Every time I traveled to San Juan de la Maguana, once flourishing, now decadent frontier city of the Dominican Republic, just a few kilometers away from the Haitian border, I found myself walking around it and photographing it from the street.
What intrigued me more than the sheer size of this yellow painted wooden building, more than its luxuriously self-indulging, yet Spartan shape, was the absurd number of doors it had all around, both on the lower and on the upper floor.
I kept trying counting all those doors, hoping to reach a definite number, but strangely, I always lost count.
One day, during a particularly long permanence in San Juan, I just decided to walk into the nearly empty clothing store on the lower floor, introduce myself and ask if someone could allow me to see and possibly photograph inside the yellow mastodon.
It was my first meeting with Georgette Michelen, a lovely lady who was born in that house and whose firmest desire is continue to live in it until her death.
Georgette and I hit it off immediately. She enthusiastically began telling me stories about the house, about her father, who built it at the beginning of the 20th century, about her large family of Arab origins, about her musical career and much, much more.
When I came out of the house it was dark and my head was spinning with amazing tales of a lost everyday life, from a time when time was slower, when no Internet or cellular phones existed and a house could be built with forty-two doors.
I kept visiting Georgette nearly everyday for over a month, we became true friends and I got to meet her extended family: her sister Yvonne, her nephews, Isaac and Armando, who still live in the house with their mother, and Georgette’s adoptive daughter, Juana, a talented musician herself, who grew up in the house and now lives nearby.
Since I was a boy I always heard about haunted houses, places where you could feel a “presence”, some sort of supernatural remnants of past lives and past events.
We usually associate this “spirit of the place” with something scary or negative or at least unsettling. Here I could perceive the past as if it was making itself available to be experienced with our normal senses. I could smell the past, I could hear it, I could touch it.
This house was undoubtedly alive.
It is one of the last examples of Dominican “Republican” Architecture and was built around 1910 in San Juan De La Maguana, by Georgette's father, a very successful businessman who emigrated from Bethlehem to Haiti at the end of the 1800 and eventually settled in the Dominican Republic
I was told people called it “La Casa del Sol”, the house of the sun, a name that also indentified the once extremely successful general store located on the ground floor.
As I was having free access to photograph all quarters of the building I soon started considering this house like an oversized “historical animal”.
The house of the sun was entirely created by a top master wood builder of the time, a gentleman named Prince, immigrant from the Dutch Antilles, using only the best-aged strongest local wood.
All the wood was cut and shaped by hand, assembled by hand and painted by hand.
Naturally, just like a living body, the house "feels" its hundred-plus years and it is full of ailments, aches and pains. However, it is still alive.
Amazingly, this wooden structure is so strong, so resilient that it appears to have been able to even stop the course of history. Time, in many ways, just stopped here.
This house indeed made me think of a huge animal that refuses to become extinct and continues to live, resisting the forces of progress and the clicking of time thanks to its enormous mass and its sheer strength.
Just like a centenary whale or elephant, its skin is full of scars and microorganisms that survive and thrive on it.
This house, despite a brutal tropical weather and an almost total lack of maintenance is a masterpiece of human architecture and a unique monument to creative rural ingenuity.
Yes, this house could easily continue to exist for hundreds of years more, but, due to the blindness and carelessness of local entrepreneurs and politicians, who look at the real estate value of the land it is built upon, it could well happen that in a recent future, they'll cleverly condemn it as "unsafe" and rapidly destroy it.
Georgette is fiercely fighting against this, but her resources are limited and so are mine.
The House of the Sun would marvelously lend itself to become an art gallery, a theatre space, a music school or an artists' residence. Georgette and I discussed at length the making of this photographic book and in her dreams it could become an instrument to reach someone, a private person, a non profit or art organization, who would be able to purchase the House of the Sun, start restoring it and utilize this wonderful space as an academic retreat or even as an art or cultural center, someday.
More realistically, with the book I want to be able to remember this amazing place at least through my photographs and Georgette’s recollections, which I carefully transcribed and edited from hours of audio recordings.
Georgette keeps dreaming that through the images of this book, someone with the resources, and more importantly with the visionary power to save this unique residence, will enable her dream to become reality.
As for me, I just dread the next time I’ll travel to San Juan de la Maguana and looking to the street corner where a wonderful building still stands, I might see a monstrosity of glass and concrete being carelessly built in its place.