New Cuban revolution: Preservation
Moves are on to restore
modernist homes abandoned by the rich after
Castro took power
By Gary Marx, Chicago
Tribune foreign correspondent. Published
September 18, 2005.
HAVANA -- Jose Santiago remembers the day
in early 1960 when a young Che Guevara,
dressed in fatigues and trademark black
beret, came to his family's new home for
Like many wealthy Havana residents, the
Santiago family had recently moved into
its dream home, designed by a hot young
architect and featuring shiny terrazzo floors,
geometric stained-glass windows, floor-to-ceiling
shutters and a whimsical, wing-shaped roof.
Baccarat cognac glasses rested on a living
room partition, and outside, in the carport,
sat the family's 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood
and a Chevrolet Impala.
Guevara was there to speak to Santiago's
father, a powerful businessman who headed
the Tobacco Exporters Association of Cuba.
Santiago, now 62 and living in Midlothian,
Va., remembers Guevara sitting at the dining
room table and bluntly telling Santiago's
dad, Mardonio, "The mission of this
revolution is to get rid of people like
Several years later the Santiago family
was gone, having joined hundreds of thousands
of Cubans who fled into exile and left behind
scores of magnificent modernist homes.
Today four families--more than a dozen
people in all--live in the old Santiago
house, which like many 1950s residences
has been subdivided because of the island's
housing shortage. It is tattered by time,
overuse and poverty. The wooden shutters
are shattered, the custom cedar kitchen
cabinets are rotten, and the bathroom fixtures
have been ripped out or destroyed.
One current resident stared in disbelief
at black-and-white photographs of the Santiago
home taken around the time of Guevara's
"This home was very beautiful,"
said Carmen Villalon, 78, who has lived
there since 1965. "It's a shame that
I don't have the money to fix it."
For the first time since the 1959 revolution,
there is a growing movement in Cuba to preserve
scores of homes and buildings from the 1950s,
a golden age of modern Cuban architecture
that was all but erased from the nation's
collective memory after Fidel Castro took
Leading the charge is 46-year-old architecture
critic Eduardo Luis Rodriguez, who learned
about the period's structures as a university
student and is part of an international
group known as Docomomo, petitioning Cuban
officials to grant 187 buildings what amounts
to landmark status.
But Rodriguez faces huge political and
economic hurdles in an impoverished socialist
nation where dollars are tight and politics
seep into every aspect of life, including
While Cuba restores Old Havana's crumbling
colonial-era buildings to attract tourists
and vital hard currency, Rodriguez and others
say government officials have ignored the
structures in part because they represent
the bourgeoisie swept away by revolution.
Many of the era's leading architects, such
as Nicolas Quintana, Frank Martinez and
Manuel Gutierrez, fled shortly after the
revolution. Even speaking their names in
academic circles amounted to political treason.
"If you left the country, you were
considered a traitor," Rodriguez said.
"Almost none of their names was mentioned
when I was at [architecture] school."
Exiles gain respect
That is beginning to change. At a meeting
last year to push modernist preservation,
only four of an estimated 100 architects
and officials in attendance spoke against
recognizing the exiles' work, Rodriguez
Nobody is happier about the turn of events
than the architects themselves, who did
some of their finest work as young men in
Havana and are embittered by their treatment.
"The only thing the Cuban government
has done is keep us out of history for a
long time," said Quintana, 80, who
designed the Santiago home and several other
residences considered masterpieces. He lives
in Miami and teaches architecture at Florida
Nilson Acosta, vice president of Cuba's
National Cultural Patrimony Commission,
said many modernist homes already receive
some protection but conceded that they have
been modified and damaged by residents and
even by state agencies.
He said the commission must first determine
which of the structures in Rodriguez's proposal
are of the most historical and architectural
value before deciding whether to move ahead
The story of these homes begins at the
end of World War II, when the high international
price of sugar--the island's main export--fueled
an economic boom.
What developed was a new class of entrepreneurs,
professionals and others who favored white
linen suits, belonged to exclusive beach
and tennis clubs and wanted homes that broke
from the Neocolonial and Beaux Arts works
long popular in Cuba.
At the same time, a few talented Cuban
architects were plowing new ground by adapting
the taut, minimalist International Style
pioneered by Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies
van der Rohe and Le Corbusier--all Central
Quintana and his colleagues each had distinct
styles but incorporated many of the same
architectural elements, including large
eaves, multilevel roofs, and double-wide
doors that opened to catch the sea breeze.
Taken together, the elements filtered the
harsh Caribbean sunlight, deflected heavy
rains and improved ventilation.
"The principal element of architecture
is the human being," said Martinez,
now 81 and living in Peru. "Architecture
is a living thing."
One of Martinez's finest homes was designed
for Stanley Wax, a Jewish-American immigrant
who owned a textile store and lived in Havana
with his Cuban wife and two daughters.
Ellen Ginsberg, Wax's eldest daughter,
recalls as a girl poring over an architectural
drawing of their dream home with Martinez
and her parents.
"I remember looking at it and saying,
'Where is my room going to be?'" she
Each day, the Wax family visited the construction
site to watch the progress. They traveled
to Miami to buy a Thermador oven and other
kitchen appliances. The residence was finished
The hand-carved mahogany front gate, the
double-panel cedar doors, the dinette area
and the lush, interior courtyard decorated
with tropical plants and rocking chairs--
these are what Ginsberg remembers most about
But the family lived there only a short
time, fleeing the island in 1961 after Cuban
officials took over Wax's store and he was
briefly jailed. Neither Ginsberg nor her
parents ever returned.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think
about the house," said Ginsberg, 58,
who lives in Sands Point, N.Y.
After the revolution, Cuban officials confiscated
homes abandoned by the wealthy and in an
attempt to fulfill the ideals of the revolution
turned them into public schools, student
dormitories and state offices.
Some houses were severely damaged as Cubans
carted away toilets, light fixtures, tiles,
wood beams and other coveted materials.
Those that were turned into diplomatic residences
or homes for high-ranking government officials
in many cases have been preserved.
More recently some of the finer homes have
been rented to foreigners. A Spanish reporter
lives in the old Wax house.
But the government rents many other homes
for nearly nothing to impoverished families
who have sealed off hallways, carports and
outdoor terraces to create shelter amid
the ruins of the past.
One way to pay for restoration, Rodriguez
said, is to charge tourists to visit the
homes, much like the walking tours of Frank
Lloyd Wright designed-homes in Oak Park,
Yet, beyond the homes' potential economic
value, some Cubans also recognize that the
structures represent a link between those
who left the island long ago and those who
"We are very happy to live here, but
I have often thought about the family that
was here before," said Nancy Reyes,
54, who lives with her husband in three
rooms and the walled-off stairwell of the
old Santiago house. "I have wondered
what they were like."