An interesting architectural event is taking place in the Vedado district of Havana: the partial or entire transformation of old buildings, respecting or not their original designs. 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. These were buildings that were especially made for tropical climates, always surrounded by vegetation. The oldest houses always look out onto the sea. Very few bear resemblance to they original family estates with beautifully laid out gardens. However, their charm has remained and one can’t help imagining how they used to look despite being now only a shadow of their former glory.
Unfortunately, not all have resisted the passage of time. It may be the salt in the air, or heavy rains, or hurricanes but the older houses have collapsed, some leaving evidence of their beautiful columns and wrought-iron railings. You may find houses with high ceilings that 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. At the same time, there was a housing shortage in Cuba and 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. The old mansion at No 259, 8th St., for example, 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; arches that soften the entrance and the spacious rooms on each side of the door; French windows that reach for the sky. The former stable and carriage shed became a basement.
The mosaic floors of this sumptuous house are covered in polished and still colourful red tiles with green ribbon and white flower motifs. 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 incorporates the large kitchen. Still another has preserved the front door. The stable turned basement is today the studio of a photographer who was born there in 1964. 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.