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Sweat equity meets renovation reality in Vedado

Sweat equity meets renovation reality in Vedado

Over the years Vedado has seen the partial or entire transformation of old buildings. Subject to few controls and with few available resources the results have sometimes been incredibly impressive, at other times a heritage architect would hang their head in despair. Life is life as the expression goes and there is a lot of it even in the leafy upscale Vedado suburb.

It is said that the first inhabitants of the new district of El Vedado were veterans of the wars of independence, mambises. The neighbourhood that was once a place of retirement for a number of Cuban families was to become the very hub of the city. The story goes that from living rooms and dining rooms people could make out the vast expanse of sea cluttered with sailing ships, and that it reached farther inland up to today’s Calzada Ave. Main thoroughfares, such as 23rd Street, were built above deep natural caverns. Here they built mansions that are still standing.

Very few bear little resemblance to what their originally were: family estates with beautifully laid out gardens. However, one thing has remained–their charm, and one can’t help imagining how they used to look despite being now only a shadow of their former glory. These were buildings that were especially made for tropical climates, always surrounded by vegetation. It’s no coincidence that the oldest houses always look out onto the sea.

Unfortunately, not all have resisted the passage of time and its effects. It may be the salt in the air, or heavy rains, or hurricanes, which have disturbed their safety. Because of this, the older houses have collapsed, but not without leaving evidence of their beautiful columns and wrought-iron railings.

You may find a round arch to which some anachronistic element has been added; or houses with high ceilings which have been divided, becoming three different floors. Still, it’s encouraging when you discover that there are families who have made their homes within a home and have respected its original spaces and distinctive elements.

This story began in the 1960s when many Cuban families left the country, temporarily or permanently, for the United States. As a result of this wave of immigration, architectural gems were abandoned or left in the care of their domestic staff. Many of these owners never returned and, in some instances, only one person ended up living in these large properties. At the same time, there was a housing shortage in Cuba and the new proprietors turned these grand houses into several homes by redesigning its spaces. Grand parlours, luxurious bathrooms, huge kitchens, towers, master bedrooms and even chapels gave way to new emergency architectural versions.

Fortunately, there is still a lot of greenery in El Vedado. In addition to its tree-lined streets, you may often stumble upon a balcony or the corner of a rooftop where a tree is growing with roots that descend gently onto the sidewalk; or walls that are entirely covered by creepers leaving only windows uncovered.

The old mansion at No 259, 8th St. dates back to the 19th century. Despite having been partitioned on an as-needed basis, the new divisions were integrated into the original design: high ceilings that allow tropical breezes to come in at pleasure; archs that soften and adorn the entrance and the spacious rooms on each side of the door; French windows that seem to reach for the sky. The former stable and carriage shed became a basement.

The sumptuous house was constructed on pile, which gave it height and distinction. Its mosaic floors are covered in polished and still colourful red tiles with green ribbon and white flower motifs. The top floor was added in the 1940s. Large windows escort two discreet and elegant overhanging balconies.

It was in the 1960s that this mansion was converted into eight different houses and would eventually become the home of over three generations. Each of these “new” houses has retained a deluxe part of the original mansion. One has the luxurious bathroom, while another gained possession of the large and ventilated kitchen. Still another has preserved the front door in remembrance of the first threshold. The stable turned basement is today the studio of a photographer who was born there in 1964. Its reconstruction took days of intensive work removing dirt and debris. This part of the house has special qualities–singular acoustics and an intrinsic magic for the act of creation and music.

A three-floor building, which is perfectly integrated into the landscape, was built in the spacious backyard. One of the most popular hairdressing salons in Havana is located on the top floor.
The history of Vedado mansions tells not only of master architects, first owners, or the treasures that lie within, but also of transformations and revivals, of new homes and new owners, who will never abandon them.
January 2012

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