An apartment building in Central Havana shows clearly the deferred maintenance, but also demonstrates the creative applications of Deco forms. This one emphasizes the corner siting combined with geometic angles. Photos courtesy of Mitzi March Mogul.
Cuba’s Deco Treasures In Critical Condition
By Mitzi March Mogul
Art Deco Society of Los Angeles
Few people are aware that one of the best collections of Art Deco architecture is on a small island forbidden to U.S. tourists, and rapidly disintegrating – Cuba – while Art Deco societies elsewhere have increasingly organized and stepped up preservation efforts globally.
Most people are familiar with European examples of the style, and of course the iconic American ones, but few are aware that Cuba’s Art Deco built structure is on a par with New York and Los Angeles in terms of diversity and quality of design. Commercial structures, residential (both single and multi-family), civic and institutional, entertainment oriented, and even funerary — the extent to which Art Deco was embraced in Cuba, is staggering.
It is impossible to put a number on how many Deco buildings there are, even if we were to limit the count to Havana.
Since the year 2000, there has been a serious effort on the part of the Cuban preservation community to draw attention to the importance of the buildings and receive support to restore them.
Two years ago, the Cuban Art Deco Group was formed in order to provide a unified voice for this neglected resource. Most of the buildings are literally crumbling day by day, as the combined effects of sea air and deferred maintenance
have taken their toll. Monuments such as the Capitolio (1929), which was modeled after the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., the Hotel Nacional (1930), designed by the great American architects McKim, Mead & White, and the Edificio Bacardi (1930), original headquarters of the rum company, are restored and well kept, and others, like the Municipal Maternity Hospital (1930) are still in use and therefore in a holding pattern.
Casa de las Americas,
1940, is an example
of skyscraper style.
The Edificio America (1941), Fausto Theater, Lopez Serrano apartment building (1932), are all in a state of suspended animation — completely original, including in some cases, fixtures and furnishings, but showing the wear and tear of time and neglect. Most of the rest, utilized by ordinary people for living and working are rapidly deteriorating.
People are always surprised to hear about the range and diversity of Art Deco in Cuba, but historically it makes perfect sense. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Cuba was an important destination.
Its international visitors and well-heeled residents created a sophisticated and cosmopolitan society. Not only did movie stars, literary figures, and heads of state go there, but business leaders and other professionals, musicians, artists, architects, the simply rich and the simply curious. A visa was not required for entry.
In 1928, there were approximately 6,000 permanent American residents in Cuba, as well as French, German, Spanish, and others.
Art Deco was the style that defined the elegance and the playfulness of the era and it was enthusiastically embraced in Cuba. Cuba is like a fly in amber, caught in time. Since 1959 there has been no upkeep on most structures in Cuba, except those deemed absolutely necessary to the government, but there has also been almost no new construction.
Most contemporary building has been confined to more suburban areas. This has left most of the urban streetscape undiluted, one enormous historic district.
The Cuban Art Deco Group continues to research, document, and lobby for increased recognition of their Art Deco heritage and they welcome the support of their colleagues around the world similarly engaged. Time and resources are against them, but they are committed to the effort. No less than a world-class treasure is at stake.
Another of many Deco apartment buildings throughout the Vedado district, 1930.
Where Restoration Is Underway, It’s Often Slow
By Mitzi March Mogul
Art Deco Society of Los Angeles
In 2003, the go-ahead was given to commence restoration on the Lugardita Theatre. This 1928 masterpiece of Mayan Art Deco is in a suburb of Havana. But its seats are bottomed out, the canvas murals are rotted, and water damage is everywhere. It has not been used for years Never-the-less, its essential design remains, and even in its deteriorated state, it is magnificent.
In 2003, as part of a series of Havana Deco conferences, our group was privileged to tour the theater. Due in no small part to the attention given to our visits by the Cuban media, our vocal support for the theater helped our colleagues there to obtain the necessary government approval to restore the theater.
The process is a slow one, given the complicated nature of the materials and their terrible condition. The work performed thus far has only been to the secondary areas of the structure. These are a lobby and small performance area and gathering space, which are accessed through a separate entrance than the main theater.
Adjunct to restoration of the theater will be the immediate surrounding area. Re-landscaping of a small park and removal of a modern intrusive bus stop (unnecessary because the entire building is surrounded by an arched, covered loggia) are among the plans for complementing the restoration of the theater itself. At present, the small lobby and theater are used for art displays and local music and theater presentations, all of which are very popular and regularly attended by the community.
By contrast, the Bacardi Building has been beautifully restored and is recognized as an important part of Cuban architectural history. The rum company held a competition to design their headquarters. The original winning design was in the Italian Renaissance style, but that was replaced with Art Deco, as its popularity increased.
The interior features offices, meeting rooms, two impressive vestibules, and a mezzanine bar, where the company’s product could be sampled. That area remains in use as a bar and restaurant.
Marble, granite, colored brick, terra cotta, and wrought iron are among the most prominent materials on the building. Both inside and out, the Bacardi exudes the elegance and luxuriousness of Art Deco.
Although the building was “nationalized” after the 1959 revolution (the company is now headquartered in Puerto Rico), it continues to be a source of Cuban pride and is noted for its outstanding contribution to their culture. At the top of the building sits a bronze bat, the Bacardi company emblem.
Mitzi March Mogul is President of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles and a Historic Preservation Consultant. She has worked for a number of organizations, including the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Architecture and Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, and written for publications such as LA Architect and American Bungalow. Among her many projects are the Max Factor Building, Dominguez Wilshire Building, Oviatt Building, and Mel’s Drive-In. Mogul chaired the host committee for the Fourth World Congress on Art Deco in 1997 and served for two years as Facilitator for the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies. She recently returned from her fourth visit to Cuba.
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