Last Halloween I stayed in Haiti’s most famous hotel — Hotel Olaffson. It was a fitting end to several years of reconstruction work that began by sleeping in tents after the 2010 earthquake, moving up to dorms, and eventually staying in buildings I helped design and construct. Celebrating our small success amidst the revelers at the Olaffson was fitting, even if I didn’t get much sleep.
Hotel Olaffson is Port-au-Prince’s answer to the Chelsea in New York — a place steeped in literary lore whose charms rest in its illustrious past more than any present amenities. The wood-frame Victorian mansion was originally built to house one of Haiti’s revolving door presidents. The U.S Marines used it as a military hospital during its occupation of Haiti, then sold it to the Norwegian Captain Olaffson in 1934. Olaffson recrafted the pool table into a bar and welcomed expat artists, intellectuals, and eclectics throughout the mid-twentieth century. Why a military hospital was furnished with such a lavish pool table to begin with is not clear, but like all mysteries of Haiti, its charm trumps its rationale. John Barrymore lounged on the bric-a-brac veranda sipping rum punch and enjoying the upstairs corner room so often that Captain Olaffson named the best room after him.
In the 1960’s, owner Al Seitz struggled to maintain at least one guest in residence at Port-au-Prince’s Hotel Olaffson to ward off Papa Doc Duvalier from appropriating the most famous watering hole in the Caribbean. That still didn’t curb the Brooklyn native from giving random tourists a quick once over and banishing any in white shoes and matching belts with a curt, “You wouldn’t like it here.” Several of his hearty guests populate Graham Greene’s hysterically inappropriate novel, The Comedians, which extracts humor from Papa Doc’s terror as well as the dead bodies floating in the hotel’s swimming pool.
Although the Duvalier’s never appropriated the unique property, their regime eventually ground Hotel Olaffson to destitution, along with everything else in Haiti. In 1986 the Olaffson closed. All the wicker furniture was carted away and locals whose memories recalled gentler times pulled the nameplates of John Barrymore, Graham Greene, and other famous guests off their doors.
Through pluck and fancy, Richard Moree and Blair Townsend, a pair of American Princeton grads, bought the place in 1988 and refurbished it to its former funkiness. Richard, still owns the place; although now his grey ponytailed mane and faded jean slouch conjures a zeitgeist of aging hippie more than 80’s entrepreneur.
Last Halloween, when I arrived with a few other folks to celebrate the completion of the Be Like Brit orpahange, I joined hundreds of other expats and a smattering of hip Haitians. I was enchanted by how much the place looked and felt like Graham Greene’s rendering. The welded metal Day of the Dead sculptures, mechanical zombies rising out of coffins and multi-armed babies meshed perfectly with the hotel’s flowering shrubs, palm trees, curved walks, erratic stairs, and angled structures; a haphazard respite from Port-au-Prince’s dust.
We spent the afternoon loitering along the Olaffson’s veranda, enjoying chicken, pommes frites, and plantains, Prestige beer, and rum and coke. We weren’t lucky enough to land the Graham Greene cottage or John Barrymore suite, but had a pleasant cottage remote from the main building and the nightclub area.
Except on Halloween, which is such a big day at Hotel Olaffson the entire compound is reordered, the pool was covered with a platform set with tables. The patio became the dance floor and a stage was set up beyond. Our supposedly remote room sat at ground zero of the night’s festivities. We decided to take a pre-party nap around 6 p.m. exactly when the band decided to run a practice set. Even within our room, we had to shout over the sound.
Sleep is overrated when an experience looms, and observing the Olaffson’s Halloween crowd streaming in was worth the deprivation. Privacy-seeking screen actors from the 1930’s and Beat Generation writers stalking exotic locales have been replaced by NGO disciples: skinny, slightly disheveled hipsters alternating a cigarette or Prestige in one hand and faux hugging each other with the other. The guys all have beards and consciously unkempt hair. They wear too short oxford cloth shirts that hang ambiguously over frumpy-butt jeans. The women’s hair hangs long and loose. When their free hand cannot find someone to hug, they grab the mass, bun it to the top of their heads and try to cool their neck. They wear sheer dresses of every conceivable cut and pattern, with the single commonality that every style tucks under their shapely asses.
Around midnight Richard Moree took the stage with his band RAM, a ten-piece ensemble with three black songstresses, a trio of horns, and the usual assortment of drums, keyboard, guitar, and bass. The men wore black pants and skeleton t-shirts. Richard added a topcoat and high hat. The local crowd swayed in succinct rhythm and mouthed the choruses of the Kreyol tunes set to loud, bluesy rock. The white folks danced with greater energy. but less effect. A quartet of gay guys in pleated pants and impeccable silk shirts claimed their own corner, while the lone Asian woman, a perky girl in a perfect orange shirtwaist dress, smiled and danced too wholesomely.
Around 1:00 a.m., I perched on the wall near the base of the veranda to absorb the grounds, the band, the dancing throng, the Day of the Dead table littered with candles, food and wine; beckoning our ancestors to rise up and nourish themselves.
Sometime after two I returned to our room, showered, crawled beneath the spread, clamped one pillow under my head and one pillow over. I cannot say exactly when the bass line turned into dream or when the noisy dawn clean-up entered my slumbering brain. All I know is I rose refreshed despite such percussive sleep. I attribute it to the good spirits of the place, to Graham Greene’s prose, to John Barrymore’s artistry, to the spirits nourished by our Day of the Dead celebration, and to Richard Moree’s reinventing the Hotel Olaffson for us twenty-first century oddballs who come Haiti’s way.
Paul E. Fallon is author of Architecture by Moonlight: Rebuilding Haiti, Reconstructing a Life.