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Updated: Jul 23, 2018

The only remaining property on Avenue La Playa from a bygone era, the CASA BARRIENTOS has been restored to something way beyond its former glory; a house for all.

The irony of the Casa Barrientos is that the family tried everything to prevent anyone inheriting this house, and yet in the end, it became the inheritance of all Paisas. Situated at number 251 Avenida 'La Playa', in 'El Centro' (the old centre of Medellín), it is the only original house which remains from what was the old village. At that time, instead of fumey Virgin Mary blessed buses, yellow taxis, motorcycles and fruit sellers as its vista, there would only have been a pretty brook marking the edge of the village. Today, every other house from that era has ceased to exist, having been sold on by its descendants to make a pretty penny or having met some other similar grim fate.

Designed to be a splendid family house for an upper class family in the 1870s, the house was constructed using the tapia and teja method by Don José Lorenzo Posada before subsequently passing through various hands. This temple of yellow and green is entered through a lush front garden paved by mosaic, and there is an inviting stairwell which rolls open like an Antioquia red carpet. The strange thing is that once inside its gates, you immediately forget you are in Medellín 2018.

As I enter the grounds, two bordering-on-elderly women on a day visit from the village La Ceja follow me inside me just as if I had known them forever: "O my girl! We came to the big city for a medical appointment but we can't find the address. It must be wrong. Do you know where it can be?" The woman with brittle curly hair and her identical but cropped-haired sister then begin showing me all of the sister's medical files and personal details. "And no one answers the phone. So what should we do? But, anyway. Here we are. And this house - isn't it beautiful?"

The houses around here may have more or less all been knocked down, but it is a curious thing that the way people are here has hardly changed in hundreds of years.

There cannot be many places in the world where someone comes up to you, tells you all their personal business, and considers you as a cousin without ever having met you before. And this is the essence of the Antioquian people. This feeling continues inside the Casa Barrientos as well, where it is now a children's library and reading centre headed-up by the Comfenalco Antioquia organization. The Children's Reading House, as it is now known, offer a warm welcome to all (comprising silver tray-served coffee), and encourages families to take advantage of their numerous activities and workshops.

The house was sympathetically restored between 2006 and 2007 by workers of the restoration charity FUNDACÍON FERROCARRIL DE ANTOQUIA under the meticulous leadership of its former director, Álvaro Sierra Jones. With funds from the Municipio de Medellín, the derelict property was given its new vocation as children's library to every paisita of the community. What was the drawing room of the house is now a reading room replete with replica wallpaper from the era. The cornicing - not only beautiful but essential as a tool in ventilation - is now perfect once more. It is patterned with Islamic-influenced detailing such as stars, a reminder of the origins of this style of architecture first in north Africa, and then Spain, before it was exported to us here in Colombia.

After mounting the garden's stairwell, you enter the house via a corridor decorated underfoot with tiles typical of these kinds of houses. At the time, I am told, these tiles would actually have been imported, but now they are manufactured locally. What were bedrooms surrounding patio comprising a star-shaped font, have now become transformed into children's reading rooms. And leaning against what would have been the dining room leading onto the second inner patio, is now a push-cart library of attractive children's books. Mothers, fathers and their little ones walk around happily, and they enjoy the kind of atmosphere that only a traditional Colombian house can offer its guests.

Upstairs, there is a room accessible from a restored cumin-wood spiral staircase with vaulted ceilings and intricate window closings. Once used for dances and grand events, this is now a teaching salon which leads out onto traditional shutter-windowed doors which take you out onto the upper balcony. Here I imagined soirées attended by women in giant dresses, and men with wavy mustaches to the sounds of La Vencedora.

At the side of the house, there is what would have been the horses entrance and corridor, allowing the residents' 'camioneta' of their day to trot underneath the house before being parked in the stables at the rear. Some of the former bedrooms over look this lower corridor and have pretty ventilation windows which rotate vueltas Antioqueñas on their hinges, and there is also a mosaic-tiled immersion bath - evidence of the wealth of its original inhabitants. Exploring the lower patio - created out of what would have been the stables and service quarters of the house - the building leads on to a back garden cafeteria; off to its side is also a modern theatre / conference centre capable of receiving 150 delegates. Just as in 1870, a woman mops the floor with mindful dedication.

Polite homily

The cultural value of this house cannot be overstated. And the story of its restoration and rebirth as a library is an important lesson in how protecting antiquated buildings and integrating them into the modern day can be done and replicated. What was La Playa of course became Barrio Prado. And what was Barrio Prado became Laureles. Laureles in turn became Poblado. And now... it seems, Las Palmas is the *new* Poblado.

This tendency to simply begin something new rather than protecting and safeguarding the present for tomorrow, is a real problem in terms of protecting cultural patrimony in Medellín. It is no accident that Medellín's colonial architecture has almost been entirely lost only to make way for 'the bigger' and 'the more shiny'. How often I have heard since living in Medellín, "we have to move forwards"? But why, I respond, cannot we move forwards by preserving our heritage?

Without an increased focus both on restoration and the valuing and the training of the individuals who seek to conserve these buildings in Colombia now and tomorrow, there is the great danger that there will be none of the older buildings left, meaning that their beauty is lost from us, and from future generations, altogether. The message is clear: Colombia needs to invest in her restoration architects and their students.

♥ The 'Fundación Ferrocarril de Antioquia' has not only restored many buildings but has published books about their projects. Information about the Casa Barrientos project can be found in their book: 'Fundación Ferrocarril de Antioquia: 20 Años Restaurando Patrimonia pp. 142-145 ISBN: 978-958-98038-0-6 (May, 2007). The organisation can be found at: Edificio Estación Medellín, carrera 52 n° 43 – 31, oficina 107 and http://www.fundacionferrocarrildeantioquia.com. Email them for more information or support them at: corporativo@fundacionferrocarrildeantioquia.org

♥ The 'Casa de la Lectura Infantil' can be contacted at: Calle 51 # 45 - 47, Agenda La Playa, Medellín. They can be telephoned at: 575 22 50 or emailed at: blaplaya@comfenalcoantioquia.com. It is part of the 'Sistema de Bibliotecas Públicas de Medellín': http://bibliotecasmedellin.gov.co/casa-de-la-lectura-infantil/.

#CasaBarrientos #Medellín #Antioquia #AvenidaLaPlayaMedellín #FundaciónFerrocarrilDeAntioquia

Illustration: http://bibliotecasmedellin.gov.co/cms/nuestras-bibliotecas/