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The restoration of Old Havana is internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s most innovative and exciting projects of urban renaissance. It is all more the remarkable for the context in which it is taking place: Cuba’s ongoing struggle to establish itself as a political and economic force to be reckoned with. This immense national effort has a long history, having begun in the nineteenth century with a series of hard-fought wars during which the attempts of intelligent and ambitious Cubans to achieve independence from Spain only ultimately resulted in the island’s being delivered into the hands of the United States of America. The North American grip was broken by the 1959 Revolution but its influence is unlikely ever to cease, due to the island’s close geographical proximity to its ‘neighbor to the north’. Overseas admirers of the restoration of Old Havana feel that this is a fact which the habaneros would do well to bear in mind, given the potential for cultural disaster, which a new American control over Cuba would bring.
The organization responsible for the renaissance of Cuba’s capital is the Office of the City Historian. The post of City Historian is a time-honored institution in Latin American cities, with some having had a historian since the eighteenth century. Havana remained without a historian until the early twentieth century, having throughout its existence been a city in which the inhabitants lived for the moment, rather than with any particular awareness of or respect for posterity. However, Havana has never been bombed, or developed, and the majority of its historical buildings are constructed of materials so monumental that it takes a great deal of hard work to completely destroy them.
This is not to say, however, that Old Havana’s grand palaces, churches and mansions are in a satisfactory state of repair. Although the city has never experienced attack by the forces of man, those of time have wrought havoc with plaster, metal, glass and wood. The massive mahogany and cedar beams used for construction at a time when the island of Cuba was thickly covered with ancient forests of hardwoods have suffered severely from centuries of depredations by energetic termites. It is often the case that only the facades of noble old buildings have survived relatively intact; with collapsing floors throughout their interiors there is little left to be saved internally. In these cases, huge efforts are made to shore up the facades, and indeed the conservation teams of the Office of the City Historian are highly expert at propping up structures, given that there are 900-odd important buildings within the area of what was the walled city of Havana, amongst which well over half urgently require attention.
Havana’s first City Historian was appointed in the 1930s. His name was Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring who was a respected historian and writer, and in addition to his efforts to save Old Havana and to document lesser-known details of its past, he wrote regularly for the Cuban press. His weekly column in Social, the magazine published by the minoristas group for whom Cuban cultural identity and nationalism was a guiding principle, made wry and penetrating observations on Cuban cultural mores. Dr Roig’s function as City Historian was more defensive than proactive: he spent much of his time lobbying to prevent successive unscrupulous politicians from trying to do away with Old Havana in order to develop the site into a cross between Las Vegas and Disneyland. He successfully prevented the destruction of the Church of San Francisco de Paula, but sadly failed to preserve the University of Havana, which was located in the Convent of San Juan de Letrán, occupying a full block behind the Palace of the Captains General (Museum of the City of Havana). Roig was unable to do very much actual restoration due to lack of funds, but when the Revolutionary government took over in 1959 the restoration of Old Havana was immediately given high priority as well as an annual budget. The funding was respectable rather than enormous, but it did enable the restoration of a few of the historical centre’s more important buildings.
Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring died in the early sixties and his assistant, Dr Eusebio Leal Spengler, took over the post. Leal’s first task was to complete the restoration of the Palace of the Captains General. Without a doubt the grandest, most historically significant and most beautiful of Havana’s buildings, the Palace presented a considerable restoration challenge, not least because of the complex archaeological studies that had to take place before work could begin: part of the palace covers the site of the original Main Parish Church. Having completed the building’s repair and established it as a highly successful museum (Museo de la Ciudad de La Habana), Leal went on to restore a number of other important edifices including fortresses, churches, early domestic buildings and more grand palaces.
For over two decades the project jogged along satisfactorily, although there was never enough money and progress was not fast. Visitors continued to remark with a mixture of dismay and delight at the plethora of romantically crumbling ruins which constituted the historical centre. However, major change was just around the corner: when the Soviet Bloc collapsed, Cuba’s preferential trade deals and economic support disappeared almost overnight and the island was plunged into the so-called ‘Special Period in a time of peace’, a crisis that implied that everyone should be ready to tighten their belts and cultivate a Blitz Spirit. Foodstuffs and services were dramatically reduced, challenging, once more, the spirit of sacrifice that has always been a constant feature of the Cuban people.
Needless to say that under those circumstances, funding for the restoration of Old Havana had drastically to be cut. Leal, however, was not the sort of person to passively stand by whilst the project bit the dust. Having already had the historical centre of Old Havana and its system of fortresses listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, he swung into action and after much discussion and debate, a law was passed which allowed the Office of the City Historian to set up a commercial arm through which it could earn hard currency to be invested in the ongoing restoration of the historical centre.
The progress of the project then became exceedingly exciting. Catapulted overnight from relative obscurity amongst his dusty tomes into the public eye, Leal effectively became over the next few years Chief Executive of Habaguanex, a holding company to which belong all Old Havana’s hotels, restaurants and real estate organisations, whilst still fulfilling his responsibilities as Director of the Museum of the City and Historian of the City of Havana. The Office now employs over 7,000 people involved in cultural, restoration, commercial, constructive and management-related activities.
The decade of the nineties saw an absolute transformation of the heart of the historical centre, and major changes around its periphery. From the outset, Leal made it very clear that this was not to be solely a physical restoration, creating a sanitised and prettified Old Havana for tourists to love and leave, robbing the city of its life and turning it into a ghost town at weekends or during the low season. The key phrase used to describe the project was ‘an integral restoration’, meaning that Old Havana’s restoration would constitute a renaissance in every aspect of the life of the city, not just stone, wood and plaster.
‹‹ Next ›› November 2014 This article formed part of the november 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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