El Arca de Noé, The Other Story
“The house is full of wonderful stories, but now it is our time for filling it with new ones.”—Roy Azar
By Jesús Aguado
“I made this house; I invented it,” proudly declared Isaac Cohen to the newspaper México al Día. A Jewish man who did not know how to write or read and didn’t even know a man who did, he arrived from Syria and became a successful vendor. The House of the Animals, or Noah’s Ark, located on calle Reloj 12 and 18, was purchased in 1936 and inaugurated in 1942. From the very beginning, the front of the building was turned into a store where it was easy to buy corn, perfumes, candles, nails, and even coffins that were used by the Cohens’ 10 children for playing hide and seek. This is the story of an emblematic building in our historic center, one that has seen the years pass by, and one that will see San Miguel’s future with brand new eyes.
They were neighbors in Syria
Isaac Cohen was born in Damascus, Syria (1890). “My great-grandfather was very poor, and since he was five years old, he used to boil beets to sell them at the market,” states Lucy Guakil in her investigation called Roots. She shared part of her information in which she mentions that Cohen did not know how to write or read. He arrived in Mexico in 1920, and he did what he knew how to do well, sell from one town to another. On the other hand Raquel Turquie’s father came to Mexico to try his luck. Raquel was born in 1909 in Damascus, Syria, and since she was the oldest sister, she had to accompany her father on his trip to Mexico. When she was 17, her father married her to Isaac Cohen, “a man that she did not even know,” states Guakil, who also remarks that in Damascus, the Cohens’ and Turquis’ homes were next to one another.
When Cohen and Turquie married, Isaac gave her several choices of places to live. Among them was San Miguel de Allende. They arrived in this city at the end of 1920 during the Cristera War. Isaac Cohen’s daughter, Aurora Cohen, and his grandchild, Felipe Cohen, told Atención that when the couple arrived, they rented a room at Casa Canal, which was at that time a guesthouse. “One night my mother heard gunshots, and she asked my father what the noise was. He said, ‘They are rockets. People here are very festive.’ The next day when my mother went out of the house, she found men hanging from the trees and another dead on the ground. She could not even ask anybody what happened because she did not speak Spanish,” said Aurora.
“My parents arrived in this city without any money. All they made in the future was thanks to San Miguel,” said Aurora, the seventh of ten children. During our interview at the former Casa Cohen, Aurora commented that her father always dreamed of having his own house. She also remarked that he was very creative. “If he was looking at a match box and it had an interesting image, he used to go to the sculptor and ask him to make it. He started keeping all the sculptures until he bought the house in 1936.” The house, according to the daughter, had just one story, and in the backyard there were chickens and fruit trees.
From the beginning the front part was a store where they sold clothing, soaps, perfumes—“the most demanded items at that time.” The customers were mainly from the rural communities, and Cohen always knew how to attract them into the store. If somebody was asking for nails on a certain day and he did not have them, the very next week there were nails in the place,” Guakil states in Roots. That was how the place grew from a simple store to a tile factory and a carpentry shop where coffins were made. The store was open 24 hours a day.
An article published on October 15, 1942, by México al Día, states that the house Cohen purchased in 1936 was crumbling, and he wanted to construct something that he liked. That was how it came about that during 79 days and nights, bricklayers worked in three shifts to build the emblematic house and façade that until even now would be known as the House of the Animals, or Noah’s Ark. “From the calloused hands of the native sculptors, the pieces of building stone flew until the most strange zoomorphic images appeared: birds, lions, elephants, horses, as well as chimeras from Notre Dame,” says the article. Isaac wanted to have all the animals that Noah saved in the house.
The same article contains information stating that in the interior rooftop, there were other sculptures even more wonderful than those on the façade. Inside, people could see Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, twelve signs of the zodiac, and Cristobal Colón when he first came to the new world, as well as sculptures of native armed Apaches. Atención took some photos of the worn out animals currently on the rooftop of the house, including a dove that announced to those in the ark that the rainfall had stopped.
When the price of the corn was very high
Aurora Cohen commented that in November every year, her father asked his ten children to help prepare up to two thousand aguinaldos—bags with candies and cookies—for the children and the general public. “I remember that in 1948, corn was very expensive. My father bought two tons of corn and handed the señoras a ticket they could exchange for corn. We gave corn until we did not have a single kernel,” said Aurora. She added that her father had a favorite phrase, “Do not give advice to your children. Give them example.”
Atención had access to an article about this story that does not include the name of the paper. The article affirms that on January 7, 1942, there was a call from Casa Cohen to the general public to go to the store and get corn, candies, clothing for children, and even cash. More than five thousand people received a present, including those ill at the civil hospital.
The house in the present
After Sally and Roy Azar arrived in San Miguel five years ago, they fell in love not just with the town, but also with Casa Cohen. “It was love at first sight,” assured Sally. After 12 months of planning and 18 months of reconstruction and restoration, finally the house was reopened. It is a concept-house, the first in Mexico. On the main floor it shelters gastronomy, design, photography, and bars with international brands. On the second story in the months to come it will shelter a hotel with ten suites. “We can create a place where the tourists as well as Sanmiguelenses can be able to taste good food and find unique pieces. It is a different proposal,” said Sally.
During the opening on April 16, Roy Azar commented that during the creation of this project there was fear and uncertainty because they did not know if what they were doing was correct, “but we were motivated by our love for San Miguel. The house is full of wonderful stories, but it is our time to fill it with new ones.”
“My aunts have said that they played hide and seek using the coffins.”
“My great grand-grandfather, Isaac Cohen, manufactured his own coffin with the best wood and ironwork; however, in the end he did not even use it because he passed in Mexico City, and the tradition of using that kind of coffin was forbidden.”