The Normandie Hotel stands on the thin necktie of the San Juan shoreline and looks out to the sea in quiet resilience.
To some, it’s just a white elephant whose glory days are gone, resigned to its fate. To others, it’s an important part of Puerto Rico’s national patrimony, a nexus of its past and present that must be preserved.
Boricuas are in an all-out struggle to save what is theirs from the crypto-barons and Wall Street vultures —their beaches, their homes, their neighborhoods and towns, and the beautiful architecture of their island— of which the Normandie is one of the brightest jewels in the crown.
The hotel is the embodiment of much more than a unique design. Like a Boricua Taj Mahal, it was born of a great love story—and in the state the archipelago is in, we need as many good love stories as we can hold on to.
Sadly, the story of how Benitez Rexach and Moineau met in the 1920s during a trip on the SS Normandie is a myth. The couple married in 1928, four years before the ocean liner made its maiden voyage.
But who cares? It’s a great love and a wonderful story that lives on today.
The tale begins by claiming that Felix Benitez Rexach, a Puerto Rican engineer, met Lucienne “Moineau” Dhotelle, a Parisian actress whose name meant little sparrow, on board the French ocean liner SS Normandie and fell in love.
Wanting to memorialize their passion, Benitez Rexach created a building shaped like the vessel where he first laid eyes on Moineau. Thus was born the Normandie Hotel, mimicking the steamer with its “slender bow and sinuous curves.”
The Normandie “had been the chic watering hole of the tropics in the late 1930s: muted trumpets, piña coladas, sloe‐eyed girls dancing the merengue with orchids in their hair,” wrote Jonathan Evan Mas, a New York Times reporter, and allegedly the last guest to visit the hotel.
The Normandie still sits at the approach and anteroom to Old San Juan —I recall many nights saying “ya llegamos” as we passed it— and its deteriorating fortunes are a reflection of the archipelago’s colonial reality—a captive ship run aground, but still hoping to one day set sail again. I have always found it especially beautiful at night, when its lights caress the art deco curves, making it look like an old ocean liner arriving at port.
Sold numerous times, this once-chic tropical watering hole had its elegance turned into fast food joints, a decaying ArtDeco gem and, its most recent iteration, an aging three-star hotel.
The hotel, listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places since 1980, was abandoned in 2009 after various attempts to reopen it to the public. Local politicians tried to get it torn down, but to no avail.
Luis Alberto Maldonado, a young Boricua and lover of the hotel, took it upon himself to paint over the graffiti covering its outer walls and even splurged for Christmas lights.
“Even though for many (the Normandie) is urban patrimony —an icon of our aspirations— it is unsustainable because of its precarious conditions,” Puerto Rican architect Frank Moya said. “But with a bankrupt government and lack of investment, will our patrimony be just a ruin?”
Puerto Rico has suffocated under an unpayable $70 billion debt —recently “reduced”— an imposed fiscal control board; cuts to education, pensions, and health services; the aftermath of Hurricane María; corrupt governments; and a pandemic.
The most recent insult to all this injury is the gentrification of many parts of the island, one that threatens to ostracize Puerto Ricans and sell off all of their patrimony that is not nailed down —and some which is— including the Normandie.
“Plenty of significant, world-class buildings remain at risk today,” Puerto Rican architect Warren James said. “Icons of modern architecture and urbanism that flourished in the Caribbean include buildings and houses by Henry Klumb, Rafael Carmoega, Luis Flores, Jesus E. Amaral, Richard Neutra, and international pioneers like Toro y Ferrer.”
“At risk are entire historic districts across the island full of gems and a sustainable urbanism,” he added. “These are legacies taken from us and future generations.”
The new year began with news that the Normandie had finally been sold for $8.6 million. It was bought by The Normandie Oz LLC, an investor under Act 60—a tax incentive that provides exemptions to businesses and investors that relocate to or establish themselves in Puerto Rico. The investor then asked the island’s government for money to fix the historic building. The gentrified cheek of it!
There are bets as to when the “investor” will tear it down.
It is said that the hotel is haunted and that Moineau’s ghost has been seen swimming in its beautiful pool as she preferred to, “European style”—stark naked. Hopefully her ghost will keep the demolition crew at bay. Because if not, that would mean the end of an important part of our national patrimony and an extraordinary love story.
“The Normandie is part of our story, and stories are what make up a people,” Puerto Rican writer and director Myrta Vida tells me. “We lose that, and we lose ourselves.”
Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is the former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and a writer and journalist living in New York City. She has a blog in El Nuevo Día called Dos Caminos y Una Subversiva. Comments can be sent to her email. Twitter: @DurgaOne.