Who lost when the Jaragua crumbled?
The Dominican Republic still wasn’t the travel destination it has eventually become when a landmark event marked the spot between dreaming and doing: in 1942 the capital city built its first large-scale hotel, across the Caribbean Sea, letting the entire world know the country was ready to welcome it with open arms.
And this wasn’t just any hotel: it was the first venue of its kind in the entire region, a rationalist structure that challenged the established hospitality typology in the Antilles and spoke of a small country looking towards a brighter future. In 1985, surrounded by protests and a large social melee, the Jaragua Hotel was torn down.
Between its birth at the hands of the megalomaniac dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo Molina and its death during the murky rule of Salvador Jorge Blanco, what value did Dominicans see in the hotel? Did we know what we were losing? Or what’s more: Are we currently suffering the consequences of the downfall of what probably was the most important work of modernist architecture in the country?
Up until September 3, 1930, Santo Domingo was not the firm city one would expect from the first Spanish colony in the Americas, but one built out of wood: most of the houses were made out of planks, zinc and palm leaves. After the cruel ravage of Hurricane San Zenón, the capital was leveled; the only witnesses left standing were the manors the Spaniards left behind and a handful of houses of recent build. Which ones, in particular? Those created using reinforced concrete, a then little-known technique amongst the locals that had been used successfully in the city center of the buoyant San Pedro de Macorís.
The hurricane had another strong force waiting on the other side. In August of 1930 a product of the police and military forces had taken control of the country: General Rafael Molina Trujillo. San Zenón gave the newly minted president the chance to rebuild a capital that would speak of the strength of his government… and the only way to do so was by using reinforced concrete. Thus swiftly, Santo Domingo started having some concrete thoughts —and building accordingly. That’s when the city started seeing works that reflected the technical prowess of the 20th century: 1927’s Baquero Building —an eclectic neoclassical structure that was one of San Zenón’s few survivors— was joined by the likes of the Fernández Building, an art déco project created by José Antonio Caro and Leo Pou Ricart. Other newcomers were the city’s first Evangelical church, built by Benigno de Trueba and Eric Mayer on Las Mercedes Street, as well as the eye-catching Casa Vapor by Henry Gazón Bona. Thanks to these arrivals in quick succession, Santo Domingo started seeing a modern Caribbean city staring back in the mirror.
Santo Domingo didn't think of the Caribbean Sea as a spot made for leisure: in the past, that's where pirates came from; in the present, that's where the stench of the slaughterhouse originated. Certainly, many wealthy families had lots by the coastline that were used as weekend homes, but the water was such an aftertought that the villas used to face the Camino del Oeste —that is, today's Independencia Avenue. Nevertheless, in 1936 one of Trujillo's projects created a seaside esplanade that allowed locals to think of the new promenade as the ideal place to go and do nothing. It's just that, given that grand container, where was the content?
Back then, the University of Santo Domingo didn't offer a BA in Architecture. That explains why a young draftsman at the Design Office of the General Authority for Public Works had set his sights on the East Coast of the United States: his goal was to gain admission to the Department of Architecture at Yale. After a stint at Columbia's fine arts school and also at several of New York's architecture firms, he was finally able to enroll at the Connecticut university —on probation, though, as his record showed a trail of academic and professional experience in fits and starts. Against the expectations of the admissions department, he would go on to graduate at the top of his class, claiming several student awards in his wake. After graduation, he embarked on a grand tour of Europe in order to better train his eye: Paris, Rome and Madrid were on his itinerary, and there he absorbed several years' worth of stylistic education in a matter of months. Back home in 1932 he went on to design a few residences, such as Rancho Cayuco, a Spanish Revival home occupied by Porfirio Rubirosa and Flor de Oro Trujillo —that is, the dictator's daughter. In fact, having a Trujillo as a client would become some sort of future leitmotiv: between 1939 and 1956 architect Guillermo González would go on to produce some of the most iconic public buidlings of the era.
The city made an open call for proposals for a children's park —which would be named after the dictator's son, nicknamed Ramfis— overlooking the coastline. Among them, one in particular stood out due to its rationalist model with clean lines, which seemed to dive into the sea: Guillermo González's. Opened in 1937, the Ramfis Children's Park showed citizens —and their young— the joys of relaxing across the Caribbean Sea. Impressed by his skills, the dictatorship would also hire González to create the Dominican Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair —a display eventually titled
The Dominican capital —now known as Ciudad Trujillo in honor of its megalomaniac-in-chief— didn't have a strong tourism industry, and thus lacked the type of hotels that could lodge demanding travelers. At most, there were some small B&Bs and guesthouses run by inmigrant families —such as the Fausto or the Presidente. Local reality was far behind the display seen at the other two large Caribbean cities, with its Gran Condado Vanderbilt in San Juan and the Nacional in Havana. Both featured more than 100 guestrooms and a large list of social amenities that the humble dining halls of Dominicana had trouble even imagining. But that would soon change: Trujillo was doubly inspired by a visit to New York City's Waldorf Astoria and a letter from the manager of the Condado hotel suggesting the creation of a hotel that would rise to the city's new reality. According to official statements, Dominicans were in for an innovative surprise. And they were right: that new hotel on George Washington Avenue would come to challenge the hospitality universe in the Antilles.
President Trujillo and his third wife, María Martínez, would never waste a chance to increase their net worth. That's why, as the hotel needed a lot to be built on, Martínez went to work: she bought a portion of the land previously known as Estancia El Carmelo, and through a front man —a British subject named Hallet Hansard— sold it to the Dominican government. In order to finance the project, local authorities requested a 400-thousand-dollar loan from America's ExIm Bank... but it's just that Guillermo González and his brother Alfredo, a civil engineer, in fact delivered a quote for 200 thousand. After the dust cleared, the Trujillo marriage ended up some 200 thousand dollars richer.
The actual building process was a joint endeavor between Guillermo González and his younger brother Alfredo. In a generous nine-thousand-square-meter 20-hectare lot, the architect had devoted space to the many things that the Fausto, the Francés and the other hotels in Santo Domingo failed to see as essentials. This could be clearly seen in matters of height: González's proposal rose to five stories' worth of reinforced concrete overlooking the Caribbean Sea in a west-east direction.
Until 1940, media references to the project spoke of
The initial blueprints for the Jaragua Hotel, signed by the González siblings, were ready for approval back in October of 1939. Those pages bore an innovative rationalist proposal with an obvious efficiency in terms of distributing its interior spaces. On top of that, it's quite surprising to see how the eldest González had a crystal-clear vision about what he wanted, as the proposal reveals a thorough level of details —for example, he had written in a minimalist clock in the lobby, floating glass doors and specific requests for finishing materials.
The first floor began with a driveway that led to a cathedral-ceiling lobby, featuring front-and-center a bust of Trujillo —lest anyone forget who had conceived the project. The lobby itself rose in the middle of the vertical volume, with the hotel's public areas surrounding it. For example, there was a grand ballroom to the south and a porch around three of its sides. To the west one could find a gift shop, a writing room, a beauty parlor and a casino —and the latter had its own independent entryways. The central bar connected the main terrace to the Andalusian courtyard, and to another terrace that overlooked the northern gardens. Towards the east stood a large dining hall, the kitchen, a private dining hall, laundry facilities and several service areas. Nearby one could descend to the basement, where González had placed the complementary service areas: the hot-water cauldron, the workshops and the storage rooms. Facing the sea towards the south were the gardens, the pool and the grand open-air terrace. Floors two to four featured a similar layout, with guestrooms placed on both sides of a central hallway. Single rooms faced north while double ones, overlooking the pool, faced south. Both featured ensuite bathrooms and cedar closets, as well as phones, electric ceiling fans and radios. There were 66 rooms in total —36 doubles and 30 singles— and three suites.
But do note that the Jaragua was not wholly born in the Dominican Republic. The first to place rationalist hotels across the sea were the French: André Lurçat designed the Nord-Sud in Corsica (1929) and Georges-Henri Pingusson created Saint-Tropez's Latitude 43 (1932). One can ascertain the reference just by looking at those white volumes, with their glass surfaces facing a body of water.
There's also the matter of the Nordic countries. The Maalaistentalo Building (1927-1928) and the Viipuri Library (1927-1935), both by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, feature a series of openings that slightly resemble the choices made in the Jaragua project. The same can be said about the Pohjanhovi, a hotel designed by Pauli and Märta Blomsted in 1936: its composition is quite similar go its Caribbean counterpart.
But no other element was the object of a copy+paste move as much as the hotel's exterior staircase: when González attended the 1939 New York World's Fair, he brought back as a souvenir the memory of the stairs at the Ford Motor Company pavilion, with its notorious curves swirling around a flagpole.
There was someone in particular who knew just how difficult it was to adapt rationalism to extremely sunny conditions: Richard Neutra, an Austrian-American architect who worked under the likes of Adolf Loos and Frank Lloyd Wright. The modernist style he developed in Southern California became so popular it is now inseparable from the area. Neutra visited Santo Domingo in March of 1945, on a short trip after spending some time working in Puerto Rico. Obviously, he stayed in the capital's best hotel, and during a conference at the University of Santo Domingo he didn't hesitate to state that Guillermo González's work was as good as the best rationalist buildings in Europe.
No other Dominican project had yet made it as far as the Jaragua Hotel: it was widely showcased in international architecture publications, even in spite of the troubled general climate due to World War II. For example, Interiors highlighted its design in 1944, while Proyectos y Materials and The Architectural Forum followed suit in 1945. The latter, in fact, dedicated a generous spread featuring the hotel's blueprints, as well as its long list of materials and suppliers.
Jaragua was the first hotel in the region to carry the torch of rationalism; that explains why its trail is quite visible in several neighboring countries. From the monumental Caribe Hilton in San Juan (1949), the Hotel del Lago in Maracaibo (1950) and the Hotel El Panamá (1946-1951) to Havana's Hotel Riviera (1957) and San Juan's Hotel La Concha (1959). The Lesser Antilles were also under its aesthetic influence, as evidenced by Saint Thomas' Virgin Isle Hotel (1951) and the Aruba Caribbean Hotel (1959). Although these proposals did surpass the Jaragua Hotel in scale, amenities and programming, its pioneering role is undeniable... although, to date, it has been unjustly ignored as a precursor with a strong influence on the region's hotel design.
Up until the mid 50s the hotel was, without a doubt, the epicenter of Ciudad Trujillo's social life for the capital's crème de la crème. By day the it spot was the pool, where visitors would sunbathe and share the garden and the sea views. By sundown, the large terrace was the stage for many dances under the moon. The hotel's event calendar seemed endless: from fashion shows to live music to government celebration, Dominican-themed nights and private parties. The schedule was full of musical reviews, as well as a bevvy of entertainment spaces to choose from: it had a casino, a bar and a restaurant, with the latter featuring both local and international cuisine.
Medley from the midnight set at the Jaragua Hotel
Generalísimo Trujillo Band, led by Luis Alberti
Live recording by Fabio Herrera in the 1950s
Just the sheer name "Jaragua" became shorthand for live music: in the 40s and 50s José Manuel López's band would play from Monday through Friday, while the weekends belong to Luis Alberti, the leader of the Orquesta Generalísimo Trujillo. The band had a repertoire that included Toda una vida and Quizás, by Osvaldo Farrés; Bésame mucho by Consuelo Velásquez and Capullo de alelí by Rafael Hernández. The bolero section usually featured Paraíso soñado and Ven, both by Manuel Sánchez Acosta, as well as Apasionado by Águeda Blandino, No te vayas by Luis Chabebe and Concierto de amor by Nicolás Yabra; the merengue spotlight featured the likes of El sancocho prieto, Loreta and Caliente, written by Alberti himself.
How many hotels can brag about having their own theme song? Party nights at the Jaragua had a high point, a particular moment that quickly became tradition: Luna sobre el Jaragua. At midnight, the voice of the so-called Ebony Spike, Rafael Colón, would sing the lyrics of a song penned by Alberti that became the hotel's official song.
The moon over the Jaragua
Throws a jealous look
At such magnificence
The moon over the Jaragua
Would love to dress us up
With silver and love
The outline of the palm trees
The murmur of the sea
And dreamy embraces
Can be heard all around
Luna sobre el Jaragua, a song written by Luis Alberti, performed by Rafael Colón
Record company: Salón Mozart
In spite of Trujillo's negative reputation, which kept many would-be visitors away, his machinery kept believing in the idea of a large-scale tourism industry for Santo Domingo. That explains why, in 1948, the González siblings received a commission for an expansion; they built five detached bungalows and 57-guestroom annex towards the east. The casino was moved to a new spot on the second floor and the main dining room grew to an even grander scale. // In the 50s, the southern façade got its brick-red awnings, the rooftop garden had its trellis and the grand terrace got a new bandstand. Nevertheless, no expansion at the time was as noticeable as the project undertaken for the preparations of the Fair for Peace and Fraternity in the Free World, an event brought along by Trujillo's desire to show the world the modern nation he had created. González was hired to increase the hotel's capacity with a 100-guestroom annex, located to the northwest side of the lot. This building, connected to the mothership via a walkway, was popularly known as the Holiday Inn, as it was then operated by the American hotel chain of the same name.
Due to the 1955 fair, the city ended up with more guestrooms than guests due to the birth of three new hotels: the Paz, the Generalísimo and the Embajador —the latter was built following the era's luxury standards. These newcomers, located in a relatively close radius, would come to create an oversupply of hotel rooms and entertainment options that would make a dent on the (until then unbeatable) Jaragua. And that, precisely, marked the beginning of the end.
Shooting Incident in Santo Domingo 1965
Ted Yates' interview with Al Burt, broadcast on the NBC News Hotline, as he reported on the civil war and US intervention in the country
University of Florida Archive
Four years after Trujillo's assasination, in 1965 the country was in revolt, as civilians joined by the military took to the streets of Santo Domingo to try to reinstate Juan Bosch's constitutional government, overturned by a coup in 1963. Fighting intensified due to the intervention of the United States, with the troops of the so-called Interamerican Peace Force, created by the OAS. The Force rented the Jaragua Hotel's main building as lodging, and that stay sadly damaged its infrastructure, leaving it worse for wear.
While Trujillo's government did have a long-term vision for tourism development, the truth was that the Jaragua Hotel was not profitable. There weren't enough check-ins to cover the costs of maintenance, but while Trujillo was alive it became rather commonplace to alter the bottom line in order to keep the dictator's whims at bay.
What's more, the hotel went through an unfortunate series of rescinded contracts, since many companies promised to embark on a full revamp of the building and ended up running away due to the high costs involved. Between 1942 and 1973 management had gone through 12 different pairs of hands, both local and foreign companies. Thanks to such swings, it became normal to close a year in the red. This administrative instability led to having a building that was simply not in any condition to keep up with market demands.
And yet, in the 60s and 70s the hotel was used rather creatively for activities that went beyond hospitality. In 1963 Ellis Pérez set up his radio station, Radio Universal, on the eastern side of the lot. The station became known as a pioneer for its live broadcasts of MLB games, and had its HQ in the hotel grounds until 1977.
But it wasn't just radio: on the second floor, to the west, were located the first Santo Domingo-based studios of Color Visión, as the Santiago de los Caballeros team moved the TV station to the capital in 1971. The hotel became the set for shows such as El sheriff Marcos and La casa de Pequitas on weekdays, while weekends featured the likes of Show de Shows and Domingo de mi ciudad —the latter hosted by Horacio Lamadrid using several of the hotel's public spaces.
By the early 70s, the Jaragua Hotel had still failed to become profitable; it urgently needed someone who could see the operation under a different light. Fortunately, someone was willing to give it a chance: José Hernández Santa Cruz, known as Papito Santa Cruz, a Cuban businessman with previous experience in casinos, restaurants and night clubs both in the Dominican Republic and overseas. Although Santa Cruz had never been at the helm of a hotel, he rose to the challenge of a head-to-toe revamp valued at 1.2 million pesos, as the building was in a dire state. The process went from the ceiling to the AC units to the common areas and a full set of new furniture, as well as the façades, the pool area, old restaurants brought back to life and a new two-story casino. But there was one project in particular that would stand out in the middle of it all: La Fuente.
Opened in December of 1975 with a budget of 750 thousand pesos, the event hall known as La Fuente replaced the hotel's former grand terrace, turning it into an indoors space headed by a large floating metallic structure. In his proposal, architect Manuel Del Orbe saw to it that Guillermo González's original proposal would be as protected as possible, so he used distinctive materials to separate the new from the old. In its terraced interior, with an 800-seat capacity, stood the country's first hydraulic stage, and it was decorated with finishings and objects imported from Miami. Apart from the in-house band led by Rafael Labasta, La Fuente had a Vegas-style show full of local and foreign dancers, as well as starring figures like José Lacay and Ed Vachan, popularly known as El Vedetto. That hydraulic stage would in turn host a bevvy of international artists, including Camilo Sesto, Marco Antonio Muñiz, Danny Rivera, Donna Summer and Barry White.
Business was booming, and so in 1976 Papito Santa Cruz signed a contract with the government that extended the original 1973 document for 20 more years. Nevertheless, as there was a new incoming administration in 1982 with the arrival of President Salvador Jorge Blanco, things would change. In the final days of that year and in the middle of his successful management streak, the Secretary for Tourism shut down the Jaragua Hotel due to a purported lack of hygiene. Santa Cruz and his family were forcibly evacuated from the premises, and the establishment was closed down even as tourists were still checked in.
And then, in April of 1983 the government announced the winners of a public call for proposals for a new lease. There was no clear winner here, due to the intervention of Jorge Blanco's leanings towards people in his own circle, but finally in 1984 a new winner was announced: the Compañía Transamerican Hotel y Casino S.A. had signed a 30-year contract. And meanwhile the hotel, shut down since December of 1982, fell in a state of disarray.
By mid 1984, the press caught wind of the plans to tear down the old Jaragua building... and yet the Transamerican contract still hadn't gone through Congress for approval. Motivated by the possibilities of this legal limbo, several civilian groups came together to try to stop the massacre. This list included journalists, architects and architecture students, as well as the members of Grupo Nueva Arquitectura, who sent a formal request to local legislators to declare the hotel part of the country's design heritage. That November 14, at the City Hall, councilor (and architect) Joaquín Gerónimo did officially declare it a work of cultural heritage, sending his proposal to the Executive Branch in order to try to halt the plans that wanted to see the old building fall in order to build a new complex.
The debate around the potentially upcoming demolition has been preserved in hundreds of articles, op-eds and paid spaces that were published in nationwide newspapers. For example, at El Nacional Bolívar Díaz Gómez asked:
Requiem sobre el Jaragua, a song written by Juan Luis Guerra
Courtesy of Karen Records
As the calendar marked March of 1985 and the debate about Jaragua's future went on, the hotel stood completely empty, ready to be demolished. Although Congress still hadn't approved the contract, Transamerican began by tearing down the south façade of the building... but that drove such a media frenzy that they had to put a stop to those works. // Martínez Burgos y Asociados, a building contractor, had hired Cocimar to handle the demolition itself, and Cocimar then hired Dykon, an American company specialized in explosives. And so, on the afternoon of March 13 people resigned themselves to witnessing the much-hyped spectacle of a Hollywood-style explosion, since authorities explained that the building was in such dire conditions due to the impact of four decades of saltpeter that it could tumble down on its own without warning. And yet, when those two thousand loads of TNT went off, the Jaragua Hotel barely moved a few inches... there stood Guillermo González's masterpiece, nearly intact, seemingly taunting those who dared called it a weak white elephant. Unfortunately, as dynamite failed to do its job, Transamerican's plans continued and they gave the building an ingnominious death, using a wrecking ball and even using pickaxes.
In a country that has only been taught to appreciate one type of architectural heritage —that is, a colonial one— our built testimony of the 20th century is often misunderstood and unaprecciated. Things get more complicated once we take into account the shared role of our architects, the authorities, our real-estate developers and the homeowners who show little to no sensitivity to fight for its preservation. Who's crazy enough to preserve a crumbling Gazcue manor when one can instead plant an apartment building, its aesthetic value notwithstanding?
That explains why a large part of our modern heritage can be found modified, maimed and even abandoned... while another part has already disappeared. Just like the Jaragua Hotel went down, so did the Molinari House by Tomás Auñón and Joaquín Ortíz. So did the Matadero Industrial by Henry Gazón Boná. So did the Secretary of State for Health and Education and the Workers' Hospital Dr. William Morgan, both designed by Marcial Poy Ricart. So went the Schad and Pichardo Ricart houses, some of the first samples of residential rationalism presented by Guillermo González.
In spite of this long list, we still have a bundle of architectural heritage items about to the lost which, if we come to our senses collectively, we can still save. The Centro de los Héroes sees how its Venezuelan Pavilion, by Alejandro Pietri, is at risk of tumbling down. On El Conde Street stands González's Copello Building, as well as the Díez and Baquero buildings, both created by Benigno Trueba y Suárez. In San Pedro de Macorís there's the Morey Building by Antonio Morey Castañer. Santiago de los Caballeros still has its abandoned Mercedes Hotel, designed by Romualdo García Vera. These projects can still return to the glory of days past via a series of interventions that can provide a productive use. An intelligent readaptation is, indeed, the name of the game here.
Just like our authorities have made the effort to revitalize the properties inside the Colonial City, using both legal and economic tools, likewise they should acknowledge the cultural (and eventually touristic) value of our modern heritage. That's why we finally need Congress to pass our Heritage Law, an important element that has been stuck in legislative limbo for more than a decade. Without it, we'll keep seeing how other Jaraguas will just keep on crumbling. // Nevertheless, as long as we socialize the stories of those who stepped inside the hotel during its golden and silver years, as we honor the work of Guillermo González and as our local architecture faculties recognize both the trajectory and the potential of Dominican design, that Jaragua, indeed, won't crumble.
The Teatro Agua y Luz, designed by Catalonian architect Carles Buïgas i Sans for 1955's Fair for Peace and Fraternity in the Free World, is going through a process similar to the hotel's final years. Unfortunately, a dubious series of contracts and its unprotected state for more than a decade have turned it into a strong candidate to become our next Jaragua. Will this be the generational catalyst Millennial architects and design professionals need? Will this be the example that will force us to acknowledge how we're failing both our city and our citizens? Are we willing to fight to stop the few Jaraguas we have left from crumbling?