September 20, 2005

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 dinner.

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 you."

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 visit.

"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 power.

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 architectural preservation.

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 said.

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 International University.

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 with restoration.

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 Europeans--to Cuba.

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 said.

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 in 1959.

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 her home.

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, Ill.

Occupants sensitive

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 stayed.

"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."

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