The Hotel Florita, which opened in 1888, is one of the city’s most notable landmarks. Jacmel was then the wealthiest town in Haiti, with coffee as its main commodities trade. There were no coffee plantations; peasants cultivated coffea plants as subsistence farmers.
Most families had only a few children, and all of them built houses with the ground floor as their office and the two stories above it for living. The kitchen and servants quarters were in the courtyard and the depots for coffee were usually next to or on the street – Hence its name, “Rue du Commerce.”
The 19th Century houses were designed in Europe, with most coming from France. All of the materials used to construct these buildings were sourced from Europe as well, including the iron and tiles. The only exception was wood, which was plentiful locally at the time thanks to mahogany trees.
The economy changed in the country, and many wealthy families from Jacmel relocated to Port au Prince. The Florita was sealed off in the 1950s until it was “rediscovered” by adventurous North Americans at the start of the 1970s (before there was a paved road). The trip between Port au Prince and Jacmel took all day, with several rivers needing to be crossed. Even so, the town remained beautiful, peaceful and unspoiled.
Selden Rodman, an art and travel writer, was one of the first foreigners to come to Jacmel. He bought a house that had been vacant for 20 years, made an art gallery on the first floor, and eventually became an art dealer.
He became the most popular writer on Haitian art (most “coffee-table books” about this topic were written by Rodman) and was largely responsible for introducing it to Westerners. He occupied the house for 20 years, spending 4 months there every year – renting it out at other times. In 1982, Joe Cross and his family rented it from him before eventually purchasing it in 1989.
The decision to turn the house into a hotel in 1999 allowed more people to have a sense of what life was like for the wealthy in Jacmel 100 years ago. The owners took care to preserve the original charm of the house and courtyard so that it could be easily converted back into a private residence if needed.
The restaurant and bar are located in the depot, where the coffee was kept, and while the coffee trade is no longer flourishing in Jacmel, the blackest but most alkaline and delicious tasting coffee available anywhere can be found there.