I tell the taxi driver I’m looking for a splendid residence in downtown Quito, and he drives me into the historical center and to the home of Maria Augusta Urrutia. From outside, the house, though two tall stories, looks rather small and narrow, cramped by contiguous buildings, but upon entering I see a courtyard and realize her place expands left, right, and rear, forming a substantial space.
“I’d like to speak to the lady of the house,” I say.
“Two dollars,” a uniformed guard says.
That seems an unusual though not immodest request, particularly given my assets, so I pay and again ask to see Maria Augusta Urrutia. The guard and two others laugh and one says, “She’s not home now.”
“All right,” I say. “Please ask one of your agents to show me around.”
“In English or Spanish?”
“Spanish, of course.”
A delightful young lady emerges and says, “Buenas tardes.” She can’t be more than five-feet tall, a hundred pounds, and twenty-two years old. Her skin’s dark brown, her hair silken black, her voice soft, and her manner gentle.
“I’m interested in learning more about this house,” I say.
“I can help you.”
“When will the lady of the house return?”
“She died in 1987.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I say, but think, my God, a quarter century and they still haven’t been able to sell the place.
“What was she like?”
“She was very nice. She and her husband were quite wealthy. After he died of typhus, in 1931, when she was only thirty, she wore a black dress every day the rest of her life. She never remarried and dedicated herself to helping poor children. She and her employees fed fifty kids a day. They ate between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. She also made candy for them. Each child got one small piece.”
“That’s a lot of work.”
“Yes, but they were well-organized. Please step out here onto the patio. They brought in cows from her various ranches and killed them here.”
“Did Maria Urrutia personally kill them?”
“No,” she smiles. “Her employees did that. And then they hung a cow head up there on a hook for good luck.” A skull, rather than a fresh cabeza, provides the example.
“To the right you’ll see an outdoor kitchen. There’s another kitchen upstairs you’ll see later. Here, they cooked next to the patio. And there’s the cuarto frio (cold room) where they kept meat, milk, and eggs, and cut and prepared the meat, pounding it with a twenty-five-pound balanza.” The latter looks like a large steel grenade.
“That meat cutter’s pretty old,” I say.
“It’s from the 1950s.”
“If I buy this place, I’ll get rid of the meat cutter but will keep the balanza as a conversation piece. I don’t eat meat, anyway.”
The agent again smiles and says, “Though she was very religious, Maria Urrutia served beer to her guests.”
“No, adults, very powerful people. This beer was the first to be made anywhere in South America. She also had Indian grinding stones, over there, where she and her employees prepared medicinal plants. Please step over here. Those are carriles, original backpacks for the children.”
Maria Urrutia, I learn, lived on the second floor. Pictures from her early adulthood show an attractive and introspective woman with long brown hair. Photos thereafter reveal a matronly but more outgoing person. She was quite a hostess. The agent shows me a machine Urrutia used to make alcohol. We pass a pajarera, a room for birds, before we enter the second-floor kitchen, which is quite large but equipped with very old appliances.
“That’s a charcoal stove,” says the agent. “Below the stove top are drawers for charcoal. There’s a hot-water machine, and a cold-water machine. They couldn’t get what they wanted from the tap in those days. And that refrigerator is from about 1950.”
“I admire antiques,” I say. “But I’m sure you realize I’d have to replace all these appliances.”
“They’d work quite well as is. This way, please.” She leads me into a tiled bathroom about the size of an average living room. There’s one toilet for urination and one for the other that’s specially designed to also dispose of paper. The shower’s in the bathtub, which is rather mundane but I don’t comment. That would be sacrilegious in a bathroom boasting huge stained glass windows aglow with landscapes of Venice.
“I’m definitely keeping those,” I say.
“Over here, we have a large bedroom for the principal employee.”
“Did she keep a man in here?”
“No, this was always for a woman.”
A well-dressed woman, indeed, having an enormous mirrored wardrobe next to her bed.
Down the hall we enter the art gallery. There have been other paintings in the residence, but here’s where they keep the heavy hitters, all by Victor Mideros, a superb creator of modern religious paintings that retain the majesty of older works but blend light and colors in a less-ethereal manner to create more accessible characters. One work presents a saint and an angel giving light above hell fire below. Another depicts Adam and Eve on their knees, lifting a pyramid. Mideros invites viewers to enter paintings, not behold them.
Down the hall from the gallery is a spacious dining room anchored by a long table seating twelve. Paintings, a large mirror, china cabinet, and bronze chandelier would no doubt sooth my guests and won’t have to be altered. In the sewing room, however, where employees used old machines to make clothes for poor children, I see I’ll have to renovate. That’s really not an issue since tailors make my clothes in their shops, not in my homes. Discretion prevents me from telling the young lady that Maria Urrutia’s office is devastatingly outdated. The creaky accounting machine should’ve been replaced by a computer, the wobbly typing machine by a computer, and the prehistoric phone by an iPad.
“Where’s the master bedroom?” I ask.
“This way,” she says, leading me to a bedroom in front.
“This is pretty nice, but overlooking the street it would be too noisy. I prefer the rear bedroom used by the principal employee. Don’t you think that one’s nicer?”
“I like both.”
“Okay, how much does this place cost?”