The Paseo de Montejo, considered the “Champs Elysee" of the city of Mérida, features two almost identical French-styled houses that locals and tourists alike find fascinating. Built by Camilo and Ernesto Cámara Zavala, "Las Casas Gemelas" (The Twin Houses) were inaugurated on December 24, 1911. The family built its wealth on henequen and was one of the five richest families in town. Camilo and Ernesto commissioned the plans for the buildings to architect Gustave Umbdenstock, a professor at the École Polytechnique and director of Paris' 'École des Beaux-Arts. Mérida’s bourgeoisie adopted the Beaux-Arts style to display their power and wealth. Local engineer Manuel Cantón Ramos built the houses. Upon closer inspection, the houses are not identical. The southern house has a third floor, a French roof, windows coherent in style, and a front door covered by a curved wrought iron canopy. The northern house contains Spanish architectural elements, such as a terraced top and windows with decorated blinds.
The Barbachano and Molina Méndez families owned the two houses. Each family played a prominent role in Mérida's high society during the Porfiriato (1874-1910). In Barbarous Mexico (1910), journalist John Kenneth Turner described his encounter with a leading henequen empressario. The man wore a white diamond ring and laughed when describing the brutal measures used to control the Maya, Korean, and Yaqui workers, saying they "demand it."
The Barbachano and Molina Méndez families continue to accumulate wealth on the back of indigenous labor. The Barbachanos own several hotels and tourist facilities, and the Molina Méndez hold a cruise ship concession. During the Porfiriato, artists, poets, and writers held lively cultural events at the Barbachano house. In the twentieth century, the Barbachanos hosted such luminaries as Princecess Grace and Prince Ranieri of Monaco, as well as first lady of the U.S., Jacqueline Kennedy.
Today, the northern house remains the Molina family’s primary residence. Since October 18, 1982, the Mérida historic center is protected by strict preservation laws that limit useage and modification of the homes. In a 2014 interview with a local newspaper, Maruja Barbachano Herrero proposed the possible donation of her property to the city so that it might be opened to the public. Ideally, the house could serve as a museum of the Porfiriato in Mérida, a crucial era in the city's history, but one that demands attention. As pf June 2016, however, no steps have been taken toward the transfer of the property.