Casco ViejoHeart of a City
The relocated town, known today as Casco Viejo, or Casco Antiguo, rose from the ashes to become one of the richest and most densely populated neighbourhoods in the Americas.
Panama City, positioned where oceans kiss and the Americas shake hands, has a phoenix-like past. Founded in 1519 by Spanish conquistadores, it survived slave rebellion, earthquake and devastating flames, before being razed to the ground a century and a half later by pirates. Fleeing inhabitants established themselves again on a nearby, more defendable peninsula, at the mouth of the river that centuries later became the entrance to the Panama Canal. The relocated town, known today as Casco Viejo, or Casco Antiguo, rose from the ashes to become one of the richest and most densely populated neighbourhoods in the Americas.
Panama City grew up around this neighbourhood, which remained at the centre of Panamanian life. It was where the grand houses and the government buildings were, and, in the heady years following the completion of the Panama Canal, where the city’s first ‘skyscraper’ was built. Designed by one of Panama’s most celebrated architects of the time, Leonardo Villanueva Meyer, and commissioned by the American Trade Development Company, the six storey building – known as the American Trade Building – was the first to be made using reinforced concrete, using a technique perfected during the canal’s construction. Its elegant neoclassical design contained state of the art residencies as well as a popular department store. As the century progressed, however, many of the area’s wealthiest residents began moving out to the suburbs. The elegant plazas crumbled and fading stately buildings became inhabited by weeds, squatters, and stray dogs. Scaffolding propping up pockmarked walls became permanent, and trees grew tall in former ballrooms.
By 2000, the American Trade Building was the graffiti strewn outpost of one of the area’s many street gangs, who used its superior vantage point to assert control over their territory. Ramon Arias, a former lawyer who had recently become involved in restoration projects, knew the building well; his great great grandfather, Ramon Arias Feraud, had commissioned it way back in 1917. “It stood as a forgotten landmark in the middle of one the most important plazas in the Old City,” Arias remembers. Once again, Panama City was embarking on a cycle of regeneration, so in 2007 Arias added the American Trade Building to his list of projects. “It only seemed right to restore the building,” he says. “The Casco Viejo needed a hotel.”
Casco Viejo was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, two years before the USA finally ceded power over the canal and its surrounding territories to the Panamanian government. Economically, the city had begun to flourish once more, and the road was open for its oldest neighbourhood to revive its reputation as one of the most beautiful Spanish colonial cities in the world. Arias is a founding partner of Conservatorio, a real estate company that restores buildings across Casco Viejo. While swathes of Panama City has been taken over by bland new building developments, Conservatorio has been working hard to restore historic houses in the district, while maintaining its bustling diversity. As well as hotels, shops, and luxury apartments, they also develop affordable housing for the residents of this traditionally working class neighbourhood.
A resident of Casco for 23 years, Arias says the main challenge for the company has been “preserving the old, while creating a vibrant neighbourhood with its own particular flavours, and maintaining a balance for all groups of society to feel a part of it.” Arias’s co-founder at Conservatorio is KC Hardin, a North American who witnessed the quick transformation of South Beach in Miami and Williamsburg in New York. “They were exciting times,” he told the Financial Times in 2012, “but the trouble with gentrification is the displacement of the culture and the community which drew people there in the first place. The maintenance of human architecture – that’s what we are trying to achieve here.”
In 2013, American Trade Hotel opened. Arias, who remains a joint owner, says that preserving the old structure of the American Trade Building was always a priority. From the very beginning, the restoration was “a dialogue between the building’s past, its history and its new use as a hotel.” Its white stucco exterior reflects past grandeur, while its interiors have been updated with the clean lines of mid century furniture and understated contemporary colour, punctuated by graphic tiles and bright textiles.
The new hotel was a collaborative effort between Conservatorio, Commune Design, and Atelier Ace, the creative team behind the global chain of boutique hotels. Alongside the American Trade Building they also worked on cluster of additional historic buildings, all at the centre of the Casco Viejo. These buildings also nurture a sense of the historical importance of the city as an intersection of culture, business, and ecology. The American Trade Hall, a large event space, occupies a building that was originally a branch of the National City Bank of New York – one of the financiers of the Panama Canal – and is modelled after its headquarters in downtown Manhattan. Danilo’s Jazz Club hosts local talent and international musicians. Café Unido uses only coffee from the surrounding area – strangely, something of a novelty in this city, despite the quality of the local crop.
In the shadow of the American Trade Hotel, museums, up market restaurants, luxury condos, and bohemian shops are increasingly taking up residence beneath the well weathered red roofs that predominate the peninsula. Yet the uniformity that often accompanies gentrification still feels a long way off. Defined by its massive sea wall, built to defend the city from further pirate attacks, Casco Viejo is small; just three avenues hem in the irregular blocks of buildings that have grown organically over four centuries, and the layout of the neighbourhood – a contained, complex grid of streets wending their way down to the sea – has remained largely unchanged since the 1680s. It evokes a bohemian atmosphere, with bright flowers flowing over balconies, sun bleached murals adorning crumbling stucco walls, music seeping from doorways, and street vendors hawking Panama hats under large, rainbow coloured umbrellas.
Despite the growth of tourism and ubiquitous construction, poverty still haunts the old heart of Panama, and the work of conservation is far from complete. Change is clearly afoot, but the multiplicity of worlds contained within this mesh of narrow streets reflect the area’s historic role. It has always been a junction, and a site for exchanges of ideas, culture and ambition – it is this that has given this area its vitality. The international team involved in the restoration of Casco Viejo reflects the Spanish, French, African, Caribbean, and US influences that can all be found within its streets. Like the neighbourhood itself, the American Trade Hotel bears the scars of decades of decay superimposed over the self confidence of the years following the construction of the canal. “Preserving Casco”, Arias says, “reminds us of our history and our humanity.”