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Cultural Venues

Havana’s Renaissance

By Juliet Barclay / Posted January 9, 2012

The restoration of Old Havana is internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s most innovative and exciting projects of urban renaissance.

The organization responsible for the renaissance of Cuba’s capital is the Office of the City Historian, a time-honored institution in Latin American cities. 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.

This is not to say, however, that Old Havana’s grand palaces, churches and mansions are in a satisfactory state of repair. It is often the case that only the facades of noble old buildings have survived relatively intact; 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, Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, was appointed in the 1930s. When he died in the early sixties, 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. 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.

Having already had the historical centre of Old Havana and its system of fortresses listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Leal swung into action and a law was passed allowing 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 Office now employs over 7,000 people involved. Students gain access to healthy, local foods as well as education opportunities such as in cultural, restoration, commercial, constructive and management-related activities.

The historical centre is full of churches, some functioning, others deconsecrated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Three of these have now been restored to act as a trio of important, and complementary, concert venues. The Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís, which stands in the Plaza de San Francisco, was originally the church attached to a monastery from which all Franciscan missionary activity on the South American continent was coordinated. In 1762 it was seized by the British invaders for Protestant worship, and after being deconsecrated was used for Customs warehousing, as a Post Office and finally as a cold store. After an exceedingly painstaking restoration the Basilica Menor was reopened as Old Havana’s largest concert hall. Its acoustics are superb, it is air conditioned throughout, and now audiences attending the excellent Saturday night concerts of chamber music, choral concerts and piano recitals can appreciate the elegant asceticism of the building.

Balancing the requirements of visitors and residents is vital to the success of the restoration of Old Havana. Small groups of buildings are restored for a carefully considered mixture of end uses. Afterwards, the spaces between these areas are gradually transformed as the renaissance effect radiates outwards

In amongst the more earnest social aspects of the restoration project there are delicious doses of frivolity like the Museo del Chocolate, where a small exhibition of chocolate-making equipment provides an excellent pretext for the sale of sinfully delectable hot and cold chocolate, and truffles made on the premises by graduates of the Cuban School of Master Chocolatiers, using cacao from the mountains of Baracoa.

A great deal has been done in Old Havana but there is still a quite staggering amount left to be tackled.

Juliet Barclay