Panama City Gets a Facelift

And an Ace Hotel.


Not long ago, anyone traveling to Panama City, Panama, didn’t bother visiting Casco Viejo, the capital’s largest historic district. There wasn’t much point. After 80 years of steady deterioration, its narrow streets were dark and broken and its colonial building stock was either abandoned or occupied largely by gangs or squatters.

But there is perhaps no greater indication of how the 340-year-old neighborhood is starting to change than the opening this month of the American Trade Hotel, a collaboration with Atelier Ace, an arm of the trendy Ace Hotel chain. With interiors by the hip Los Angeles design company Commune Design, a coffee bar, a jazz club, a farm-to-table restaurant, a travel agency to organize day trips, and a banquet hall next door, the hotel is poised to meet the needs of travelers seeking both authenticity and coddling. That’s a far cry from the stripped, graffiti-bombed shell that the building was in 2007, when it became the property of Conservatorio, a Casco real estate development company founded by two preservation-minded lawyers, Ramón Arias and K.C. Hardin. For Arias, a 50-year-old Panamanian whose family tree qualifies him as a true prince of the city, the acquisition represented a kind of homecoming. His great-great-grandfather, a savvy businessman also named Ramón Arias, built the white stucco palace in 1917, after the opening of the Panama Canal, as a five-story luxury apartment house with a department store and a bank on the ground floor, which is now the hotel’s expansive lobby. During what Arias calls “our dictator years” (1968 to 1989), the building had different owners and became the province of five drug gangs that resided there, each on its own garbage-strewn floor. “One was a lady gang,” Arias told me when I visited in June. “It was a lesbian gang,” countered Hildegard Vásquez, 44, Panama’s leading restoration architect and a stickler for historical detail.

Married for 16 years and now the parents of three girls, Arias and Vásquez have been consumed by a multi-pronged effort to rescue Casco from decades of near fatal neglect—their “life project,” as Vásquez put it. The two work as a team, with Arias doing the legal footwork for the more than 150 buildings that Vásquez has been restoring since 1997, when the neighborhood was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, in part owing to Arias’s intervention. “It was very nasty here then,” Vásquez recalled. “But something about it was enticing.” The child of a prominent pediatrician and a half-Swiss mother, Vásquez grew up in a modernist house that is now engulfed by the massive glass-and-steel condos and hotels of the new Panama—the city’s financial district and the redoubt of the rich. “That’s what I ran away from,” she said, without a trace of regret.

Arias, a genial man with a warm smile and a comfortable paunch who was raised in a suburb of Panama City, did the same. “I’ve always been attracted to old cities,” he said. Family roots had something to do with it: His maternal great-grandfather, Belisario Porras, served three terms as Panama’s president, between 1912 and 1924; an uncle, Ricardo Arias Calderón, was a reformist vice president after the 1989 invasion by American military forces that brought down the dictator Manuel Noriega.

Casco was founded on a 100-acre thumb of a peninsula in 1671, after the British pirate Henry Morgan sacked the original Spanish settlement. Today, it has the look of a mashup of Old Havana and New Orleans’s French Quarter—with 17th-century ruins, early-American architecture, and a bit of Art Deco thrown in for good measure. By comparison, the new Panama, with its glittering skyscrapers, looked a lot like Dubai.

Despite the city’s provenance, Casco’s biggest architectural influence is French Colonial, the legacy of the failed 19th-century attempt by France to build a canal. The French brought wrought-iron balconies, flat red Marseille roof tiles, and shotgun layouts, and the Spanish contributed arched doorways, interior gardens, and walls of stone, brick, and lime.

None of this characterizes the American Trade Hotel, which fits no single architectural profile. It actually combines the original building with two adjacent houses, one with a mansard roof; the interior decor is just as mixed, Commune Design’s Roman Alonso told me, naming Mexican midcentury modern, Spanish Colonial, and custom contemporary as examples. Rather than try to gloss over the hodgepodge of styles, Alonso embraced them to create a narrative—decor as family history. “You feel more like you’re visiting a beautiful home than a hotel—one that is comfortable, personal, and safe,” he said.

Safety is still a bit of an issue. Despite Conservatorio’s success in breaking up local gangs by putting them to work on construction projects, the district is still rough around the edges, partly by design. “Any interesting neighborhood in a historic district has a mixed population,” Arias said. “When you completely gentrify, it loses its flavor.” I wondered if the concerns of a developer always square with those of a preservationist. “We argued a lot at the beginning of our marriage,” Vásquez admitted. “Today, we discuss.” The couple started working together in 1995, after the formative meeting of the Calicanto Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the neighborhood’s architectural and cultural integrity. Arias wanted to reclaim a derelict house on Panama Bay that had been in his family for more than 175 years. Vásquez got the job—her first professional commission. “There I was, making drawings for the house of a guy I was dating—that I didn’t know I would inhabit myself,” she said.

A big part of their restoration effort includes what they call Casco’s “human heritage,” which doesn’t just involve turning gang members into legitimate tradesmen. The hotel staff includes graduates of Capacitación para el Trabajo, a Calicanto program for which Vásquez serves as president and chief fundraiser. It has transformed the lives of brutally abused and impoverished women, who have become confident working mothers with stories that bring tears to the eyes.

Now an Aspen Institute Fellow for Central America, Vásquez believes the program can work for other countries as well. “Buildings are more interesting with people,” she said. “You can’t just fix the architecture—you have to fix the people. And in the process, they change you, too.”

Photos: Panama City Gets a Facelift

A view of Casco Viejo, Panama.

The American Trade Hotel at night.

The hotel’s historical facade.

Hildegard Vásquez and Ramón Arias.

A local ruin, ripe for renovation.

A typical Casco building.