' sketch pad and later built to his specifications by a crew of at least 25 Mexican laborers (150 by some accounts), under the supervision of Plutarco Gastelum.
Now owned by Gastelum's son, Kaco, the site contains colorful works of pigmented cement that range in height from four to 30 feet and rise from a hillside near the picturesque waterfalls of the Las Pozas River. Constructed between 1964 and 1984, the site is 2,000 feet up in the mountains near the town of Xilitla in the state of San Luis Potosi. The project is said to have cost James more than $5 million (more than $20 million today), but he left no money to provide for its upkeep. Only a mystic would have undertaken to build such a world of unreality in a place that few people would see in the builder's lifetime.
Even though the public was not permitted to enter the property until 1995, 11 years after James' death, the site and its sculptures received acclaim from the few writers who did see it.
Smithsonian Magazine, April 1999, called the site "a swirling dream in concrete, a fantasy of shapes that marries Gaudi, Escher, Borromini, Simon Rodia and the Emerald City of Oz."
Other references characterize the constructions:
"An Englishman's Xanadu mirrors a fantasy world created by Poe." (The Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1996.)
"Much magic is wrought in this partnership of the improbable: concrete, the most urban of substances, with the jungle, nature's most exuberant manifestation." (ARTNews, March 1998.)
"A surrealistic Shangri-La. . . . A wilderness fantasy where concrete flowers bloom in profusion, unfinished stairways spiral into the treetops, and waterfalls fill secret pools." (Patricia Sharpe, Texas Monthly, April 1998.)
Three years ago, I saw an exceptionally brilliant film made by Avery Danziger, titled Edward James: Builder of Dreams. I began to research the published writings on Las Pozas. Four of us decided to go to Las Pozas to inspect the site: Zuleyma Aguirre, an outstanding conservator who has worked with me for ten years at Watts Towers; Sam Aguirre, who took more than 2 1/2 hours of video footage; Arloa Paquin Goldstone, our photographer, who shot 30 rolls of 35mm film; and I, an engineer and environmental site conservator.
Our goal was to inspect, photograph, measure and videotape the structures. After reading the supposedly authorative and well-researched articles, which indicated 32 to 36 structures, we actually found 228 structures. For ten busy days, in the rain, we measured more than 100,000 square feet of surfaces and identified in the structures 5,500 cracks of various depths and widths. Our estimates show that 47,000 labor hours would be needed for a conservation crew to repair the damage and to clean the surfaces and rid them of the destructive fungi and lichen rooted into the concrete.
The 12-month technical study and the inspection trip to the site in October 1998 were funded by a grant from a Philadelphia family foundation. In January 1999, the preliminary project was completed, and I wrote an illustrated architectural and engineering report on the beauty of the site and the rapid deterioration of the sculptures.
The owners and we hope that the report will motivate donors to fund the desperately needed repairs. Apparently the report and the interest it has generated influenced the mayor of the nearest town, Xilitla, because he widened and resurfaced the dirt road into Las Pozas and had the large boulders and silt removed from the nine pools formed by the Las Pozas River.
After my experiences with environments such as Watts Towers, Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village, Art Beal's Nitt Witt Ridge and Jeff McKissack's Orange Show, I rate Las Pozas as a world-class assemblage. The remarkable creation of Edward James must be saved from the elements attacking it because it is worth saving and because state-of-the-art conservation treatments now are available. It just takes money.
To get to Las Pozas, fly into Tampico, Mexico, via Houston, Mexico City or Monterey. There are several flights into Tampico daily. It is best to arrive before 5 p.m. and rent a car in Tampico for the three- or four-hour drive. If staying in the El Castillo guest house in Xilitla, make arrangements to be picked up for an approximate fee of $150. Other alternatives involve flying to Brownsville, Tex., and taking a first-class bus to Xilitla, eight hours and 340 miles south. Xilitla is about 40 miles south of Ciudad Valles, Mexico.
Las Pozas and the El Castillo Inn have a Web site: www.junglegossip.com. The Web site contains magazine and newspaper articles (quoted above), photographs, directions and information on renting a room at El Castillo, once the family home of James' manager and builder, Plutarco Gastelum Sr., and now operated by filmmaker, Avery Danziger.
ARLOA PAQUIN GOLDSTONE is co-author of The Los Angeles Watts Towers and has worked on special projects involving the Towers, Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House and the Rudolph Schindler House. She works in administration at the Otis College of Art and Design.