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  NEW TOWNS
MAY/JUNE 2008
 

Marc Bautil Takes on Santo Domingo

Ask an urbanist to name cities in the Americas with a great sense of place, human scale and a functioning core worthy of old world Europe, and you're likely to hear a common refrain of "New York, Charleston, Boston, Savannah. ."

Even if the list grows to a top 25, you will never hear "Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic" blurted out.

Marc Bautil -- trained as a civil engineer, experienced as a diplomat, raised in exotic cities in Africa and in love with the grand old cities of Andalusian Spain -- is working to make the oldest city in the New World one of the most desirable urban experiences in the Americas.

Neither politician nor planner, he worked tirelessly to convert a significant but severely neglected building into a boutique hotel in the heart of Santo Domingo's urban core -- the Zona Colonial, or Colonial Zone: an area rich with churches, ruins and structures dating back to the 1500s.

"The construction was financed by Dona Elvira de Mendoza -- a noble dame, the first poetess of the New World," Bautil said of what today is the 14-room Dona Elvira hotel that fits right into the old city's urban fabric halfway between a long, pedestrian, commercial street and the waterfront Malecon where ancient buildings await restoration while presiding over the blue Caribbean waters where Christopher Columbus sailed into port in 1492.

"It was built around 1550. She also financed the church next door, Iglesia Regina Angelorum, an historic structure run by the Order of Malta nuns and where all big weddings take place," he continued.

Despite such a grand beginning, the old colonial mansion was split into two parts and a modern part was added on. In the early 1900s, the once regal building was used as a Pepsi Cola warehouse.

"We bought it in a dismal shape," said Bautil, who tore down the out-of-place modern addition to recreate a proper colonial courtyard -- which also serves a 21st century hostelry need by accommodating a small swimming pool. "We preserved the historical building entirely."

"The fašade could not be changed, nor the roof, nor the wall's location. It became the lobby, restaurant and the office of the consulate," said Bautil, who still serves as the Belgian consul to the Dominican Republic. "We kept 90 percent of the 500-year-old wooden beams, and we also restored the ancient water well."

Bautil's road to urbanist is an interesting one. He was born the son of a judge in the Belgian Congo in 1962. By the time he was 19, the family had lived in Tunisia, Rwanda and Burundi. He earned a civil engineering degree in Burundi then completed a master's in construction in Belgium.

His first job was as an engineer in Agadir, Morocco, working on an apartment complex and road construction before becoming a project manager in giant cement factory for the largest Danish construction group. Bautil also worked in the design department in the Dubai location of Besix, Belgium's largest construction firm.

By the early 1990s, he was fluent in six languages and began work as a diplomat for Belgium in Los Angeles. Bautil eventually started an international translation company -- ilanguage.com -- in the Dominican Republic in 1998.

He and his wife, Elvira, had become smitten with the Latin American nation during a 1992 visit that prompting them to build a beachfront vacation home in Cabarete on the island's north coast. They moved to the Dominican permanently in 2001.

"In 2003, we took a tour of the old cities of Andalusia and fell in love with the historical districts of Granada, Cordoba and Sevilla. After staying in a few great historical inns in Andalusia, we decided to recreate a piece of Old Spain in Santo Domingo. The hotel opened in mid 2004," Bautil explained.

Along with historic preservation, Bautil is deeply involved in sustainability. The Dona Elvira heats its water by solar power, and he is looking to solar cells to supply the electricity for the eclectic property. Bautil also is building a trio of apartment and villa developments in Samana, Dominican Republic, with green buildings, renewable solar and wind energy and dozens of other eco-friendly features.

Bautil said Santo Domingo, like all urban areas built long before the automobile, has parking issues and also needs increased security. But its colonial charms far outweigh its challenges.

"Zona Colonial is a special urban area. Only Rome has a higher density of churches. The Zona Colonial, a tiny fraction of the Santo Domingo, has about 30 churches, convents and ruins," he said.

Bautil has high hopes for the continued restoration and preservation of Santo Domingo's Colonial Zone, which was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1990. He is pleased that Oscar de la Renta restored a grand old mansion across the street from him, and he has faith that government stability can further preserve the historic core of North America's seventh largest city.

"We have a peatonal (the grand east-west pedestrian boulevard of El Conde), parks, bars, restaurants, museums, churches, businesses, apartments, grand restored mansions -- all in place," Bautil said of what attracts his family to the compact and walkable old town.

"Santo Domingo's Zona Colonial allows you to restore the human and cultural dimension to the city."

Visit the Dona Elvira Web site at: www.dona-elvira.com.

Wright has written for a living for 25 years, with nearly 5,000 published articles. He lives in historic Little Havana and is very active in Miami's urban issues. He and his wife of 20 years also are involved in making new and old towns more accessible for people with disabilities.