The heartbreak of Havana

The fading architectural heritage of Cuba, and what it says about our own historic buildings.

Imagine one of the richest cities in all the Americas, with five centuries of conspicuous consumption played out in mansions, churches, opera houses and government buildings. This was Havana, Cuba in 1959. Now, 54 years later, this glamorous, opulent center sees three buildings collapse daily from neglect. The physical devastation of this once-proud capital center is staggering.

I went to Havana with the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation and returned with an enhanced appreciation for the architectural similarities between our communities. Visiting the ruined homes, offices and shops is particularly painful for a historic preservation junkie like me because I know that these losses could have been prevented.

Sometimes returning to Tampa after a trip is frustrating because you see all our imperfections — too many billboards and too much cement. However, compared to Havana, Tampa looks wildly attractive. Even the abandoned cigar factories in West Tampa and Palmetto Beach are better secured from the elements than homes in Cuba.

Where do the architectural paths of Tampa and Havana cross? Well, the economic fortunes of the two areas dictated a lot. Havana was the richest place in the New World for 400 years. Its strategically placed harbor made it the launching site for “The Fleet,” the gold and silver-filled galleons that traveled together in a 50-ship convoy bearing the treasures of the Americas back to Spain.

In the 1540s, Cuba boasted an underground aquaduct, fortresses, palaces and wharves. The traders made the city rich and built themselves large, extravagant homes filled with the world’s bounty. Cuba prospered mightily from 1500 until 1897, when the country freed itself from serving as a Spanish colony. Cuba then became a U.S. protectorate and prospered even more.

The building boom between 1900-1959 quadrupled Havana’s population and wealth, with no single style dominating. “Eclecticism” was really just a mishmash of architectural styles, many nostalgic revivals of Tudor, Gothic and classical motifs. Luxurious building materials, from imported Italian marble to French paneling, demonstrated the deep pockets of the owners. In fact, the Colón Cemetery boasts over 160 acres of brass, marble and onyx in elaborate above-ground tombs — these folks were flashing their taste and resources in death as in life.

Affluent Cubans had a long tradition of educating their sons in Europe, so the architectural advances termed “modern” were quickly copied in Havana. At the 1929 World’s Fair in Barcelona, Spain, which featured the Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, the cutting edge of modern architecture was explored and then interpreted by sharp, Cuban designers.

While modern architecture wasn’t widespread, the best example in Cuba is the Superior Art School built from 1961-65. Tropical modernism was not the austere, crisp, flat-roofed Bauhaus version of new design. Rather, the curving forms reflect Cuban sensuality. Porro, the 24-year-old architect, selected by Fidel Castro for the plum commission of reworking the grounds of the Havana Country Club into an arts school, designed the visual arts campus as a goddess, with many breasts.

Fast forward 50 years and we find that the school was never completed, and the existing buildings were semi-abandoned for a few decades. Now the campus is being fixed up and young artists and dancers enjoy the exuberant playfulness of the erotically shaped structures and walkways.

Tampa never enjoyed Havana’s centuries of history and wealth. We were a sleepy fishing village when our big break came: America entered the Spanish-American War, and Henry Plant’s ships were used to take soldiers and supplies down to Cuba for the fight. The single grandest, most imaginative structure ever to grace our area is the Tampa Bay Hotel, built by Henry Plant just prior to the war.

Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders’ choice to embark from Tampa helped put this place on the map, and Don Martinez Ybor’s decision to relocate his cigar business here was the catalyst in Ybor City’s development. The modest cigar-worker housing and imposing brick factories all were inspired by Cuban models, as were the mutual aid societies such as the Cuban Club and Centro Asturiano.

These three-story brick buildings with their Beaux Arts facades, iron balconies, colored glass decorative windows, tiled floors and highly detailed interiors reflect the popular styles of Havana in that era.

In 1959, Havana froze. Tampa continued to grow. Continuing suburbanization led to more spawling development, mostly without character — generica. Our area has a few well-designed contemporary buildings, such as our urban museums, and some active, thoughtful public spaces, such as St. Pete’s waterfront and Tampa’s riverwalk.

Perhaps the greatest role reversal is that Tampa’s vitality is increasing, with more urban investment, residents and businesses, while Havana is stuck. For the sake of Cuba’s patrimony it is my hope that the realities will shift swiftly and Havana’s architectural treasures will be saved.

There is still time to stabilize and rehabilitate many of the historically and architecturally important buildings in Havana, but they won’t last forever. There needs to be political change there, and then strong rules to guide careful restoration efforts. Since we don’t know what the future holds, try to visit sooner rather than later.

Bring your camera and Kleenex!

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