Heritage Inns – A New Life for the Grand Old “Gingerbread House

  • When Haitians living abroad return to the neighborhoods where they grew up, they may see that many of the beautifully crafted, galleried and ornate wooden gingerbread homes they remember from their youth are now in sad physical shape and even totally abandoned as a result of the January 2010 earthquake or from just plain long-time neglect. Neighborhoods like Pacot, Turgeau and the core areas of the towns of Cap Haïtien, Jacmel and Jérémie feature such homes that have become landmarks and nostalgic symbols of Haiti’s past history. They are celebrated in Anghelen Arrington Phillip’s 1974 book Gingerbread Houses: Haiti’s Endangered Species containing some 40 wonderful line drawings of such homes. Inspiring and grand as many are, Haiti was steadily losing them even before the 2010 earthquake hit, which has now crippled a few more of them.


    The owning families should be aware that there is hope for revitalization of these precious Gingerbread House, Haitihomes. There are many successful heritage inns and lodges in various towns and cities in the US and Canada, and some may have seen the wonderful Gites of France of which there are hundreds of such homes in towns and on farms. These homes can find new lives as boutique hotels or petits hotels de charme if the owners grasp from the start the art of adapting them sensitively for commercial use and the special demands that entails. Such projects may be challenging, but when they are successful, they can yield benefits far beyond profits, to preserve the country’s architectural heritage, and even give an economic boost to their aging neighborhoods. The successful ones can operate as price leaders, rather than price takers, as they build a loyal following that will pay more for inspiring heritage value. This article gives some tips to Haitian families who only dream of adapting such houses to restore their dignity, hosting culturally attuned visitors and Haitians alike in grand style. 


    Tip 1 – Familiarize yourself

     

    Visit places for dinner or drinks, like the Hotel Oloffson (pictured below) or the Vert Galant Restaurant in Port au Prince or Jacmel’s iconic Hotel Florita, or Cap’s Roi Christophe hotel, taking a serious look at finishings, service standards, landscaping and so on, with a critical eye. Has the balustrade been carefully painted? Does the landscaping complement the home nicely? Are the staff members attentive and welcoming? Are the rest rooms very presentable? Is air conditioning available in any sections of the home? You need to examine not only the physical structures of these establishments, but also service levels and image, so crucial to success in the hospitality business. If you can catch the owner for a few minutes, you might engage him or her in a talk about his own establishment and the realities of such ventures. Motives like family pride, respect for heritage, an eagerness to boost the local community are frequently expressed.

     

    It is also instructive to visit a number of small hotels in Port-au-Prince’s older neighborhoods on the side streets [like Rue Le Marcelin, Rue Capois], dating from the early 20th century, now catering to more ratesensitive foreign and local clientele. After successive rehab works over the years, it is in some cases hard to find any distinguishing design features giving them some character, a result of poor craftsmanship.


    Tip 2 – Inspect your house with an architect

     

    Find an architect or even an hotelier to walk through your house for an hour or more, examining conditions, discussing concepts and potentials for it, and costs of adapting it for business use. You can cite examples, both good and bad, from the abovementioned hotels and restaurants, to identify potentials and drawbacks or challenges. Are the spaces that make up the house well suited for the intended business? Can the vacant areas of the property hold a modern addition or parking spaces? Is there scope for a generator, water recycling or solar panels? And most importantly, are there any nuisances in the nearby lots degrading the neighborhood’s atmosphere? It may be easy for some to envision banquet rooms inside the house with elegant verandas and garden seating for cocktails and dancing under the stars. But objective professional input from a skilled individual on these technical matters can spare wasted effort on options later proven to be unfeasible.

     Gingerbread House, Haiti

    Fortunately, there are local architects with recent experience with such houses. In addition, there is a technical assessment of Gingerbread houses published in 2011 by the World Monuments Fund, [Preserving Haiti’s Gingerbread Houses – Mission Report; download here] providing a sense of the sophisticated technical expertise needed to evaluate and to adapt such houses. Unfortunately some of the houses have suffered quake damage needing stabilization work before any renovation work can proceed. A fresh pair of professional eyes with no emotional attachment to the house or neighborhood can enlighten the owner during a walk through by citing various potentials as well as dangers. An owner may have to grapple with difficult choices in keeping or removing original décor or design details, so an experienced heritage architect can provide valuable guidance early on regarding such tradeoffs. These are key aspects of functionality, safety and design coherence that the novice cannot resolve without a designer’s guidance.


    Tip 3 – Search your soul

     

    A step of serious discussion internal to the family is indispensable to clarify transparently all expectations and resources any members can contribute to a future venture. Is title to the house clearly established and beyond challenge? Can anyone in the family provide needed managerial skills to run a hotel, restaurant or gallery of some kind, or must a hired manager run the business? Is leasing or selling the home an option? Has any family member any relevant experience with construction projects with the old homes? Laying out motivations, expectations and resources in a transparent fashion will minimize clashes later on and make possible sound decision-making in the early phases.

     

    The hotel and restaurant businesses are labor intensive by nature, calling for a heavy time commitment by owners, and rely on managerial skills most families will not have and must seek. On the other hand, leasing the house as commercial space for say a gallery, restaurant or bookstore makes minimal demands on the owner as landlord, who has no day-to-day role in the venture. Another alternative use is as housing for foreign families from NGOs and international agencies, who typically seek homes on annual leases. These are crucial issues for a family to resolve at the outset while selecting a type of business for the house. Nothing beats an insightful talk with a hotel owner or real estate agent, or a talk with the housing officer of an international agency. A family will be in a better position to make these tough choices while setting up the project.


    Tip 4 – Tap the knowledge of ISPAN & FOKAL

     

    It is fortunate that in Port-au-Prince there are two institutions that recognize the patrimony represented by the city’s Gingerbread houses, and that can provide some valuable guidance to owners as to how to proceed. One is the Institut du Sauvegarde du Patrimoine National, and the other is the Fondation Connaissance et Liberte. Through their websites one will find some content on the preservation of old buildings and neighborhoods, and can establish contact to learn of the resources that they can make available. There are efforts to train Haitian craftsmen in skills of wood-working, metal working, saving old structures, and installation of modern electrical and plumbing systems, adapted to the special needs of the old homes. These organizations have also funded renovation works themselves, and can identify the design and construction firms with which they are familiar. They are both familiar with the neighborhoods containing the old houses, and have plans to designate historic districts in some of Haiti’s cities and to do some pilot projects.

     

    FOKAL can also provide some guidance as to the economics of renovation projects, for hotel purposes, and may be familiar with any available grant or soft loan sources for small businesses. The financing of such projects, especially for owners new to the business, is difficult to arrange. Therefore, any owners can ask officers at these organizations to identify recent projects that have moved forward and give a sense of the resources and players backing those projects. So even though there is much encouragement at such organizations, as well as at many of the NGOs, to save the old houses, it is also critical for the owners to find sources and terms of financing for renovating such houses up to a high heritage standard, in order to launch businesses.


    Tip 5 – Weigh various uses carefully

     

    Consequently, the owner must from the start be prepared to face a series of strategic decisions such as the type of business to launch, the legal form of the owning entity, how to bring in any outside partners, leasing the house to a third party versus an owner-operated hands-on operation, type of financing and so on. Each owner will learn fast if he/she can tap the knowledge of an architect, accountant, hotel or restaurant owner, and real estate agent familiar with the going rental and sales prices for commercial uses.

     

    To give a sense of the business risks involved, consider a hotel operation versus that of an apartment building. If guests are not satisfied with the service or cleanliness of a room, they are free to check out the same day, as there are no leases to keep them on the premises, and the revenue stream will vanish overnight. But in an apartment building [or office building or shopping center], the tenants will normally stay until their leases expire, preserving the owner’s income stream substantially. The moral is that the expertise needed to keep a hotel or restaurant operation at a level ensuring customer loyalty, is more demanding than for an apartment house or office building.

     

    In many countries, running a boutique or Gingerbread House, Haitiheritage inn is a highly individualistic venture, with perhaps 10-20 rooms at the most, with many offering fine dining to attract a sophisticated local clientele. France’s Relais & Chateaux chain epitomizes this kind of product, which requires a sophisticated owner skillfully anticipating the demands of a select clientele. Haiti can offer this product, and the old homes could be adapted to create highly distinctive, memorable inns symbolizing the country’s past and earning strong loyalty. But if a family cannot commit to a high level of involvement and arrange the right expertise, then running a shop or leasing a renovated home to other entrepreneurs may be better options.


    Tip 6 – Get expert advice from the start

     

    With the benefit of the tips laid out above, a family will be in better shape to arrive at a convergence of views enabling them to prepare a business plan to put the project on a sound business foundation. Seeking advice early on is essential, and where families are involved, it is probably best if one respected member emerges to lead the process, especially in cases where a family has members spread over two or more nations. It is key at the beginning to focus on getting an idea of the capital cost for the reconstruction or conversion of the house, then selecting the best type of business, which in simpler cases could take as little as 2-3 months.

     

    The more spacious the lots, the more possibilities there are for expanding and innovating. In such cases it may take a designer longer to work up sketches and cost estimates of alternatives, and also for an owner to weigh them carefully.

     

    A family can also seek capital from a corporate partner such as a Haitian corporation or person of wealth. Having a feasibility study focusing on such a venture [with a market analysis and 10-year cash flow] will make discussions with possible partners and funders easier than without such a study.

     

    Fortunately there is a growing number of hotel projects under way, so recent construction cost figures are available. There are also several hotel consultants from abroad with recent experience on Haitian projects. The challenge is for a family to spend its money wisely on professional services [attorneys, architects, hotel experts, etc.] to reveal risks and rewards early on before making the strategic decisions to commit the resources long term. A beautifully renovated home can be a prized trophy for an investing family or individual.

    Converting one into a viable inn or restaurant to run as a business for long term gain, is much more involved and risky. It is best to make informed decisions at the outset with the help of ethical professionals than to venture into a new field uninformed. This writer is confident that within a few years Haiti will once again see a few Relais & Chateaux caliber inns opening up once again.


    Manuel L. Knight is a French-speaking tourism sector planner based in Washington DC consulting for development agencies and hotel developers and their lenders. He has prepared feasibility studies and has advised and trained families in Europe on opening B&Bs. His first mission to Haiti was in 1998. Images ©by M Knight.
    mk(at)KnightConsultLLC.com