RESTORED TO GLORY
Breathing new life into the Dominican Republic’s Santo Domingo
Contemporary travel is all about the experience and, more than that, authenticity, both of which Santo Domingo offers in spades. You walk the same soft aguayo floor tiles and brick-laid courtyards as the city’s 18th-century inhabitants did. And going further back into the city’s heritage, walk certain streets and you could almost imagine a conquistador coming around the corner.
The capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo is one of a number of atmospheric colonial Latin cities around the Caribbean – Cartagena, Old San Juan and Havana. This, however, is the oldest of them all, founded in 1496 by Columbus’s brother, Bartholomew, on the island that came to be called Hispaniola. Buildings date from the
very early 1500s, interesting in itself because they are medieval, unlike those in other cities in Latin America, which are baroque.
The city is just coming to the end of a four-year restoration programme. Around US$31.5 million has been spent to improve pavements, lay utilities underground and introduce greenery and street furniture, including historic-looking “villa” lanterns. Around 80 facades have been restored, but by far the most impressive alteration is the disappearance of overhead electrical and telephone wires, a Caribbean-wide affliction best described as looking like aerial spaghetti.
In parallel, the private sector has injected some US$100m, repurposing buildings into cafés, hotels and galleries. It has transformed the experience of a visit to the oldest city in the New World.
The Billini Hotel is set in a former convent dating from the 1500s. Alongside modern photography and technology – Ipad docking stations and Bang and Olufsen sound systems – stand exposed sections of the old rubble-stone walls. Distinctive features, such as coral-stone pillars dating from 1550, were discovered during the renovation and have been restored to their former glory.
Rosadela Serulle, a Dominican designer who trained abroad, styled the hotel to its current look: “There is a mix of restoration and modern design. We have exposed the walls to show the history, but I felt the Dominicans needed something new and different, and we wanted to stand out, rather than be just another colonial-style hotel.”
A striking accent colour of scarlet runs through the hotel, as does equally eye-catching art from bordering Haiti – the owners are half Haitian. The Billini has a lively air, with a roof terrace and pool, while a bar spills out onto the piazza of a 16th-century church that is still in use.
New hotels, bars and restaurants are appearing all the time, but it wasn’t ever thus. The population within the city walls (30,000 in 1965) has steadily reduced to 8,000. For many years, new development went elsewhere: initially along the coastline, in villas and apartment blocks and chain hotels, and then more recently inland. The city's business centre is a cluster of glass high-rises around Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln Avenues.
...BACK TO LIFE
Phase two of Santo Domingo’s restoration is even more ambitious. The aim is to reenergise the old city, as well as continuing to improve the infrastructure.
Maribel Villalona is the head architect overseeing the project. “Conservation in our times means a living city,” she says. “Success in phase two will be to double the number of people living in the colonial zone and bring it back to life. Also, to persuade every visitor to explore the colonial zone.”
There will be a further US$90 million to spend, via another loan from the International American Development Bank, currently being passed by the national government. They expect it to lead to the creation of 500 new businesses, which will include nontourism related enterprises as well as restaurants, bars, various accommodations and galleries.
Spanish architect Rafael Moneo has won the design competition for phase two.
Many of the same improvements will be carried through the rest of the old city, but his plan also re-opens the city walls to walkers, restores more museums and landmarks, and 120 facades. The scheme will also concentrate on community, reworking neglected public spaces and improving 200 homes.
Concepts of restoration have moved on. Nowadays, the monumental buildings that were renovated in the 1980s feel a bit marooned, set in large open spaces, with little of the street life that makes the rest of this country so lively.
In contrast, the new Marine Heritage Museum feels quite modern. Set in the Atarazana, the old Royal Customs House, through which all goods imported to the Caribbean were supposed to pass for two centuries, it displays Dominican marine archaeological heritage through interactive exhibits of shipwrecks from across the centuries with life-size mock-ups of ships, audio-visual displays and excavated cannon, pipes, combs and coins.
Latin cities can tantalise – as you walk around you snatch glimpses through windows and open doors; a run of Romanesque arches here, paintings on a wall, perhaps a family at supper there. But you can experience the inside of these homes through Casas del XVI, a collection of houses that can be rented.
Each Casa has an interior courtyard and is restored with period and reproduction furniture, even ecclesiastical pieces, to give a sense of traditional Santo Domingo. The walls of Casa de las Mapas are lined with colonial maps, and the new Casa del Disenador – the house that once belonged to fashion designer Oscar de la Renta – references Dominican designers. The Casas del XVI are cool and calm spaces, but with butler service and a concierge to make sure you get the best of the city.
And similarly, restaurants and bars are opening up in fantastic settings. You can listen to merengue and jazz under a colonnade in a baroque courtyard, or drink in a brick-paved warehouse that was once frequented by conquistadors (and pirates).
Back to Rosadela Serulles of the Billini for a final word: “We have something that no-one else has – the oldest city in the New World. We’re authentic.”
The Casas del XVI are cool and calm spaces, but with butler service and a concierge
Statue of Christopher Columbus in front of Santa Maria la Menor Cathedral
The aim is to re-energise the old city, as well as improving the infrastructure
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: A scarlet accent and Haitian art are features of the design of Billini Hotel; the building was once a convent; rooms feature modern photography and the latest tech; historic-looking “villa” lanterns have been installed on the streets
Casas del XVI offers the opportunity to stay in the former homes of the city’s inhabitants
LEFT: Each Casa has an inner courtyard ABOVE LEFT AND RIGHT: