Shelter: American Trade Hotel

Once a former gang hideout, the Ace Hotel Group has turned the American Trade Hotel into a symbol of Panama City's storied past, present, and future
March 26, 2016Words by Michaela Trimble

I’m sitting in the American Trade Hotel’s Danilo’s Jazz Club, a dimly-lit hall where the atmosphere is thick with the soulful voice of Idania Dowman, known as the Panamanian lady of jazz. She waves to her daughter in the crowd, just before belting an Afroantillana version of "Georgia" by Ray Charles. It’s my last night in Casco Viejo, but I feel like I could stay forever.

The American Trade Hotel is here to celebrate Casco Viejo for what it was, what it is and what it hopes to be.

As it seems, the trouble with visiting Panama is that you never want to leave, and much of this is due to American Trade Hotel & Hall, a staple in the burgeoning Casco Viejo neighborhood, once vehemently feared for gang warfare. But with one look at the hotel’s slick façade, the storied past is absorbed, but not forgotten, as that’s part of the hotel's mission: to co-exist in the community that has such a rich, colorful history, but not to impose and not to paint over. The American Trade Hotel is here to celebrate Casco Viejo for what it was, what it is, and what it hopes to be.

Casco Viejo was originally founded in 1673 out of necessity, as Panama’s main hub of the time was ransacked by Henry Morgan and his crew of rogue pirates. The neighborhood quickly became the center of Panamanian life, eventually playing host to the country’s first skyscraper, which was home to the American Trade Developing Company. Built in 1917 by Ramon Arias Feraud, great-grandfather of one of the current owners of the hotel, the building housed Panama’s first modern apartments with reinforced concrete, using the same techniques perfected in the construction of the Panama Canal. In fact, it even housed many of the Canal’s workers.

By the 1950s, the Panamanian elite began to move out of Casco Viejo to the suburbs. This period was followed by a mass exodus in the 1960s and 1970s, when many of Panama’s middle class fled the country to escape the harsh dictatorships of the time. Political instability ensued, and by the 2000s, the American Trade building was abandoned by industry and occupied by a lethal Casco Viejo street gang – just one of the more than 200 gangs in the area.

But just a few years later in 2007, a real estate development company called the Conservatorio purchased the American Trade building. They then partnered with Atelier Ace, the creative team behind the Ace Hotel Group, and the group opened the American Trade Hotel & Hall in the fall of 2013.

Part of the group’s mission includes an effort to sustain affordable housing within the district. The rebuilding efforts established connections between social, cultural, and commercial interests first to create a thoughtful sense of entrepreneurship and to restore Casco Viejo’s architectural heritage, but also to maintain a rich mix of social diversity. Part of this effort includes the hotel’s partnership with Esperanza, a local organization working with five former gang leaders of Ciudad de Dios. The project employs them through Fortaleza Tours, established to offer an alternative to gang life and show travelers a more authentic view of past and present life in the area.

Santiago de Bastille, a tour translator for Fortaleza, recounts a time in the 2000s when the now American Trade Hotel was a shell of what it is today. People in the neighborhood were so frightened by gang activity that they would rarely leave their homes, even if it was only to put trash down the chute. Overall, nearly 65 families once squatted in the building, which was the site of 16 homicides.

“This place used to be a total war zone. It was loaded with gangs,” Bastille says. “Now you can walk around here all day with your camera and your money in hand, and no one will rob you."

The American Trade Hotel & Hall encompass four buildings in the Casco Viejo neighborhood, each with distinctly varying histories and architecture.

To preserve much of this past, Atelier Ace and Conservatorio worked with Los Angeles-based collective Commune Design and Panama-based Hache Uve to restore the American Trade Hotel & Hall. Inclusive of event spaces like American Trade Hall, The Salon, and Danilo’s Jazz Club, the American Trade Hotel & Hall encompass four buildings in the Casco Viejo neighborhood, each with distinctly varying histories and architecture.

The main hotel’s façade was designed by architect Leonardo Villanueva Mayer, known for founding the bellavistina style, many elements of which are visible in American Trade. Within, a special interior staircase stands with a cascading array of images down either side, showing the carefully preserved photographic documentation of the graffiti that once decorated the property in the early 2000s. American Trade’s first-floor open-air environment is endlessly refreshing, with a graphic mosaic tile design making every step a photo opportunity. Chairs and couches are sprinkled throughout, offering a communal space for travelers to mingle.

The Dining Room and The Lobby Café and Bar are decorated in tropical prints and white-clothed wall art installations. Chef Clara Icaza, named one of the top 20 young chefs in Latin America, helms the eclectic menu, which is full of fresh, local, and seasonal dishes. The cocktail menus in the Dining Room, Danilo’s Jazz Bar, and the Lobby Café and Bar are inspired by the menus of notable Panamanian sporting clubs in the 1920s and 1930s, when the country’s thriving social culture was at its most robust. Rounding out the dining experience is Café Unido, providing the perfect place to read a book in the afternoon and sip Chef Luis Bula’s custom house blend.

With all the dining and lounge options the hotel has to offer, it may seem hard to stay in your room, but American Trade makes it easy. Each of the 50 guest rooms are evocative of traditional colonial appeal, but with a fresh Latin American take that evokes warmth and character. All rooms have high ceilings and absorbing views of Casco’s plazas, churches, or the entrance to the Panama Canal.

Weathered wood mixes with both antique and modern furniture, matching the white, wood-paneled walls accented by black-lacquered crown molding. Lamps are carefully in place on each side of the wooden headboard, with framed historical photos from the property adorning both sides. The Frette linens are clean and fresh, with nautical colors of navy and white making up the bedding, accented by a striped throw. The bathrooms are infinitely crisp, with white marble, tile, and silver steel accents dominating the retro-modern space. All in all, American Trade is the type of hotel you never want to leave.

The insistent kindness of locals and the visionaries producing art and industry in Casco Viejo has a way of penetrating traditional layers of travel. With American Trade Hotel & Hall at the center of this transitional period in Casco Viejo’s history, esteem will only grow in the country known as the crossroads of the Americas. [H]

Michaela is a writer, photographer and social content strategist. When she's not embarking on adventures around the world, she calls Fort Greene, Brooklyn home, where she eats plenty of tacos and drinks plenty of beer.

Images ©: 1, 2, 4-11,13,15; Spencer Lowell. 3, 12; Lauren Coleman. 14; Douglas Lyle Thompson

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