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 br