Art Deco architecture in Havana: Many of these remarkable buildings are falling into disrepair

Milica Sterjova
A pedestrain in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana uses an umbrella to avoid the direct sun. Vedado is a somewhat upscale Havana neighborhood.

The city of Havana has always been a unique mixture of architectural styles from different periods, all existing side-by-side. One of the most popular styles in Havana is Art Deco.

The city is full of residential buildings, theaters, hospitals, and churches built in this classic style, although they have certain elements unique to Cuba.

Art Deco found its way to Cuba sometime in the mid-1920s, initially influencing residential buildings. The local architects were mostly inspired by writings and studies from the United States.

Over the next few decades, up until the end of the Revolution, many Art Deco structures popped up all around the city.

Most of them were constructed during the tenure of Cuban president Gerardo Machado. The capital of Cuba is home to some fascinating examples of this popular style.

Bacardi building. Author: Divya Thakur. CC BY-SA 2.0

There are many buildings across the city but one of the most popular examples of Cuban Art Deco architecture is the Bacardi Building.

Esteban Rodriguez Castells designed the former main office of the famous rum company and built in 1930.

It was the tallest building in the city, at the time of construction. The Bacardi family chose the architect through a competition where a number of esteemed architects submitted their designs.

Initially, Rodriguez Castells imagined the building as a Neo-Renaissance structure, but after he visited the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925, he changed his design to Art Deco.

Interior of Bacardi building. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose. CC BY-SA 2.0

The Lopez Serrano building is another marvelous example of this style. Its construction began in 1929, one year before the Bacardi building, but it was completed in 1932.

It is similar in design to the famous Empire State Building, but it is significantly smaller. This building is considered to have laid the groundwork for Art Deco style in Cuba.

Lopez Serrano building (in the back). Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose. CC BY-SA 2.0

The Lopez Serrano was always mostly an apartment building, apart from the ground floor, which was dedicated to offices and businesses. Due to the building’s poor condition, the offices were eventually closed.

The America Theater. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose. CC BY-SA 2.0

The apartments were originally built for wealthy Cubans, but in the late 1950s, underprivileged families started moving into the building.

Nobody has taken responsibility for the building’s welfare and today both its exterior and interior are in poor shape.

Interior of the America Theater. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose. CC BY-SA 2.0

Havana also features several Art Deco theaters and cinemas. In 1938, the Cuban architect Saturino Parajon designed the Fausto Theater with its distinctive white color and clean lines.

Another one is the America Theater, which was constructed in 1941 by Fernando Martinez Camps and Pascal de Rojas.
Located in Old Havana, the theater — along with the apartments above it — is part of an 11-story building characterized by the typical elegant forms and motifs of the style.

The Fausto Theater. Author: JJ Merelo. CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1928, then-president of Cuba Gerardo Machado ordered the construction of the so-called Lutgardita Theater.

The theater was named after the president’s mother. Its name was later changed to Sierra Maestra. The building has a rather humble exterior but an extravagant interior with jungle murals on the walls and Mayan statues inside.

Casa de las Americas. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose. CC BY-SA 2.0

This style would also influence other buildings in the area.

There are two hospitals, the Municipal Children’s Hospital from 1935, America Arias Maternity Hospital, a famous bookstore called La Moderna Poesia, a building which used to be the headquarters for the El Pais newspaper, a mausoleum, many private homes, and more.

Library La Poesia Moderna. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose. CC BY-SA 2.0

Havana’s Art Deco buildings were certainly more colorful and glamorous when they were first built, but they have at least survived the years.

The fact that Cubans were not able to buy or sell properties, a lack of finances, difficult weather conditions, and poorly executed repairs are the major reasons many of these buildings are now damaged.

Art Deco in Colón Cemetery. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose. CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2013, Cuba was the host of the Art Deco Congress for the first time. Professionals from Cuba and all around the world met to discuss the protection and preservation of the Art Deco structures, among other issues.

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Local architects emphasize the need for immediate restorative action by the Government before the beautiful buildings are beyond repair.