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200 years in Stone: A journey through Oranjestad's historic buildings – Part 1

Aruba is a tiny island on the world map with a surprisingly diverse landscape. It boasts a vibrant culture influenced and shaped by its colonial past.

Join me as we explore the charming capital, Oranjestad, where time seems to stand still amidst the beautiful stone architecture. Each building tells the story of our vivid and diverse cultural heritage.

Are you intrigued by whispers of the past?

Oranjestad, Aruba's vibrant capital, charms us with a tale of buried treasures, bustling commerce, and a dramatic transformation throughout the centuries.


From humble beginnings to bustling hub

Imagine a time before Oranjestad's iconic L.G. Smith Boulevard, when “Paardenbaai” was a quiet haven. In the 18th century, you'd find only a lone wooden storage shed, a couple of coast guard cottages, and a small coastal battery guarding the pristine shoreline. The very name "Paardenbaai" (Horse Bay) hints at its past as a bustling center for horse trade during the colonial era.

But change was on the horizon. In the late 18th century, the construction of Fort Zoutman, coupled with the relocation of the Commander's post from Savaneta to Playa (present-day Oranjestad), breathed new life into the area. Enterprising merchants, particularly from Curaçao and the French Antilles, flocked to the fledgling town. Havenstraat witnessed the rise of the first shops, their buildings nestled right against the bay (later pushed inland by land reclamation).

The birth of Oranjestad and the "Golden Roads"

Gold was discovered in Aruba in 1824, and the island suddenly became interesting in the eyes of many. Legend also has it that in August 1824, the Commander bestowed upon this burgeoning town a name that would forever etch its mark on history—Oranjestad (Orange Town). The city's heart began to expand eastward, giving rise to the oldest streets—Nassaustraat (Aruba’s “Main street”; now named Caya Betico Croes) and Wilhelminastraat. These roads served as vital arteries, connecting the harbor at Paardenbaai to the gold mines in the northeast hills of the island.

Even back then, Saturdays in Oranjestad were a sight to behold. Bustling with activity, these "golden roads" witnessed a vibrant scene. Farmers on donkeys arrived from the countryside, eager to trade their wares. Today, cars navigate these streets, but remnants of the old Oranjestad remain – the  iconic Fort Zoutman, the historic Protestant church on Wilhelminastraat, and a handful of traditional "cunucu" houses.

Prepare to be enchanted: Our journey begins

Today, we will embark on a journey to explore the city's rich history and hidden gems.

Our adventure commences with a taste of true Aruban breakfast and hospitality at Djiespie's, a local gem where delicious Aruban cuisine and refreshing drinks tantalize your taste buds. Every Friday evening, this very spot transforms into a lively hub, echoing with the joyous sounds of local music. A tradition started by the legendary troubadour Etty Toppenberg, these gatherings offer a glimpse into the heart and soul of Aruban culture.

Belly full and spirits high, we'll stroll through the plaza in front of Djiespie's before entering Wilhelminastraat, a historic artery named after Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

Turn right! Stepping onto this street is like stepping back in time. Here, we'll encounter our first treasure – the captivating Casa Rosada.

Casa Rosada: A regal merchant's house

We'll be transported to a bygone era upon encountering the charming Casa Rosada (Pink House). Built in 1904, this captivating merchant's house is one of Aruba's few remaining Town-Country houses. With its distinct pink facade and separate ground-floor shop, it embodies the architectural style of Curaçao. The building was named Casa Rosada because of the beautiful pink color that it used to have and still has today.


My friends and current owners, Mr. and Mrs. Fabio and Laila Marcotulli, restored La Casa Rosada. Whenever I visit them, I am fascinated by the beauty of the house’s interiors. Mr. Marcotulli created a table tennis museum on the ground floor, and Mrs. Marcotulli exhibits her creations as an artist and excellent sculptor in their living quarters on the second floor.

Edificio MSA is more than just a building

While continuing this journey through many historic buildings, another stands out: The MSA building (“Mario S. Arends”) that whispers a unique tale. It is a majestic structure boasting rounded corners and a captivating glass-block facade that inspires you to unravel its rich history. Built in 1950, this architectural gem was the brainchild of visionaries Mario and Gilbert Arends, who transformed their entrepreneurial dreams into a tangible reality.

It brimmed with life as it housed many entities throughout history. Within the walls of Edificio MSA, three distinct entities thrived: Aruba Commercial Bank, the retail paradise of Mario and Gilbert Arends, and the iconic bowling club, Club Watapana. Later, the second commercial radio station in Aruba, Voz di Aruba, found its home on the fourth floor.

Aruba Commercial Bank offered financial security, and Mario and Gilbert Arends' store fulfilled dreams with everything from cigars to furniture to cameras. Club Watapana echoed with the joyous sounds of bowling. As you reach the upper floors, imagine the informative broadcasts emanating from Voz di Aruba, the island's second commercial radio station that filled the airwaves with music, news, and cultural programs, connecting Arubans across the island and beyond.
The building’s last tenants, the Aruba Police Force, safeguarded the community within these walls. Yet, whispers of the past linger – the rhythmic click-clack of bowling balls, the clinking of coins being deposited, and the lively tunes that once filled the air. Edificio MSA is one of those perfect examples of Aruba's ever-evolving spirit, an exciting fusion of commerce, entertainment, and cultural heritage forever etched in the island's soul.

A hub of creativity: remembering Aruba's artistic soul

Just across from Edificio MSA stands what used to be the home of Aruba's legendary musician, Rufo Wever. With his lifelong friend and cultural icon, Juan Chabaya “Padu” Lampe, Wever established Aruba's first recording studio, Aruba Recording Company, within the walls of his humble abode. Countless albums were recorded here, ushering in Aruba's Golden Age of Music Recording. It was also within these walls that Aruba's immortal anthem, "Aruba, Dushi Tera," was composed in 1952. Initially, it was a simple yet beautiful waltz that would inspire the locals to feel more proud of their island.

Countless other renowned artists, including Edwin Zichem, Juancho Kock, and Oscar Steba, graced this hallowed space, leaving a profound and lasting mark on the musical landscape of the Dutch Antilles. Sadly, this historic residence has undergone many transformations, changing its beautiful façade. It once housed a furniture store and, once upon a time, also the police quarters of Oranjestad. This building remains a relic and testimony of Oranjestad’s rich history.

Continuing our journey: architectural gems await

As we continue down Wilhelminastraat, a kaleidoscope of historic buildings unfolds before us, each a testament to Oranjestad's rich past.

Stadhuis (City Hall) & Hotel Colombia: A Tale of Two Buildings

The following famous landmark is a captivating complex: the Eloy Arends Building and the former Hotel Colombia. The Eloy Arends Building, built in 1925 by Dr. Jacobo Eloy Maria Arends, with its prominent Neo-Baroque and Latin American influences, now serves as Oranjestad's City Hall.

Under the guidance of Aruban contractor Chibi Wever, a team of skilled artisans, including masons Jan Christiaans and Nicolaas “Dada” Picus, meticulously brought Dr. Arends' vision to life. Their craftsmanship is evident in the complex details that adorn the façade, from the graceful arches to the ornate cornices. It exudes an aura of stately elegance. Conceived initially in 1925 as the residence and medical practice of Dr. Eloy Arends, a compassionate physician who dedicated his life to caring for the people of Aruba, this grand mansion served as a source of hope, offering solace and healing to those in need. The construction of this estate was a demonstration of the enduring power of love.

Dr. Eloy Arends commissioned the building as a symbol of his devotion to his fiancée, Maria Monica Lacle, in accordance with Aruban tradition at the time, which dictated that a man provide a fully furnished home for his bride. Today, it is still the ground where eternal love is forever promised, and Aruba’s City Hall now serves as the location where couples get married.

On the same building complex, at the back of City Hall, stands the once-grand Hotel Colombia, constructed in 1918. But before we continue our journey to get to know these majestic buildings, you will encounter another beautiful monument in front of the City Hall.

Cas Veneranda: A story of elegance and resilience

Next, we'll be awestruck by Cas Veneranda, the magnificent residence built in 1936 by Federico Maximiliaan (Machi) Arends. This imposing structure, also designed in the lavish Neo-Baroque Latin American style, boasts intricate details and was once a flower shop, ice cream parlor, and the Spanish consulate. The architect was the well-known master builder Nicolaas “Dada” Picus, who went to Cartagena, Colombia, to find inspiration for a building that Machi’s wife, Maria Veneranda, was in love with. On his return to Aruba, he built the house we know today as Cas Veneranda. Currently undergoing restoration, Cas Veneranda is poised to reclaim its former glory and add another chapter to its fascinating story.


A Legacy in stone: the former public school

Diagonally across from Cas Veneranda lies the building that housed Aruba's first public school, constructed in 1887-1888. With its symmetrical facade and rounded arches, this neoclassical gem inspired many residential buildings of the era. The building has served various purposes throughout history. In 1955, it became the headquarters of the Public Library, and in 1982, it functioned as the office of the “Council of Advice” and the General Audit Chamber. During this time, the building had two main entrances: one on the Wilhelminastraat side and another on the Zoutmanstraat side. Today, it serves as the headquarters of the General Audit Chamber.


A city transformed: Oranjestad's evolving landscape

Continue walking along the side of these buildings. To your left, you will continue to see the complex of City Hall, the Civil Registry, and then the old “Hotel Colombia.” that together form the current City Hall complex.

The old Hotel Colombia retains the classic characteristics of the architectural style popular in Curaçao at the end of the 19th century. The most striking feature is the full balcony on the south façade, supported by six columns. Another typical feature is the colored lights in the shape of a half circle within a rectangular frame. In addition to being the old Hotel Colombia from 1918, the building was also known to the Aruban community as an open-air theater that L.J.M. (Nadie) Henriquez had built on the west side of the building.

The house had different functions. Supposedly, it was first a guesthouse for Venezuelan government officials called Pension Aruba. Between 1916 and 1920, these officials came to Aruba temporarily to hire many Aruban emigrants for work. During this period, the building may have also functioned as a Venezuelan consulate and home for the consul. Around 1925, Dr. Eloy Arends bought it and, at the same time, had the doctor's house built. Later, the building was named Hotel Colombia, one of Aruba's first commercially managed hotels.

Plaza Padu: a celebration of Aruban culture

Right next to this building complex, you will find Plaza Padu, a large square named after the cultural icon Juan Chabaya “Padu” Lampe. You’ll be greeted by a monument depicting the three co-authors of Aruba's national anthem. Mr. Padu Lampe, Mr. Rufo Wever, and Mr. Hubert “Lio” Booi. Each one is a cultural icon on his own. Mr. Booi was also known as the Flamingo of Aruba because he was born in Bonaire and made Aruba his home. He is credited with having helped create the third verse of our national anthem in 1976 when “Aruba, Dushi Tera” was officially declared our national anthem. Their legacy lives on through the music that resonates with the Aruban soul. Their music is the soundtrack to our Aruban happiness.


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