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Homes from bygone days

Research study reveals what life was like on São Paulo's coffee plantations


There, everything is in the past and nothing is in the present. No verbs are conjugated in the present. Everything is past tense. The plantations are visually magnificent properties when seen from afar, and saddening ones when one approaches them on foot. Surrounding the main house, one sees the empty slaves’ quarters and the open stone terraces overrun by guanxumas (a native plant) in the cracks. The landowner is absent. “The coffee shrubs were eradicated,” as author Monteiro Lobato wrote about the ‘ghost towns’ that used to house ‘the coffee factories,’ responsible for transforming a poor, insignificant state into the country’s most developed state. “In the course of 150 years, coffee plantations in the State of São Paulo produced a major heritage in terms of buildings that are still able to explain their history. Unfortunately, many of them have been destroyed or remodeled over the course of the years, with very few records left of the daily lives of the people that built them and lived in them,” says Vladimir Benincasa, author of the doctoral thesis ‘Fazendas paulistas’ (Plantations in the State of São Paulo ), presented at the Department of Architecture and Urbanism of the Engineering College of São Carlos (USP). Benincasa prepared his thesis with the support of Ângela Bortolucci, and FAPESP.

“Changes in the economy in the last 50 years, which caused a massive rural exodus, created a generation that forgot its traditions and that is unfamiliar with its origins,” the researcher explains. He spent three years visiting, surveying, and taking pictures of more than 300 farms. This resulted in 15 thousand photos and 200 ground plans of the plantation houses. Benincasa’s objective was to get an overview of the rural architectural heritage produced during the coffee cycle, which began in the early 19th century and ended in the 1940’s. Benincasa wanted to find out how the São Paulo style of building and living was created and how this was influenced by the impact of the transformations brought about by capitalism (such as mechanization, electrification, railroads, etc.) on the configuration of production and living spaces. The difficulty lay in going back in time to understand the concept of space. Nowadays, the old plantation houses, many of then abandoned or turned into inns, stand isolated on the landscape, devoid of the premises that comprised the coffee-producing complex. “It is difficult for anyone to have any idea of the activities that went on in those houses. The complex was usually a succession of buildings with inner patios, and places for coffee processing, equipped with a mill, grinder, blacksmith’s workshop, slaves’ quarters, first aid station, huts, general store, resting places; and people, many people. Nearly everything has disappeared and only the big residential homes have remained,” says architect Marcos Carrilho, of the National Heritage Institute/ (Iphan), in his article “Fazendas de café oitocentistas no Vale do Paraíba” (Eighteenth century coffee plantations in the Vale do Paraiba region).


It was only in the second half of the seventeenth century, when the mining cycle ended, that the Portuguese court began to show an interest in the fertile lands in the south of Brazil, which led to the rise of a significant agricultural sector in the State of São Paulo. Coffee, which is nowadays a national passion, only appeared in Brazil in 1727; it took nearly a whole century to reach Rio de Janeiro, and it came to the Vale do Paraíba region in 1790. As very little was known about planting coffee, a number of articles appeared (such as the manuals written by Laborie, Saia and the baron of Paty Alferes) to help the pioneers. These manuals described planting techniques, machines and, above all, the spatial configuration of the plantation. “The rudimentary subsistence farms of the backwoodsmen gave way to the more specialized and complex groups of buildings that comprised the coffee plantation,” points out Benincasa. “Thou shall start your plantation by first building an ordinary house for your temporary residence and as many houses as are needed to house the slaves and the freemen; but all of this must be done in such a way as to safeguard the plantation,” were the words in the compendium written in 1847 by Paty Alferes. The design of the establishment was the basis for everything, including the planting of the coffee crop, and the drying terrace, the center of the complex. “In addition to carefully implementing the plantations, it is desirable to place the landowner’s home in such a way as to ensure visual dominance of the facilities, evidencing the purpose of controlling the entire range of activities,” Laborie emphasized. To function properly, the coffee ‘industry’ had to be built in a manner that would enable the interlocking of the chain of activities.


The typical configuration consisted of drying patio, or terrace, to dry the coffee beans. The main house stood next to this terrace, in an outstanding position; the main house was the center of the complex. This configuration in squares allowed for a dominating view, and a social view as well, as everything happened in front of the main house. “The slaves’ quarters were always positioned near the main house, because of the need to oversee the slaves, who were sometimes more expensive than the land itself,” explains the researcher. The production of coffee was followed by the production of milk; due to the decadence of the mining industry, the mineiros [those who came from the State of Minas Gerais], were drawn to planting coffee. They brought the influence of their more sophisticated architecture and agricultural techniques, which were more up-to-date than those of the ‘paulistas,’ [the people from the State of São Paulo], whose architectural techniques were based on wattle and daub structures. The ‘mineiros’ also added formal touches to the plantation houses, such as a service area in the main body of the house, porches, outdoor stairways, and ornaments, adding a light touch to the buildings. “In several regions, the population of ‘mineiros’ was bigger than that of ‘paulistas.’ This is why many of the houses in several regions in the State of São Paulo were built in the architectural style prevalent in the State of Minas Gerais.”

Isolated in the middle of the forest, the coffee plantation of the nineteenth century resembled a village, populated by a lot of staff who did the daily work. “The architectural typology of this first phase of the coffee cycle is that of an autonomous farm, with no relationship to the outside world, because it was self-sustainable,” points out André Ferrão, from the School of Civil Engineering, Architecture and Urbanism of Unicamp, who wrote Arquitetura do café, (The Architecture of Coffee). “The rustic ‘paulista’ house, which lasted into the seventeenth century, had very little furniture, with hooks for hammocks spread throughout the house; it was gradually replaced by homes with drawing rooms furnished with imported furniture, pianos, paintings and bric-a-brac,” says Benincasa. “Visitors were no longer ushered to the built-in porch, but were taken to the main floor by a stairway.” This is when the casa grande appeared – the grand mansions that showed off the power of coffee-growing and monarchist elite. “The arrival of the French Mission in Rio also introduced new elements to these houses, such as a growing focus on the design of the facade, the pursuit of symmetry and a better distribution of the open spaces, the inclusion of a cellar to avoid direct contact with the soil, and better ventilation and light, in line with the personal care habits of those times. The coffee plantation in São Paulo has specific characteristics that cannot be found in similar properties in other parts of the world,” says the author.


The manuals of Laborie and the baron also preached the need to organize a place to house the slaves; previously, these shelters had been built by the slaves themselves, reproducing the designs of their African shelters. “From the 1840’s onwards, a new configuration for slaves’ quarters became popular – the quarters were built in the form of long or square buildings, which was a way of increasing control over the slaves.” Very few of these buildings exist today, because, as they were not residences, but shelters, they were built with precarious and rustic materials and techniques. “In general, the slaves’ quarters that are still standing were redone to house immigrant families; others were turned into storage facilities.” But these buildings were always built near the main house, so that the slave owner could always keep an eye on his slaves. The landowner now had to adopt the new social graces which had decreed the end of the built-in porch, previously a place to welcome visitors. Seating visitors on the porches was considered discourteous in the nineteenth century plantations of the Vale do Paraiba region. Visitors were to be ushered directly into the entrance hall of the house and then taken to the drawing room. “This habit modified the façade of the main house, which consisted of a staircase and a landing, fraught with symbolism, marking the reception and creating an expectation in relation to entering the house of the master of the property.”


Another innovation that was non-existent in the old Paulista houses: the drawing room in the house of the wealthy coffee plantation owner was much bigger. “These were rooms where social gatherings took place, such as musical evenings, and literary parties, and where a certain level of sociability was acceptable. Entrance and representation rituals were part of these gatherings,” Benincasa explains. The chapel inside the main house also emphasized the landowner’s strong connection with the powerful Catholic Church. “The indoor premises of these big houses had exclusive functions that could not be conducted elsewhere on the plantation, given their symbolic value; even religious practices were conducted inside the landowner’s home.” Ostentation was everywhere – polished wooden floors, plumbing and electrical wiring, decorative mural paintings, imported wallpaper, elaborate ceilings, paneled windows and doors, in the style of the Court in Rio de Janeiro, whose habits were adopted by the coffee plantations. New times, new customs: the expansion of coffee throughout the State of São Paulo, as well as the widespread anti-slavery campaign, brought farm workers and their skills from Europe. “This process, coupled with the rise of the coffee-growing elite and the arrival of professionals, such as European architects and engineers (in addition to craftsmen who became farm workers), modified the landscape of the coffee plantations. In addition, the expansion of railways, which transported coffee to the port of Santos, and the onset of steam navigation made it easier to import construction material from Europe and the United States.”


Houses with greater freedom from formality appeared, where space was strictly segmented. “These houses had big and small rooms for a range of activities: drawing rooms, tea rooms, game rooms, sewing rooms, music rooms, lunchrooms, dining rooms, smoking rooms, etc. This is when corridors appeared, to facilitate the indoor traffic from the various wings of the house without allowing the visitor to perceive the traffic; all of this was a reflection of how the rural elite was becoming the bourgeoisie,” says Benincasa. The wattle and daub architecture was being substituted by the modern brick architecture and the new desire was a sunny, airy and clean house in which the bathroom was the core part. – The rural house of the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century incorporated the comforts of modern life, and thus expressed the financial soundness and the cosmopolitan background of the ‘Paulista’ plantation owner.” This was nothing like the previous houses of past landowners – the modern plantation house attested to the willingness of the coffee barons to transform their houses into pleasant and comfortable homes that even reflected, says the researcher, gender relations. “The houses had places where the women could gather together with the men, though most of their living quarters were separate from the men’s. An intermediary area was created to be shared by all the members of the household, including outsiders.”


The main house and the slaves’ quarters were gradually substituted by main houses surrounded by gardens and the houses of the farm workers. “A new typology appeared, preserving the architectural features of the typical plantation house, yet incorporating technical modernity. The plantation began to resemble an agribusiness enterprise, such as those on the fertile lands of the Ribeirão Preto region,” writes André Ferrão. This architectural evolution was interrupted by the 1929 Depression and by the 1930 Revolution. “A new kind of architecture appears – it doesn’t resemble the plantation house; the houses are now built to fit the smaller coffee farms, in the light of the new rationale underlying the production process,” points out Ferrão. This is the beginning of the end of the vast properties in the Vale do Paraíba region and the beginning of their evolution as the agribusiness enterprises in the western area of São Paulo. According to the researcher, this is when the industrial center of the coffee plantations became smaller and less complex, because the processing and storage of coffee was taking place in the towns; thus, the main houses, the farm workers’ houses and other facilities became smaller, and sometimes even disappeared. “The owner is not in”: these words of Lobato [a famous Brazilian writer] described the landowner’s move to a big city, from where he could control the entire process, which led him to spend only a few days on his country property. Landowners could now avail themselves of speedy transportation, which enabled them to lead this double life, so entirely different from the former isolation of the plantation. “The architecture of the production complex of most of the rural properties in the west of São Paulo State became quite similar to the architecture of the coffee groves,” says Ferrão. “The architectural style of the main houses built in the early twentieth century is simple and naive; the embellishments disappeared; architecture became practical, designed for work and not for living. A farmer often owned more than one farm, because now he had a car which took him quickly from one farm to the next. It is very meaningful that magazines and newspapers from the early twentieth century seldom depicted the main houses, previously the normal thing to do, but often showed illustrations of the farms” offices and administrative facilities, as if they were trying to explain the absence of a “grander plantation house,” says Benincasa.


The farm workers’ houses reflected economic modernization. “There is a great similarity between these houses and the houses of the urban factory workers, the concept of which was being disseminated throughout the capitalist world; the São Paulo coffee plantation was inevitably influenced in this respect, especially where the increase in productivity and control of the work and of the worker are concerned,” explains the researcher. Clock towers, bells, belvederes and sirens became a common feature on these plantations converted into agribusiness complexes: these were symbols of modernity; the work day was organized into several work shifts, which could include night work, thanks to electricity. But time was running against the system. “There was a very clear trend in the 1940s: the small coffee farm, with a specific architecture aligned with the new parameters imposed by the production system, became the main production unit of the coffee agribusiness complex. The farm workers’ houses disappeared on most of these small farms, due to the farm workers’ exodus to the cities, giving rise to the migrant workers referred to as ‘bóia-fria’ [which translates literally as a ‘cold grubber’, referring to the fact that these people had to eat their grub cold, as they lacked the means to warm their food up in the field.] A few small houses, usually wooden, were spread throughout the property. The main house is very simple; sometimes, there is no main house,” writes Ferrão. Everything is in the past, even though the verbs are conjugated in the future.