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Stuck in time: Havana’s once-stunning architecture deteriorating

<cutline_leadin>A MUSEUM IN ITSELF:</cutline_leadin> The courtyard of the National Museum of Fine Arts (El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes), which was designed by Alfonso Rodriguez Pichardo and opened in 1954.
<cutline_leadin>A MUSEUM IN ITSELF:</cutline_leadin> The courtyard of the National Museum of Fine Arts (El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes), which was designed by Alfonso Rodriguez Pichardo and opened in 1954. Brent Winebrenner

Standing before an evidently enthralled audience in a Coral Gables bookstore, Michael Connors was delivering an illustrated presentation about Havana’s pre-Revolution architecture and interior design when he noticed a woman a few rows back lower her head and cry.

“She was wiping her eyes as I was talking,” Connors said afterward, as he signed copies of his fourth book on Cuba, Havana Modern: 20th-Century Architecture and Interiors, whose publication last month prompted his presentation at Books & Books.

The woman’s tears said all they needed to about the yearning Cuban exiles feel for the island of their birth, which many have not set foot upon since leaving in the wake of Fidel Castro’s assumption of power in 1959.

Beamed onto a screen behind Connors as he spoke were photographs — most of them stunning — of public buildings and houses in Havana from various architectural periods, most notably Art Nouveau, Beaux Arts and Art Deco, as well as every other Western architectural style “that exists from the past 500 years,” including the French and Spanish Renaissance, the book says. The Cuban capital houses a confluence of distinct styles that Connors said “exists in no other city in this hemisphere.”

“There was plenty of money down there — everybody wanted to build,” Connors said, referring to the first few decades of the 20th century, when Havana’s modernist look evolved during a construction boom fueled in large part by immigrant Spaniards.

“Some of the best architects in the world went to Cuba,” said Connors, who points out in his book that among the half-million immigrants who arrived in Cuba during the first quarter of the century were architects, artisans, builders and sculptors “who had cultivated their trades, talents and tastes under the mantle of the European moderne movement.”

But, as has long been clear to anyone with an interest in Cuba, the vagaries of time, hurricanes and politics have done much to impede the maintenance and care of many of Havana’s most outstanding buildings.

“It’s preservation by neglect,” Connors, a historian and Caribbean design expert, told the audience. He was alluding to the fact that many exceptional buildings have survived for decades only because there was no money to either modernize them or tear them down. In some cases, mansions turned to slums, disintegrating while filled with families.

Other remarkable structures have been restored to their former glory, an effort spearheaded by Eusebio Leal, Havana’s official historian, who found a way to use revenue from tourists to finance the restoration of hundreds of buildings in the colonial section of the city, which dates to 1519.

One of the first edifices Leal focused on was the Palace of the Captains General, an 11-year project that resulted in the building becoming the City Museum. It is one of many buildings that drew Connors’ attention, but his favorite is the former headquarters of the Bacardí rum empire, an Art Deco marvel completed in 1930, to which he devotes a dozen pages.

Connors is fond too of the Teatro América, another Art Deco structure that is pure elegance. Shown to great effect in a two-page photo is a ladies’ cloakroom with upturned brass lamps and worn, green leather armchairs that the author surmised have not been renovated in decades. “It’s like walking back into a time capsule,” he said.

Of the private homes shown in the book, the one built for Pablo González de Mendoza in 1916 in the Pompeian style was the first in Havana to have an indoor swimming pool. His grandson, Gonzalo Valdes-Fauli, a retired investment banker, attended Connors’ presentation and told him afterward that he recalled as a child carving his name with an icepick on a wall in the kitchen. Thirty-five years later, in the 1990s, he went back to the house — which now serves as the British embassy — and found the carving undisturbed.

Connors’ book makes note also of Havana’s hotels, some of which were playgrounds for glamorous visitors such as Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra before the Revolution.

The Habana Riviera, a 21-story hotel and casino built by the American crime figure Meyer Lansky in 1957, was nationalized by the Cuban government three years later and looks just as it did then. It has not been well maintained, Connors said, with a general air of neglect and mold plainly visible in one of the rooms he visited.

In the hotel’s heyday, the actress and competitive swimmer Esther Williams performed in the Riviera’s saltwater pool, which was surrounded by 75 changing cabañas, each with a private telephone.

Although the hotel’s restaurant, L’Aiglon, retains a vivid mural of Cubans dressed elegantly for a carnival, “the food is terrible,” Connors said. “The plates are the same ones they were using in 1957, and I have a feeling they’re using the same napkins, too.”

The author acknowledged that he had not expected to enjoy Cuba when he first went there 15 years ago as part of his research into another book, Caribbean Elegance.

“But my whole perception changed, with the music, the rum, the cigars,” said Connors, who estimated that he has visited Cuba more than 50 times. He usually stays in a rented apartment in Havana. “I consider it my second home,” said Connors, who has owned a house on St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, for 40 years.

“We thank you so much for bringing Cuba to us,” Sebastian V. Paris, a 53-year-old paralegal in Miami who left Cuba with his parents in 1970, said to the author during a question-and-answer session. Later, Paris said Connors’ book made it possible for Cubans like himself to “enjoy things that we never would have seen” otherwise.

“We couldn’t get inside to see those beautiful houses, or especially their furnishings,” said Paris, who recalled walking past some of Havana’s imposing private homes as a child and wondering what they were like behind their walls.

The Paris family’s own house in Marianao, a Havana suburb, was nothing to sniff at. “It was a three-story mansion,” said Paris, whose father sold agricultural machinery and whose mother was involved in two businesses, jewelry and textiles. When the family left for Miami, they were permitted to take nothing from their house but a single piece of luggage each, and even the suitcases were searched for cash and jewelry. Shortly thereafter, the house became a school and remains so, Paris said.

He returned in 1979 and again in 2000, when he noticed in one of Havana’s less prominent neighborhoods some balconies that were “falling down piece by piece.” He raised his camera and took some photographs, and was almost immediately set upon by a police officer, who forced him to delete the images.

“They did not want me to take pictures of the devastated, falling-down Cuba,” Paris said. “They want the tourists to see the other Cuba.”

It is clear that Cuban authorities recognize the value of Havana’s old-world charm and of restoring its crumbling structures, said Roberto Suro, director of the University of Southern California’s Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, the oldest think tank on Latino issues in the United States.

“In Havana, there are whole blocks, whole neighborhoods, a whole city of buildings constructed before 1960, and it is the cumulative effect that creates an urban landscape like no other,” said Suro, who has visited Cuba many times. “It is not that they are so extraordinary on their own. They are extraordinary together.”

For centuries, he said, the old center of Havana — La Habana Vieja — has been a distinct place with its own look and feel. “The restoration has not just rescued the churches, forts and palaces, but it is in the process of preserving everything that was inside the old city,” Suro said. “The glory of it is the feeling of being in a world apart. The worry is that it turns into an artificial place for tourists and the lucky Cubans with money to spend, but no real life of its own.”

A person in the audience at Books & Books spoke up to say that the parts of Havana that have been restored “have turned it into a kind of Disneyland,” implying that it was done for the sole benefit of tourists.

But the consensus at the book store seemed to be that it was infinitely preferable to see some action at last, and to stave off the decay that seemed so endemic only a few years ago.

For Connors and the Havana-based photographer Néstor Martí, who took most of the pictures in the book and who accompanied him to Miami and elsewhere for a U.S. book tour, recording the beauty and uniqueness of Havana’s houses and public buildings was not just a scholarly study — it was an appreciation of the talent and creativity that went into Havana’s buildings.

“The quality of construction was very good until the ’60,” Martí said. “After that, not so much.”

The Havana Modern book also amply illustrates that, whatever the Revolution’s pretensions, virtually nothing of significance was built in Havana after 1959. All the beauty in its buildings came before.

“No one has been able to bring to life the architecture and design of Cuba and the Caribbean the way Michael has been able to in this book and in his previous books,” said Mitchell Kaplan, who runs the Books & Books stores and is something of a literary institution in Miami.

In the audience, Dora Vidal watched the slides with wonder. “I left in ’61 and I haven’t been back,” said Vidal, who is 70 years old and whose parents’ home in Havana’s Miramar district was designed by Max Borges, who was also responsible for the famous Tropicana nightclub.

“We left when Cuba was a gem,” Vidal said. “But we Cubans live with our memories, with the romance of Cuba. I always thought of retiring there. That was my dream. But I’ll keep living with my memories — until things change.”