The first international nomad to visit Isla Taboga, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the European discoverer of the Pacific, arrived on the island in 1513. Designer Diane Burn arrived nearly a half-millennium later, traveling to the lovely but small mountainous island 12 miles south of Panama City, in the Bay of Panama, to see an artist friend. Visiting from New York, she also wanted to survey the country's real estate boom, an environment, Burn recalls, "brimming with opportunities—like in the days of the Gold Rush."
She was enchanted by the seductively sleepy and picturesque town of San Pedro, with its main square boasting a charming Spanish colonial church founded in 1524 and its sweeping views across the bay to the capital city. Nothing, however, turned out to be for sale except an unprepossessing little shack planted on a disproportionately fine piece of hillside property overlooking the town. Not at all surprisingly, Burn bought it. Her stated motivation behind the colorful international life she leads as a designer is her passion for discovering "a basic ruin in great need of renovation which could be restored to become something magical."
With a determination rivaling that of Francisco Pizzaro, who paused on Isla Taboga before setting out to conquer Peru, Burn set out to transform the shack (la choza in Spanish) into the now wildly romantic and sophisticated villa Casa la Choza.
The first of many unpredictable steps was the rental of a town house in the historic Casco Viejo district of Panama City to serve as Burn's design studio and the staging center for the renovation. As nothing even distantly related to interior design is available on the island of Taboga, the studio also conveniently housed furnishings, accessories, textiles, architectural details and antique woodwork—all of which would play their roles in the creation of Casa la Choza.
A Louis XVI baldachin found in France and two 18th-century polychrome carved wood angels from Rouen, textiles discovered in the village market of Porto Ercole on the Italian coast (where Burn had a villa), more textiles and wood masks from Guatemala, tile panels from Nove outside Venice, tables from India and 19th-century architectural elements from local deconstruction sites in Casco Viejo were massed into formation, awaiting their journey to Isla Taboga.
"I've led a nomadic life and take my antiques with me," says the designer, who has lived in and restored homes everywhere from San Francisco to Rome, Paris, New York and South Florida and who is as likely to be spotted shopping in the market of Chichicastenango in Guatemala or on West Palm Beach's Dixie Highway Antique Row as on the quai Voltaire, the Via Margutta or Portobello Road.
The missing ingredient was a Tabogan partner in building who could understand non-Spanish-speaking Diane Burn's "only means of communication," she explains, "which was with sign language and my own little sketches." Miraculously, she says, "I found a marvelously gifted local craftsman-builder—Armando Lopez. There's nothing he can't do single-handedly.
"Even then," Burn relates, "it was an amazingly challenging process adapting every idea to suit the Panamanian climate, importing everything by ferry-boat, using unfamiliar materials and new-to-me stronger colors suited to the tropics, as well as exploring the extraordinary possibilities offered by the ethnic cultures of Central America."
Burn's mastery of the painted finish gives the almost wholly new structure a timelessness that fits its location and the eclectic mélange of periods and cultures found in its décor.
The distressed finishes that Burn applied to the new ceiling fans were so convincing that the local electrician took one look at their meticulously faux-rusted blades and suggested that "the señora might want to paint the old fans before I hang them."
Pieces of antique woodwork of vastly diverse origins blend seamlessly under their new colors and finishes, hinting at "a different century," says Burn.
"The village," she states, "is something right out of the 1500s. I awake to the town roosters crowing at 5:30 A.M. There is no real winter and summer, just a dry season and a rainy season, which is so lush and green. I have my baldachin, which has already followed me from Rome to New York, and my angels from Rouen for protection and beauty." Of course, in Diane Burn's Casa la Choza, beauty is its own protection.
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