Garzón, a small village near the southeastern coast of Uruguay, is often described as a one-horse town. But anyone who uses this conventional phrase misses the point entirely. First of all, Garzón is full of horses. You see them trotting along the gravel streets near its verdant central plaza, steered by locals dressed in traditional gaucho attire, and you see them galloping in the distance at one of the vast estancias that surround this countryside enclave. Secondly, at least for part of the year, Garzón is home to some of the most cosmopolitan and creative people in the world, a community that includes a British art dealer, an Australian yacht designer, a Belgian plastic artist, and the celebrated Argentine chef Francis Mallmann.
It was Mallmann who, nearly two decades ago, became struck by the faded beauty of this former railroad town—most of the hamlet’s modest yet sturdy houses remained untouched since the 1940s and ’50s—and decided to rescue it from oblivion. “When I started to build my restaurant and hotel there, inside an old general store, the place was practically abandoned,” says Mallmann, who opened his now-famous wood-fired kitchen and five-room lodging in 2003. “Many of my guests fell in love with Garzón after spending the night, and some of them ended up buying land and building homes.” This, more or less, is what happened for Londoners John Pearse and Florence Nicaise Pearse. In 2007, the couple were staying in nearby José Ignacio, the preferred seaside playground of South America’s beau monde, when someone suggested they drive 30 minutes inland to try Mallmann’s cuisine.
“At first no one was in the restaurant, which had this extraordinary aesthetic,” says Nicaise Pearse, a French-born fashion stylist and former actress. “Then Francis walks in and we start making small talk, and then Martin Summers walks in with his posse and tells us he’s building something in town.” As it turns out, Summers, a well-known art dealer, was not their only London acquaintance in this secluded corner of Uruguay; their friend Tiggy Maconochie, a photography agent who worked with Helmut Newton, was also there looking at real estate. The couple returned home with nothing more than an interesting anecdote—or so they thought. “All I can say is that Garzón was on my mind, and I couldn’t get it out,” Nicaise Pearse says. “I told John about it, and two weeks later we were back.”
Pearse is not known to shy away from adventures or quixotic endeavors. He was once in an avant-garde band, he made an obscure feature film, and he famously dressed rock-and-roll royalty in the 1960s at his influential London shop Granny Takes a Trip. As a formally trained tailor who learned the ropes at Hawes & Curtis on Savile Row, Pearse began to refashion vintage fabrics into flamboyant suits that caught the eyes of Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, and George Harrison, among others. “John Lennon loved to sit around, encouraging shoppers to buy the underground International Times paper or our latest shirt,” remembers Pearse, who still makes bespoke menswear at his atelier in London’s Soho.
“The concept of being in a town that died when the railway stopped running and resembles a set for a spaghetti Western,” he says, “was most appealing.” On their return to Uruguay, he and Nicaise Pearse purchased a plot of land on the edge of Garzón and engaged Diego Montero, a locally based Argentine architect, to build a rustic yet modern house with hints of Brutalism. “We initially looked upon the construction of our house as an art project that might or might not ever get finished,” Pearse says. “But now I savor every last nook and cranny of it.”
A few years and numerous transatlantic trips later, the project was finally completed. (While they were waiting, they stayed at a ranchito on the adjacent plot, which they also bought.) It’s a rectangular, 3,700-square-foot structure made entirely of concrete, with a central living area flanked by two cubes, one containing a kitchen and the other a study and a bedroom. Most of the furniture—an intentionally sparse collection of wooden and woven items with simple lines—was purchased or handmade in Uruguay.
This decorative austerity suits the couple’s lifestyle in Garzón, where they live during the winter months. Being that this is the Southern Hemisphere, in January they spend their days sitting on their roof deck, looking at endless pastures, or lounging by the minimalist pool, listening to the rustle of the palm trees they planted in their garden or the distant bellow of a bull.
“John and I have met so many people and been to so many places,” says Nicaise Pearse, who married Pearse in the 1970s after meeting him on a movie set in Italy. “We both love the quiet of the Uruguayan countryside and its very open, gently rolling land, as well as the sense of freedom we get when we’re here.”