Hotel Oloffson: Hope and Lodging in Port-au-Prince

Speaker's Corner: The Oloffson is a magnet for intellectuals, writers and the criminally inclined. Lisa Wixon reveals why it offers hope for Haiti's future.

01.20.10 | 11:49 AM ET

Hotel Oloffson, Port-au-Prince, HaitiPhoto by Lisa Wixon

I was at home when I heard the news that a 7.0 earthquake had struck Haiti. Horrified, I thought of my friends there, many made in travels to Port-au-Prince: aid workers; a driver and his family; the beautiful children in Cité Soleil, once deemed the worst slum in the Western hemisphere. I thought of my New York apartment building’s 70-year-old doorman who, after decades in the U.S. working and raising a family, just last year fulfilled a lifelong dream to retire to his native Port-au-Prince. (Sadly, he has yet to make contact.)

I couldn’t help but also think of Port-au-Prince’s 115-year-old Grand Hotel Oloffson, the intellectual and artistic center of the city, wondering if it had survived.

A few years ago, I sought out the Oloffson in search of a quiet space to think and write. When I arrived, I knew instantly I was home.

The stately inn resides on a quiet street in downtown, just a few blocks from the presidential palace that was crushed by the quake. It seemed a sanctuary in a chaotic city.

It was built in the French Victorian style for the ruling Sam family in the late 1800s. It was in dire need of repair but, as I sauntered into the lobby for the first time, it felt just right in its decrepit state.

My designer friend would call its decor ongepotchket: you see Haitian Vodou art and doilies, sequined flags and ceramic chandeliers, dark bars and white wicker, whispers of Indonesia at the pool. It’s casa de Hansel and Gretel on LSD, an inspiration so alluring that New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams mimicked its gingerbread likeness in many of his drawings.

The Haitians believe the aging monstrosity to be haunted, a curse that has saved many tenants and opinionated guests, both foreign and Haitian, from its darkest dictators and their henchmen who were reluctant to tangle with anyone holed up at the mansion.

Hotel Oloffson, Port-au-Prince, HaitiPhoto by Lisa Wixon

It’s no wonder. The hotel’s three stories, surrounded by banyans and palms, and built into a rock, cannot be fully seen at any vantage. It seems to partially disappear into nature or clouds at every angle.

Upon my arrival, I was taken to the John Barrymore suite, with its enormous dark bed under a ceiling fan that had already made too many rotations. A tilting balcony overlooked the courtyard, and the bathroom sink and tub were rusted.

Though my room had a small desk, I spent my time writing in the hotel’s lobby and veranda. I’d frequently encounter UN peacekeepers who’d parked their tanks and M-16s out front while on a coffee break, local Haitian intellectuals, and musicians practicing for the Thursday night social event of the city, featuring proprietor Richard A. Morse’s protest rock band, RAM.

ALSO SEE RELATED STORY ABOUT MORSE: ‘They Listen to Me When Things Are Bad’

Smaller rooms in the lobby were often filled with writers and photographers hunkered over desks editing words and images. My own favorite corner was next to an iron abacus door opening onto a statue of the Yoruban sea goddess, Yemaja, in her pink princess gown.

Another beloved spot was the patio café, paved in M.C. Escher tiles. It felt somehow noble to write under its Gothic spires as the Oloffson has long been a space where the well-meaning have attempted to report truths. Or fictions. Few novels set in Port-au-Prince in the past 60 years have not had some character skirr across the veranda of this mansion.

As tempting as it was to stay put, I forced myself to investigate beyond its walls. Putting aside my fear of being kidnapped—a popular and lucrative crime in Haiti—I braved Port-au-Prince’s claustrophobic downtown and saw the plight of so many Haitians. I think of them now as I read reports of the destruction.

Hotel Oloffson, Port-au-Prince, HaitiPhoto by Lisa Wixon

And I think of the Oloffson, which made it possible for me to see Haiti. I’m not terribly brave. I could only go to Haiti knowing there was a safehouse that rooted my stay, a place where I could make sense, with others who spent their days like mine, of what was happening beyond the gates. But having visited many deeply impoverished places, I never felt at the Oloffson that my hotel was providing an imperial vantage. The hotel belongs to all of Haiti.

Haitian chronicler Herbert Gold wrote that the Oloffson, named after a Swedish ship captain who first opened its doors to the public in 1935, is a “Catchall home for an international collection of ... drunks, criminals, the sexually obsessed, crazies, remittance folks, mistresses and gigolos and bemused adventure seekers. Over the years it would become my favorite place in the whole wide world.”

That sentiment is shared by its celebrated guest, Graham Greene, arguably the 20th century’s most observant writer. When Greene moved in during Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s regime, he sat at its terrace to write “The Comedians,” and famously noted:

“You expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him ... I had grown to love the place.”

As it had for Gold and Greene, it became one of my favorite places in the world.

For a writer, spending mornings over a laptop, afternoons in a beautiful if heartbreaking city, and evenings on the terrace sharing a bottle of local rum, is perfect. It’s an ideal balance of the three necessities of a writer’s life: writing, observation, conversation. I rarely achieve all in one day; but always managed it at the Oloffson.

I once told its proprietor this. He smiled knowingly.

“The Oloffson,” said Morse, “is a writer’s hotel.”

And it is a hotel that, thankfully, survived the earthquake. Since the disaster struck and journalists flooded in, it has been filled with writers from The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post. Perhaps there is some spirit that has kept it erect, or perhaps it is the science of engineering; the hotel is a wooden creation in a city of cement and stone.

One day soon, I hope to return to its veranda, to a restored and rebuilt Port-au-Prince, and continue work under the spell of the labyrinthine ship. That it remains standing after such a scourge offers me hope, for myself, and for the people of Haiti.

Lisa Wixon is author of the award-winning novel Dirty Blonde and Half-Cuban. Her opinions and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Forbes, The New York Times and elsewhere.

19 Comments for Hotel Oloffson: Hope and Lodging in Port-au-Prince

jenny 01.20.10 | 7:43 PM ET

Dear Lisa - thank you for this quiet little story of hope about Haiti. Long live the Oloffson.

Alex Markin 01.21.10 | 4:24 PM ET

Thanks for the reassurance the Oloffson survived. A friend and I stayed there in 1975 for a week having decided to make an impromptu trip to Haiti. A truly unique hotel. Great service, slightly dilapidated around the edges, marvelous gingerbread architecture, Caesar’s punch at the bar, cockfights next door which I did see. My friend passed. While swimming in the hotel pool, we could not help recalling the fictitious Haitian goverment minister who had landed in it, drowned dead. We were never sure whom we’d meet at the bar. Aubelin Jolicoeur, the longtime journalist and ascot-wearing dandy in perfect white, who was the model for the Comedians’ gadfly and informer, was there, and in fact invited us to his gallery off the road to Petionville. The people were gracious everywhere, even in the midst of a morning long negotiation at the Iron market for a large Jesus carving, which my friend did buy.

We have donated money and goods and hope that will help.

Alex Markin 01.21.10 | 4:26 PM ET

I’d love to hear from others with recollections of the Oloffson.

PaJuris 01.21.10 | 4:40 PM ET

I can picture myself on the veranda if I close my eyes.  It’s a wonderful article that brings the sense of desperation, depredation and beauty to life.

Emme 01.21.10 | 8:13 PM ET

I love this story! Thanks for publishing it.

kitchen tables 01.25.10 | 10:19 PM ET

Thanks for sharing a lovely story. I am deeply saddened with what happened to Haiti. I hope Oloffson still stands high there.

Brooke 01.26.10 | 6:19 PM ET

I was in my 20’s and dating a surgeon and he gave me a choice of a 1974 New Years vacation to Haiti or Ocean Reef in Florida.  I chose Haiti.  The amazing things I experienced, felt, and absorbed were forever indelible. One of the owners of the Hotel Oloffson at that time was with us, I was an immediate “Gingerbread Hotel” devotee!  The feeling at the bar was old world, romantic and always one of my favorite memories of travel around the world. We stayed at the El Rancho Hotel up in the mountains, even at that time the rooms were $250 a night!  The Casino was busy, and I saw many area South Florida attorneys and politicians there!  We ate in a lovely restaurant that over looked the city and were seateds out on a rock veranda, it was a mystical experience.  In the hills you could hear the voodoo drums beating (and these were not for tourists). We visited a very wealthy Indian family who owned gold shops downtown, and the Barbancourt Rum factory which was absolutely fabulous.  I still buy the Rum here in Florida. I’ve been searching to see what still exists and was so pleased to read the article and know that the Hotel Oloffson is still standing.  Do they have an email?
I thank our writer for her love also of the hotel.  Best regards, Brooke

Traveller 02.10.10 | 8:06 AM ET

Your blog is awesome and also thanks for this lovely story. I too own a travel blog… can you extend your support to my blog by linking me… My site is

Tequila Minsky 02.15.10 | 9:00 AM ET

Not only did the O. survive the quake (I was there during it) but the first on-going news and photos to the outside world were sent from Richard’s office where the internet was still operating even if the phone and cell service was not.  Richard sent out info on twitter and would report how many people were reading…first -36, then 100 something, then 600…and so on, meanwhile,  Daniel Morel and myself were emailing photos to news outlets we had taken on the streets.  Tequila Minsky

David Koveleski 02.26.10 | 6:17 PM ET

I am happy to hear that the “Grand Hotel Oloffson” has survived.! We first went to Haiti on our honeymoon, just a week or so after Papa Doc died. There were still a few jounalists about , hoping to witness the “blodbath” that was to occur when the battle for power came. But there was just a peaceful takeover by ” Baby Doc” and all returned to “normal”. We were welcomed on that visit and several others by the previous owner, Al Seitz and his lovely wife, Sue(?). Caesar, the barman, made us the greatest rum punch , EVER.! I can still remeber playing dominoes well into the wee hours with Caesar, sipping Barbancourt, and wearing the loser’s id (a wooden spring clothespin attached to the earlobe.) You could only take it off when you won a game.
  It seemed that it rained precisely at 6:00 PM which was when the band (?) played to announce that dinner would soon be served. We had some wonderful dinners there and recall somthing called the “Oloffson Poof”. We could never duplicate it even though we had the recipe. Probably missing some magical ingredient purchased only from the voodoo. priest.
  We visited a few more times after that and took my children as their birthyday gift for a week.Recall going at various times on tours with a car rented from Charlie Cawash. Off to Petionville, to jacmel, to Duvalierville, to the Barbancourt rum tasting, and yes to a voodoo ceremony.  We were quits adveturous then, probably wouldn’t do that now…..

Lisa Wixon 03.01.10 | 9:06 PM ET


So glad you weighed in. I know the world was grateful for your and Daniel’s photos, many of which were the first we saw of the earthquake’s aftermath. I’m glad you all survived the quake and provided everyone with such excellent and early coverage. I hope to meet you on the terrace of the O some day soon and congratulate you in person.


Tequila Minsky 03.01.10 | 9:26 PM ET

Yes, and drink one or more of their infamous rum punches.  But, wait a second…the last time I drank a rum punch there—there was an earthquake. (True report.)

john 03.01.10 | 11:08 PM ET

Hotel Olaffson, Port au Prince

Alex Markin 03.02.10 | 11:27 AM ET

I very vividly recall that welcoming punch from Caesar and the immediate accompanying earth tremor. Seems David’s visit was around the same time as mine.

David Koveleski 03.02.10 | 3:20 PM ET

Never felt a tremor during any of my visits. Did you feel it after the rum punch.??

We always tried to stay in the suite with the large balcony on the second floor. It was always such a nice view. Can’t imagine how it looks now….  Also remember Mr. Joliceur and his two finger typibg
as he prepared his article for the paper. We did make it into one of his articles. Seems it was his job to be aware of who is coming and going…..I do not recall which nite was the Oloffson nite, but there was not that much activity then and so each nite there was entertainment at a different hotel. Hardly an evening went by withoiut a power failure. I was told they rationed power by darkening different parts of PAP
Do not recall the name of it, but there was a neat little hotel in Petionville that we went to a few times for lunch in their little courtyard.. Very colorful little place.

Alex Markin 03.02.10 | 5:12 PM ET

The rum punch caused it, or so we thought and felt. That was one powerful rum punch!

Vivian Murray 03.08.10 | 6:36 PM ET

The Grand Oloffson Hotel is indeed Grand!  Our first memories go back to 1976 and 1978 - the days of quickie divorces with only an affidavit of consent from one spouse - my husband in this case.  My daughter and I took advantage of having lunch there with our “divorce guide” Speedy and toured the grounds.  Inside, my seven-year-old daughter spotted the ten-cent one-arm bandit in a corner near the bar and promptly won herself $20.  She has not returned to Haiti, but I just had to go back in 1998.  Also after a Thursday night in 2004, with an ear-splitting RAM performance and a few Prestiges,  I had to stay close to that wall to get to my room in that narrow and high addition to the main house without falling over the railing.
The news of the earthquake really upset me as I have a number of Haitian friends with families in Port-au-Prince.  They are safe as is the Grand Old Oloffson with her many coats of white paint and everlasting charm.  Unfortunately, many others are gone.

Tequila Minsky 03.08.10 | 6:55 PM ET

One added note about the nights of RAM performances…a look at whose in attendance is a barometer of what’s going on in the country.  I’ve been there when the place was packed with UN observers, other times, peace corps volunteers, sometimes the American Ambassador would be in the middle of the floor dancing with an entourage around him, other times the place was filled with guys in black swat jackets carrying arms, or others, totally unrecognizable in patterned polyester shirts (they were definitely locals, but really, who were they…beneficiaries of contraband? i don’t know.)

My favorite time a few years ago during the summer was when the band was playing down near the pool with tables spread out in the attached plaza.  One woman—who repeated visited Haiti supporting a very worth project had just arrived from La Gonave (about to leave the country) and disapprovingly eyed the crowd as the bourgeois who had invaded the environs. 

I gently told her she was misreading the situation. These were just working/middle class people, people who had been holed up in their homes afraid to go out, in fear of kidnappings and whatever.  During a period of relative security, they felt able to come out at night and that’s who these people were. Working people who wanted to go out at night. (And, In fact, the bourgeois would never really come to hear RAM, let alone come to PAP )  My friend, by looking through another perspective, later agreed with my assessment.

Hugues 03.10.10 | 1:51 PM ET


.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.