Visiting Cuba: A True Mid-Century Modern Mecca
by Lynne Rostochil.
Now that you know all about getting to Cuba, thanks to last week’s Mod Blog, it’s time to check out all of the pristine mid-century modern architecture you’ll be inundated with when you go. In fact, I cannot even tell you how much mid-century modern architecture is in and around that glorious city — and it’s all been untouched since Castro took power in 1959! Before you go to Cuba, I highly recommend that you lay out some cash for the Havana Guide by Eduardo Luis Rodriguez:
This handy dandy guide and all of the eye candy it contains will certainly make you want to book your flight RIGHT NOW and head to this land where time has seemingly stood still for 60 years now. Using it as a reference, we had our local travel agent book a Mid Mod tour of Havana with a local architect as our guide, and it did not disappoint. (This is another good reason to get a local travel agent to work with — he/she can organize custom tours for you.)
Another good reference for mid-century architecture is a book called Havana Before Castro: When Cuba Was a Tropical Playground by Peter Moruzzi:
Here are a few of the highlights:
Hotel Tryp Habana Hilton
The 27-story, 630 room Habana Hilton was designed by Welton Becket and opened with great fanfare in March 1958, less than a year before the Cuban Revolution. The hotel boasted a Trader Vic’s a rooftop bar, a small shopping mall, plenty of convention space, a dinner club, an upscale casino, several suites, and the Antilles bar that overlooked the ample outdoor pool and cabanas.
In the previously mentioned book, Havana Before Castro, author Peter Moruzzi explains that the then-ruler, “Batista considered the Habana Hilton among his proudest achievements, its huge blue-lit rooftop ‘Hilton’ name announcing to the world that the eminent Conrad Hilton had confidence in Cuba’s future – that the country was a safe place in which to invest – and that tourists could now find in Havana the modern comforts they expected in a top international resort.”
Here’s what one of the rooms looked like when the hotel was new — love that rug designed by Servando Cabrera Moreno:
Batista’s grand vision didn’t last for long, however, and when Fidel Castro took power on January 1, 1959 and arrived in Havana a week later, he made the Habana Hilton his headquarters to show the Cuban people, former Batista supporters, and the world just who was running the show now:
Check out this interesting video of the takeover of the Habana Hilton by Castro. The hotel has remained in constant operation since then and received a big remodel in the late 1990s when it became a Tryp property. During the remodel, almost all of the room balconies were glassed in, which was unfortunate, but that was offset by the removal of a wall that hid the massive mural by female Cuban abstract artist, Amelia Pelaez, which had been covered up decades before:
It needs some love, but it’s beyond incredible even in its current state:
Pelaez used 16 million pieces of Italian-made tile to complete this astounding mural of Cuba’s abundant fruits and flowers.
Inside the main entrance is a huge lobby capped by a skylighted dome:
A model of the hotel after the last renovation was completed in 1998 and is now on display near the entrance to the shopping mall:
Fascinating. The only balconies that remain from the original building belong to the Castellana Suite (Room 2224) that Fidel Castro occupied in the 1960s. The suite has been restored to the way it looked during those years.
Another piece of modern art dates from the remodel:
From the lobby, go upstairs to the bar and entrance to the pool and you’ll discover more incredible modern artwork, this time by local artist, Rene Portocarrero:
I know!!! Check out a few of them in closer detail:
Just incredible. I could have enjoyed an ice cold Cristal and admired these murals all day long, and I wasn’t alone:
Alas, the pool area beckoned so we turned our attention to the outdoors and weren’t a bit disappointed:
If a day by the pool appeals to you, you can enjoy the pool at the Tryp for 10CUC ($10) a day per person, and you’ll get a cabana and towels. A few of the people in our group did just that and had a great time swimming, imbibing, eating, and chatting with people from all over the world.
Once outside the hotel, be sure to look down. Every few feet, you’ll see a terrazzo inlay of more modern art by Pelaez that runs for two blocks in all directions from the old Habana Hilton. Some are pocked with old gum, others have cracked, and, most sad of all, not one person admired them as they hurriedly walked to their destination — not even tourists like us. I found them completely fascinating — I mean TWO BLOCKS of terrazzo embellished with amazing art! Who would ever consider doing such an extravagant thing today? They were so captivating that I took photos of each different one (they repeat several times in the two blocks), some with people walking over them, some with shadows from nearby trees and buildings dancing on them, etc.:
Aren’t they beyond great?
Walking along this terrazzo sidewalk on our last day, we found the old Trader Vic’s, which is still a tiki club, the Polynesian:
I wish we would have discovered this perfectly preserved time capsule earlier because I would have been doing a lot of hanging out here had I known about it before our last day.
After leaving the Habana Hilton, we drove through upscale Nuevo Vedado in the hills behind the Havana Forest and found a treasure trove of mid mod homes, including this gem built into a hill and designed by Ricardo Porro. It was built in 1957 for the Ennis family:
Here are more beauties on the same street:
How cool is this stilted beauty?
Synod of Missouri Lutheran Church
Our next stop was at the former Synod of Missouri Lutheran Church:
Designed by Vincente Morales and completed in 1959 after Castro took power, the church is in remarkably original condition and is now used as a community center for kids. Here are more photos of this lovely building:
There are also several mid-century modern nautical clubs that dot the coast on the way to Fusterlandia. This one was my favorite:
Unfortunately, all of the nautical clubs are private, so we weren’t able to see more than this grand entrance.
Habana Riviera Hotel
The capper to our tour was, by far, the most amazingly preserved mid-century modern time capsule I’ve ever seen, the Habana Riviera Hotel that overlooks the Malecon:
This glorious, ultra-stylized design by Miami architect Igor B. Polevitzky is reminiscent of the work of his friend and sometime design partner, Morris Lapidus. Lapidus was famous for designing some of the glitziest and most refined hotels in the world during the ’50s, including three in Miami … The Fontainebleau:
… Eden Roc:
… and The Americana:
If you don’t know of Lapidus’ work, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the definitive book of his work, Morris Lapidus: The Architecture of Joy:
The joy of Lapidus’ inspiration can be felt all through the Habana Riviera, which was owned by mobster Meyer Lansky:
After getting into all kinds of trouble in the U.S. with his illegal gambling operations, Lansky looked to Cuba for his next venture because gambling was completely legal and, by lining a few pockets, he gained the support of General Batista and his government. He figured if he set up shop in Cuba, all of his activity would be legal and he could rake in the dough. It worked, too, at least for a little while.
When the 21 story, 352-room hotel opened in December 1957, movie stars like Ginger Rogers, Abbott and Costello, and buxom Mamie Van Doren flocked to the new hotel to lounge by the pool, gamble, and be seen.
Comedian and TV show host, Steve Allen even hosted an episode of his show at the hotel — you can view it here. If you skim through it, you’ll get a pretty good look at the hotel the year it opened. It’s no wonder the Riviera got so much celebrity attention because the place was a marvel, and it hasn’t changed much since the day it opened, as you can see in the main entrance and lobby:
Here’s the Copa room:
And the casino as it appeared when the hotel opened:
The room looks exactly the same but sadly empty:
The bar area of the casino:
Check out this vintage shot of the grand staircase in the lobby:
Here’s the staircase today:
… and some of the lobby details that are so marvelous:
We had lunch in the all-original dining room. The food wasn’t the best, but a mediocre lunch was worth spending an hour in this lovely room and a table featuring all of the original dishes and silverware from 1957:
The murals in this room look so great after 60 years:
More lobby art:
After lunch, we met up with the concierge and went upstairs to check out one of the rooms, which had a great view of the pool:
The concierge told us that the pool was supposedly made in the shape of a coffin to deter anyone from ripping off Mr. Lansky, and I believe it!
You can see all kinds of goodness from every room:
Back downstairs and in the cafe:
… and the grand pool area with three-tiered diving board:
We relaxed awhile by the pool listening to music and enjoying the scenery — it was quite a special afternoon.
That was it for our mid-century modern tour, but we found mod architecture on nearly every street, so much that it was impossible to photograph it all. Here are some photos of more goodies we found strolling around town. This block of mod was just around the corner from our casa particular:
This is the older portion of the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes de Cuba in Old Havana:
I was more than a little obsessed with this townhouse in Miramar next door to Cristina’s casa particular:
More good buildings in Miramar and Vedado:
This is a medical building that was completed in 1958. The unusual screen was designed by Rolando Lopez Dirube:
Here’s the Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana, where the Rolling Stones played to overwhelmingly packed crowds in 2016:
This cluster of domed structures is the National Art Schools complex that began construction in the euphoric and optimistic aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. Castro and Guevara created the tuition-free schools where artists throughout the third world could come and study and create. The complex was designed by architects Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, and Vittorio Garatti in an organic modern style and, poignantly, built on land that had previously been occupied by the ritzy and elite Havana Country Club:
Although it was supposed to be much larger with many more schools, five schools were built (some just partially) between 1961-1965 for modern dance, plastic arts, dramatic arts, music, and ballet. As Soviet influence grew in the 1960s, the schools fell out of favor and only two, modern dance and plastic arts, remained open. The other buildings were abandoned and left to rot. Over time, however, the schools began to be recognized internationally, both for their distinctive architecture and for their original mission as laid out by Castro and Guevara, and they’ve been freshened up a bit and are appreciated within Cuba now, too.
The schools were added to the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list in 2003, but two of the buildings were in such danger of collapsing that the complex made the 2016 World Monuments Watchlist. You can read more about the fascinating story behind the National Art Schools here.
Speaking of the Soviets, here’s their pretty intimidating and utterly Brutalist embassy — you know some pretty scary things happened here:
You can also find these UFO-like, Soviet-era water towers scattered around town:
They are kind of cute and are not nearly as scary as that embassy.
We saw some great gems walking home one night from Old Havana to our casa particular. I’m amazed that so many signs from Batista’s time are still around and lighting up the night sky…
… but this mod clock mounted to a vitrolite storefront stopped telling time long ago:
Love this theater and the typography of the sign:
Plaza de la Revolucion
I briefly mentioned the Plaza de la Revolucion in the last Mod Blog but feel that it’s worth mentioning again:
It’s well worth taking a couple of hours to walk around the plaza to check out the architecture, but be sure to read up on the history of the people memorialized on the buildings. For example, the tall building on the right dominates the square and memorializes author and activist Jose Marti, who fought against Spanish colonialism in the 1890s and died in a vain effort to free Cuba. For a few CUCs, you can ride an elevator to the top of the tower to get sweeping views of the entire city.
Say what you will about Fidel Castro, but he was a very smart man and that’s in no greater evidence than in the Plaza. This mod building is adorned by the likeness of Camilo Cienfuegos, who was one of Castro’s most successful and beloved comrades; some speculate that the affable revolutionary was even more beloved than Castro himself, which may not have been a good thing.
Just 10 months after the revolution on October 28,1959, Cienfuegos’s plane disappeared over the ocean. Even though there was and remains quite a bit of suspicion that Castro was behind the disappearance, nothing has ever been proven. Castro quickly made Cienfuegos a martyr of the revolution and 50 years after his untimely death, ordered his likeness to be added to the Communications building in the Plaza with the words “You’re going well Fidel” beside it.
He did the same for fellow revolutionary, Che Guevara, with the words “Always toward victory” next to his likeness:
As with Cienfuegos, there’s supposition that Castro wanted the loyal and popular Guevara out of the way so he and his brother, Raul, would have absolute power. When Guevara wanted to go to Bolivia in 1967 and stir up a Communist revolution there, Castro supported his plan and offered help and reinforcements, none of which ever arrived. The entire operation was a complete disaster, and Guevara was captured by CIA operatives and executed.
Instead of wiping away the memory of these two revolutionaries, Castro made martyrs of both men and encouraged the Cuban people to love them more than ever, which is exactly what happened. These days, you can find posters, flags, and paintings of them nearly everywhere in the country — in fact, I noticed way more references to Che than to Fidel or Raul.
So, Castro was smart alright in letting the people love and honor these “heroes of the revolution” — what did he care because he and Raul had all the power.
Even the bus shelters are modern … and there are hundreds of them sprinkled around town:
Yes, mod details are literally everywhere. Even many doorways and railings feature modern design:
The one place I really wanted to visit but didn’t get to see is the remarkable Tropicana, pictured here in the 1950s:
The Tropicana opened in 1939 as a casino and cabaret. Located amid the lush, tropical gardens of Villa Mina southwest of Old Havana, the Tropicana boasted a bevy of scantily clad beauties performing a variety of musical numbers, so of course the Tropicana was a huge success from Day 1. By 1952, owner Martin Fox wanted to spiff up the place a bit, so he hired local architect, Max Borges, Jr., to create a unique space that all would want to visit. Borges didn’t disappoint and returned with a design he called Los Arcos de Cristal (Crystal Arches), which consisted of five outdoor arches built over an outdoor stage. The all-glass casino was another feature of the overall design:
The renovation was completed in 1952, and you can see what a marvel it was in these two film clips. The first is from a Spanish language movie aptly called Tropicana, where the performance sequences were filmed on the outdoor stage with the incredible biomorphic sculpture as a backdrop. The second is a scene from Our Man in Havana, which was filmed all over Havana in the year before the revolution.
I’m happy to say that all of Borges’ design, including the sculpture, is a bit tired but completely intact, making the Tropicana a worthy addition to your must-see mid-century modern architecture list.
If your love of mod extends to classic cars, you need to book your ticket to Cuba right now because you will never find a larger or more well-cared-for collection of vintage rides than in Cuba. Before I went, I thought we’d just see them in the touristy areas but no … they are truly everywhere. I could have shot thousands of photos of Bel Airs, Skylarks, and Fairlanes, which are as common there as Toyotas or Hondas are here … really:
Russian-made Ladas are still a common sight, too:
Finally, here’s a pre-revolution video of Havana with lots of MCM buildings included.
Hope you enjoyed the mid-mod tour of Havana, and I hope even more that you will now want to book your ticket and get to this mind blowing country ASAP before Trump takes away all of our paths to get there. GO NOW!