One stroll through Mérida’s downtown is all it takes to be enchanted by the city’s gumption and glamour. The Yucatecan capital, which burgeoned throughout the 18th and 19th centuries during the boom of the henequen industry, still maintains much of the architectural charm from its golden years. Just as successful henequen plantation owners built haciendas such as Petac in the countryside, political figures, foreign investors and wealthy socialites constructed lavish palaces in the city proper.
Within Mérida, many of these grand mansions were built along on the Paseo de Montejo, the main artery of the city. Following a surge in the popularity of French culture, this beautiful tree-lined street was refashioned during the prosperity of the henequen years after Paris’ Champs Elysées. Even now, 150 years later, the boulevard offers visitors a visual primer on the then trendy beaux-arts architectural style. At the time there was a distinct rejection of Hispanic culture, and even cultural affiliation with Mexico City, from independent and affluent Yucatecans. A French aesthetic grew in its place and, as many visitors to the city note, Mérida maintains many resemblances to the streets and homes of old New Orleans.
Known for its sculptural decoration and eclectic opulence, the beaux-arts style of the late 19th century is the aesthetic culmination of the previous two and a half centuries of French architectural ideals. Named for the distinguished École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the style had expanded to the New World by the late 19th century and dominated growing cities and newly independent governments who sought to impress the international community with urban development. The oversized detail, bold sculpture and generously decorated, utility-driven spaces that define the beaux-arts style are very much what make downtown Mérida’s architecture so impressive. The Palacio de Gobierno, for example, which was built in 1892, is defined by large rooms known during the period as “noble spaces,” and features massive historical murals painted directly on walls of its similarly large courtyard.
Such an embrace of the beaux-arts style is reflected perhaps most notably, though, in the building that now holds the city’s museum of anthropology. Palacio Cantòn, built between 1904 and 1911, was once the private home of a wealthy Yucatecan governor, made the official gubernatorial residence in 1948, and reopened as a museum in 1966. The palace’s flat roof, conservative lines and strict devotion to symmetry – all while embracing ostentatious arched windows, luxury materials imported from Europe and large sculpture – are classic trappings of the beaux-arts style.
Now home to the region’s largest collection of pre-Hispanic Mayan ceramics and sculptures, the Palacio Cantòn is the city’s jewel. Whether you walk down the Paseo de Montejo, ride a bike down the street on a Sunday morning when the street is closed off to traffic, hop on a calesa (a horse drawn carriage) or take an open bus tour of the city, the museum, tucked amongst a street of mansions, will catch your breath with its elegance.