For most people, home is where the heart is, but for Gerri and George Chester, home is where Guatemala is—whether they’re in Florida or in La Antigua Guatemala.
Tired of moving around every few years for work, the retired Foreign Service officers decided to set up house in Florida just over 10 years ago and build their dream home where they could keep their boat and sail to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. However, having worked for the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, the Chesters weren’t quite ready to say goodbye to the country they had called home for the previous six years.
“We fell in love with it here,” admits Gerri. “It was our last overseas assignment, our kids grew up here and we just loved the Spanish colonial-style houses.”
Frustrated with what they could find in the U.S., the former diplomats started searching for inspiration for their dream house around the streets of Antigua.
“We went through all these magazines looking for ideas but couldn’t find anything,” says George. “Then we went over to a friend’s house that was designed by (Guatemalan architect/builder) Franklin; we saw it and immediately wanted one.”
Not wishing to waste any time the Chesters flew Franklin Contreras to Florida to walk their lot and see what he could come up with. A couple of days later, he sketched something on the back of an envelope and so the project began.
“Franklin’s unbelievable,” insists George. “He provided the spark; starting with a blank piece of paper he designed everything. We could have got furniture in the U.S., but we only wanted Franklin—the man’s a magician.”
Once draftsmen had translated the initial design to meet Florida’s codes, building started on the custom-designed four-bedroom home and just over a year later, in Christmas 2001, it was completed.
“We prepared most of the construction details here and sent them over to the States,” says Franklin.
“We shipped the two corridors (porches) with all their pieces, the wrought iron balconies and railings, the stone work for the fireplaces, old doors—even the roof tiles were quantified and sent to provide the right exterior look to the house. That was the uniqueness of the project: Gerri and George wanted the real stuff!”
With a sunken fountain, wrought iron framing the inset concrete window sills and gargoyles rather than guttering, this Spanish colonial-style house is “pure Antigua”—seemingly plucked from the city’s cobbled streets and placed in Yulee, a town near the coast of northeast Florida.
The house is not only Guatemalan from the outside, it is also filled with Guatemalan features on the inside, too.
After building the pieces, the talented architect took them apart, numbered them and sent them to Florida in a 40-foot container.
The giant box also delivered custom-made beds, a Guatemalan art nouveau chair and five pairs of antique wooden doors, bought at the Chichicastenango market.
“I think the real challenge was for the builder in the U.S. to use my design and adapt it to comply with all the regulations, codes and building processes so that it was livable and coherent with the Florida environment,” recalls Franklin.
“I know how difficult it is even to change an outlet in the U.S. if you don’t have the right certified electrician with a license, insurance and so forth. We did our best to send instructions on how to put together all the pieces of the terraza española and other details, but this was a totally different language for the contractor.”
With its soaring cathedral ceiling, 26-foot high wood-burning fireplace and outdoor swimming pool, the Chesters’ dream home is a beautiful rendition of a 1700s luxury Guatemalan home.
“Everybody told us we were crazy not to screen in the pool, but that wouldn’t be in keeping with the unique colonial style of our home,” exclaims George.
With careers that have taken the couple all over the globe, it’s not just Guatemalan artifacts that decorate the Chester household. Living and working in locations from Germany to South Africa means they have accumulated an impressive collection of eclectic items along the way, including Belgian stained-glass windows and a nine-foot long, 19th century French farm table. Their diverse array of global purchases, which typifies their past, is so important to them that they even had certain rooms of the house designed to fit the furniture, not the other way around.
The unique abode, which is located on deep water property in a secluded part of Nassau County, is surrounded by oak trees — four miles from the nearest grocery store. The Chesters are such fans of Franklin Contreras’ work that he has since designed a second home for the couple in Antigua.
Although the initial idea for a Spanish colonial residence in Florida presented them with a few challenges, this museum-quality house bottles the essence of Guatemala. It is a tribute to the strength of architecture in the country and a testament to the unique way that chapín life captures people’s hearts.
“At the end of the day it was teamwork, and I have to admit that George and Gerri did a wonderful job of providing Florida with a flavor of Antigua,” says Franklin.