17 March 2013

San Juan's Ship of Dreams

© Brandon Queen, 2013
The sleek and sexy Hotel Normandie greets visitors as they round the corner from Condado heading into Old San Juan. Having remained shuttered for the better part of the past decade up to now, the sleekness and sexiness are more hinted at than actually present in its current state. But like any great ship of dreams, even the wreckage is majestic. 

Ship, you ask? Yes, although sitting on dry land and very clearly serving (having served...) as a hotel, this structure was modeled on a well-known   French cruise ship called the SS Normandie. The SS Normandie was synonymous with Jazz Age glamour and was essentially a floating boutique hotel, as this was the golden age of the cruise vacation (which didn't resemble AT ALL the buffet and fanny-pack fest the event has become). What made the ship even more famous was the crowd it entertained, including one Lucienne Suzanne Dhotelle, or as she was better known, la môme Moineau

A rather raucous lounge singer from France, la môme Moineau ended up on Broadway where she met the very wealthy, very bon vivant Félix Benítez Rexach. Mr. Rexach was one of the best (or at least most well-known) engineers in Puerto Rico in the twenties and thirties and after falling in love with Ms. Dhotelle he had the Hotel Normandie constructed in her honour; the relationship and other aspects of la môme's life are detailed in this book by Michel Ferracci-PorriUpon completion, the Normandie proceeded to welcome the BCBG from all over the Americas, especially Hollywood and the various Latin American film and music industries. 

As for the architectural style of the hotel, it is called Streamline Moderne, which is a type of Art Deco that reflected the toned-down style of the Great Depression. The inside was inaccessible when I visited, so I was not able to show more than the outside version of this. However, it is easy to see in the rounded lines and simple silhouette what exactly this style entailed. In fact, this is generally the kind of Art Deco the average American (including Latin American) comes into contact with, as the more ostentatious Art Deco styles were reserved for places like Miami Beach and the ritzier parts of Los Angeles, San Juan, and Buenos Aires. Think Edward Hopper's Nighthawks diner for a representative example.

Since the early 90's, the Normandie has been in limbo. It was supposed to be up and running by the end of the decade, but some very intense, murky legal issues kept the property owners from moving forward with any of their plans. It has changed hands a couple of times since and is currently sitting idle, which is extremely disappointing. It is difficult to understand why those who have spent such large sums on a prime piece of real estate have not been able to take advantage of owning Puerto Rico's only boutique hotel. It is also quite sad, as in addition to straddling two of San Juan's most coveted tourist quarters and sitting in front of the beach, the hotel is located in one of the most interesting neighbourhoods of the metro area: Puerta de Tierra. 

Puerta de Tierra is a refreshingly residential quarter with a lot of history, stretching back to the original colonisation of the island. The eateries, shops, and galleries it hosts are full of amazing food and artwork (and not the kind of over-priced tourist trinkets you get for your grandparents). Within  a one-minute walk from the Normandie you are in the most beautiful public park in all of San Juan, a great place to bike or picnic. More about the hotel and its neighbourhood can be found here.

Let us hope that someone realises the potential of what they have and opens the doors soon - I can already picture a lazy summer Sunday with chilly sangria and a good DJ set while gazing at the glistening Caribbean waves...

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