Saving Old Havana

The historic Spanish centre of Havana is being restored to its former splendour

Built around 1720, La Casa de los Condes de Casa Bayona in La Plaza de la Cathedral houses a large collection of colonial art and artefacts. This salon on the first floor has fine mudéjar ceilings and the carved doors typical of Havana’s most important 18th century buildings. Photograph by Martin CharlesEl Castillo de la Real Fuerza was started in December 1558 in response to constant pirate attacks; its tower (1630-1634) is surmounted by a bronze statue of the symbol of Havana, La Giraldilla, a reference to the Giralda tower in Seville. Photograph by Martin CharlesEl Palacios de los Capitanes Generales ( Palace of the Captains General), now the Museum of the City of Havana, built between 1776 and 1791. The street is sill surfaced with wooden cobbles, originally placed there to prevent the noise of the carriage wheels disturbing the Captain General’s siesta. Photograph by Martin Charles.La Plaza de la Cathedral, considered by Walter Gropius the finest colonial square in the Americas. The long arcade on the left fronts the palaces of the El Conde de Casa Lombillo and Los Marqueses de Arcos; the building at the end of the square houses the Museum of Colonial Art. Photograph by Martin CharlesThe first floor gallery of La Casa de la Obra Pía, bought by Don Martín Calvo de la Puerta in 1648; Don Martín’s “obra pía” (pious act) was to give the interest from 100,000 pesos to support five orphan girls from 1679. Photograph by Martin CharlesThe first floor salon of La Casa de la Obra Pía. The house dates from the 17th century but was remodelled in baroque style in the 1760s. Photograph by Martin Chase.The main entrance of El Convento de Belén. Built in the early 18th century and now being restored, the covent also serves as living quarters for specialist craftsmen working on the city’s buildings. Photograph by Martin CharlesThe main salon of El Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, painted, draped, gilded and floored with Genoa marble. The Captain General was the Spanish crown’s representative in Cuba; the formal apartments of his palace were the centre for the political and social intrigues around which Havana’s high society revolved. Photograph by Martin CharlesThe throne room of El Palacio de los Capitanes Generales was always kept ready for visiting monarchs; it is on the upper floor together with the grand apartments occupied by 65 Captains General of Cuba. Photograph by Martin Charles

“This is one of the renowndest and strongest places of all the West Indies . . . From hence is transported huge quantity of Tobacco . . . not only in the leaf, but also in rowls. This city is defended by three Castles, very great and strong; two of which lie towards the Port, and the other is seated upon a hill that commandeth the Town.”

– Alexander Olivier Exquemeling: Buccaneers of America; Or, a true account of the Most remarkable Assaults committed of late years upon the Coasts of the West Indies (1684)

For centuries, the mere mention of the word Havana was enough to make pirates’ and buccaneers’ mouths water. Established on its present site in 1519, it achieved such importance in one century that in May 24th, 1634, it was declared by royal decree to be “The Key to the New Worlds and the Bulwark of the West Indies”.

The city served as the annual rallying-point for the Spanish treasure ships which returned from Cartagena, Nombre de Dioa, Portobelo, Veracruz. Campeche and Santo Domingo bound for Seville, their holds groaning with gold, silver and jewels for the Spanish crown. From 8,000 ducados in 1503, the transatlantic cargoes rose to over a million and a half in 1551; in 1538 a million pesos had to be left behind in Havana because there was no room for them in the ships’ holds. The city warehouses were crammed with tobacco, leather and precious woods, and the oriental silks, porcelain, ivory and pearls which were transported overland from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast for shipment to Spain.

Havana’s extraordinary beauty and architectural extravagance surpasses that of any other Caribbean capital. The Cuban government is pumping four million pesos a year into an ambitious restoration project, under the energetic and exacting direction of Eusebio Leal Spengler, the Historian of the City. International aid for the restoration of the old city is growing every year; donations of money and materials come from supporters all over the world. Thanks to Eusebio Leal’s tireless campaigning, the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

There are 900 important buildings within the four square kilometres of La Habana Vieia, the old city, most of them in a desperate state of disrepair. One of the most agonising decisions for the restoration teams is which ones to tackle first. If special woods or other materials cannot be obtained for a particular building, it is moved down the queue to avoid compromising standards. Another difficulty is persuading extended families, who occupy myriad sub-divisions of Havana’s grand 18th- century palaces, to move while restoration is carried out.

Some of the best examples of the restoration can be seen around the Plaza de la Catedral. The site was first developed in 1577, but its present appearance dates from the 18th century. The Casa del Conde de Casa Bayona, built around 1720, faces the cathedral; its intimate interior courtyard, filled with plants, is surrounded by a gallery of columns and arches on the ground floor and a balcony on the upper floor. Carved double doors lead to spacious rooms with tall, elegant windows and carved mudéjar ceilings. The building is now the Museum of Colonial Art, and the view from its windows of the exuberant Baroque facade of the cathedral, described as “music turned to stone” by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, is one of the finest in Havana.

To savour the atmosphere of the plaza, it is increasingly necessary to get up early and arrive before other visitors. Tourism is being vigorously developed by the Cuban government, and many people, including Eusebio Leal, while acknowledging the necessity of it, are very concerned about its long-term effects. “We do not restore the city only to look at,” he says, “but also to live in.”

The Moorish influence of Andalucia is clearly seen in Havana’s domestic architecture. Both the grand palaces and the more modest dwellings were built “with their backs turned to the street”, the life of the house facing inside onto cool interior courtyards containing a fountain or well and a profusion of flowering plants. These courtyards are surrounded by graceful Tuscan columns and arches constructed from enormous slabs of coral limestone.

None of the exquisite palaces of La Habana Vieja would have been built without the protection offered to the city’s wealthy inhabitants by its fortifications. El Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, which rears up from the cliff on the eastern side of the entrance to the bay, and the castles of San Salvador de La Punta and La Real Fuerza which face it, all appear on Havana’s coat of arms together with a golden key: the Key to the New World.

The castles presented an awesome spectacle to pirates and foreign powers, hut in the summer of 1762 a combined British military and naval force managed to capture the Morro and the city. Eleven months later, Havana was returned to Spain in exchange for Florida, to the disgust of William Pitt the Elder, who argued that from the moment of Havana’s capture “all the riches and treasures of the Indies lay at our feet”

El Castillo de la Fuerza was built in the late 16th century beside La Plaza de Armas, Havana’s first square and the most beautiful in the city. Near it stands El Templete, a tiny neoclassical temple erected in the 19th century to mark the spot where Havana’s first mass was said in 1519. On the other side of the square is the most glorious building in La Havana Vieja, the Palace of the Captains-General. Built in the late18th century, both its structure and its detail are consummately elegant. As the Museum of the City of Havana, the building now houses a priceless collection of the strange, wonderful and beautiful artifacts which illustrate the city’s extraordinary history.

Eusebio Leal, as the Museum’s director, has his office in the entresuelo, where the atmosphere can be described as explosive. Telephones ring simultaneously and continuously, assistants plough through drifts of letters from all over the world, and people arrive in an endless stream with questions and suggestions. Leal paces back and forth in the midst of the turmoil, firing off ideas and instructions in all directions. In addition to his other commitments, which include a punishing schedule of international travel, he writes books and articles, records his weekly television programme Andar La Habana, and holds meetings in the street to give progress reports to the Habaneros.

All those involved in the restoration of La Habana Vieja are driven by the urgency of their race against time to save the city. Far from creating an atmosphere of gloom, Cuba’s economic difficulties have strengthened their resolve. “I believe in enthusiasm,” says Leal, “and that even in the most difficult circumstances people are capable of surmounting any obstacle. Love is a creative force and a force for salvation, and the restoration of La Habana Vieja is being undertaken by a group of people who are passionately in love with their work.”