Published: May 2009
By Wayne Curtis
An unlikely hotel and museum in the Caribbean is shining a light on an area's dark past
Jacob Gelt Dekker, a prosperous Dutch entrepreneur, first visited Curaçao in 1998, not long after UNESCO designated much of downtown Willemstad a World Heritage Site. Five years later, standing in a handsome courtyard at his new Hotel Kurá Hulanda, he recalled quite a different scene. "The buildings had collapsed and were full of squatters," Dekker said, "and gangs were shooting at one another."
Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela, was a major Caribbean port for the slave trade some 200 years ago. One of the chief slave markets was in Willemstad's Otrobanda district, a neighborhood of twisting alleys and distinctive façades that languished after the trade came to an end. Intrigued by the architecture and history, Dekker purchased a crumbling 19th-century mansion built by a wealthy Dutch family. He then acquired and restored several dozen derelict buildings; on vacant lots in the surrounding blocks, Dekker added 35 new structures reflecting the aesthetic of the Otrobanda. They are the heart of Project Kurá Hulanda, comprising a museum of African art, a research institute that focuses on the African diaspora, and a Dutch Colonial-style resort with 67 guest rooms, two pools, five restaurants, and stately courtyards throughout—kurá Hulanda is island dialect for "Dutch courtyard." The cobblestones and freshly plastered walls, in fact, may seem a little too perfect, but with them Dekker has created an enduring testament to the power of regeneration.