Willemstad is Holland in Caribbean dress, an architectural treasure trove of gabled, sherbet-colored buildings on the shores of St. Anna Bay in the Netherlands Antilles. The city, capital of the island of Curaçao, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, an act that set off a wave of historic preservation, first in Punda, the downtown business district, and then in Otrobanda, a run-down residential neighborhood across the bay. In Otrobanda, from a project with modest beginnings, emerged Willemstad’s most inspiring revival: Kurá Hulanda.
Jacob Gelt Dekker, a Dutch entrepreneur whose career path had veered from dentistry to business to philanthropy, purchased an old Otrobanda mansion in 1998. He intended to convert the dilapidated house into a personal vacation retreat, but in researching his acquisition, Dekker discovered that it stood next to a square that once hosted Curaçao’s infamous 19th-century slave auctions. Within a year, he had partnered with curator Leo Helms, renovated several adjacent buildings, and opened a museum of exhibits ranging from exquisite Benin bronzes to a full-size slave ship’s hold. The exhibits examined West African cultures, the slave trade, and slavery in the United States, each of which had a profound influence on the island.
Dekker expanded his museum, adding several exhibits on Fertile Crescent civilizations, before embarking on his next project: Hotel Kurá Hulanda. He began by researching, purchasing, and rebuilding the 18th- and 19th-century houses surrounding the museum. The acquisitions burgeoned into an eight-block compound, the heart of which became Hotel Kurá Hulanda, a distinctly Curaçaoan creation that opened to the public in November 2001.
Kurá Hulanda, a name that means “Dutch courtyard” in the island’s Papiamentu language, is a collection of 80 individually furnished rooms and suites housed in 65 pink, blue, lime, and yellow buildings along the streets and squares of Dekker’s Otrobanda compound. Tropical gardens and a grotto-style pool complement the colorful accommodations, while around every corner are reminders of the owner’s fascination with the past: gazebos filled with antique astronomical instruments, an Indian marble garden transported from the home of a maharaja, and a popular outdoor café (where a pianist entertains daily) that re-creates a bar from the Harlem Renaissance.
Beyond the hotel grounds, the Otrobanda preservation movement is gaining momentum. The Kas di Alma Blou, a gallery housed in a bright blue restored mansion, showcases island artists, while a new theater thrives next door. Nearby, the recently opened Havana Café attracts a lively clientele to its historic property. For blocks around, freshly renovated houses abut Otrobanda’s many storefront barbershops and the remaining derelict structures awaiting rescue. This is, after all, a living neighborhood in transition.
Dekker, perhaps the most important figure in this transition, believes that Kurá Hulanda and other nearby projects are only the beginning of Otrobanda’s rebirth. “We’re giving it a jump start, but people will have to develop it on their own,” he says. “Ten years from now, I hope people will have forgotten about me and think it’s theirs.”
Hotel Kurá Hulanda