“It’s Hogwarts!” Oliver exclaimed as we entered the arched vestibule of The Gallery Inn in Old San Juan. Indeed the sculptural stone interior, chock-a-block full of eclectic art and ephemera, did resemble the wizarding world’s most famous castle. The only thing missing were the owls. Instead there were parrots.
The singular atmosphere of The Gallery Inn is the vision of one woman, Jan D’Esopo, a native of Connecticut and New York who came to Puerto Rico after completing her degree in painting and sculpture. In 1961, the young artist crawled through a crack in the wall of abandoned structure into what she describes as an “ancient secret garden.” Where others saw a hopeless case, Jan recognized in the sculptural remains a kindred spirit. Amongst the whispering stones she heard not only the echoes of the past, but also the call of the future.
In his book, The Big House – an homage to the family home, which fittingly I began to read while a guest at The Gallery Inn – author George Howe Colt describes a home as “the one place that will be in your bones forever.” That is what The Gallery Inn is to Jan. And yet she is the one who added flesh to those bones. By living her life here, raising a family, creating her art, and then finally sharing her space with the world, Jan, together her husband Manuco, nurtured the Inn’s character, gave it life.
Today Jan’s home and hostelry encompasses 6 historic town houses dating from the Spanish Colonial era. Like some hybrid of Pan’s Labrinth and Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum, the grand interior moves in a warren-like fashion from grottoed recesses to sunlit courtyards and gardens. Right at the blue macaw, under the ancient arch, left at the Spanish steps, along the palmed atrium, through the grand salon, into the rooftop garden, down the orchid-lined stair, along Roman bath, past the formal dining room, into the artist studio, and so on. There are even some stairs that seem to lead to nowhere. And everywhere momentos of Jan’s rich life follow your progress. Gilded portraits, many by her sister, Teresa D’Esopo Spinner, and family photos gaze down in curious fashion. Bronze and clay statuary by Manuco and Jan – the visages of former guests and local dignitaries (there’s even the Obamas) – peak shying out of nooks and cranies. Even the vines hanging from the balconies seem to reach out in welcome embrace. And don’t be startled if you enter an empty room and are greeted by a spectral “hello!” It’s most likely Campeche, the cockatoo, or one of his parrot friends.
The result off all this romantic eclecticism is a building of such story and character that it seems alive. Indeed it feels not like a hotel at all, but an experience. For some, who may not appreciate the rustic nature of this 300-year-old structure, it may not be the right experience. But for those who are respective to its tale, being a guest at The Gallery Inn is to become part of its story. The effect is nothing short of enchanting.
Rather than modernizing the space, Jan elected to pay homage to the 300-year-old interior’s historic past by maintaining much of the original detail. Here, like starlight, elegant chandeliers pierce the dark of the Spanish colonial dining room.
Reminiscent of a ruined Roman bath, the pool is literally a work of art. It is also the best place for water tag. I admit, at first, I was worried that I would not be able to curb my children from this raucous activity. Until I spied two huge plastic water guns furnished by Jan for just this purpose. Guests of all ages are not only welcomed, but celebrated, at The Gallery Inn.
The chiaroscuro effect of the Gallery’s interiors was a photographer’s dream. Here Oliver winds up a day of traipsing around San Juan’s impressive and massive fortifications by relaxing with a good book.
Despite the elegant nature of the furnishings, all the spaces in The Gallery Inn possess an intimate quality, that is more welcoming than intimidating. Here a more informal lounge space under the main stairs takes in a view of the palm and orchid studded atrium.
Most evenings at cocktail hour Jan and Campeche emerge to socialize and inquire after the comfort of their guests. In addition, Campeche often performs some of his many tricks, including playing the piano. Here he takes a bow.
Set right over the walls of Old San Juan, The Gallery Inn enjoys a breathtaking view of the ocean (or, from the rooftop wine deck, the whole city). Our room, the Balcon, sported twin balconies that took in not only the “secret garden” courtyard, but also the Atlantic.