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The new face of Old Havana

The new face of Old Havana

Posted by Miguel Ernesto on April 03, 2014

Walking by the narrow streets of Old Havana can be a unique experience. It's a small

geographic space of just 4.32 square kilometres where 97 thousand people live and where it is possible to appreciate a peculiar mixture of architectural styles, that still remain as a testimony of the different historic relations the city had with the Spanish, British, French and American metropolis.

Time - unrelenting and sometimes devastating -, idleness and oblivion have affected Old Havana's architecture. On many occasions hundreds of these buildings were about to collapse; and on top of this, some unhealthy conditions and overcrowding started to impact the image of the city's oldest zone; that was once considered, in 1982, Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

It was essential to make some changes, and in the sixties a programme of restoration was implemented - that has grown in importance over the past twenty years- under the lead of the Office of the Historian of the City, directed, since 1981, by Dr, Eusebio Leal.

Any bystander who now walks by the streets of Old Havana may be surprised by the great number of closed buildings that are in the middle of this restoration process. Scaffoldings, concrete, sand and construction equipments have become regular elements in the city's landscape.

The Capitol.

Since its inauguration, in 1929, during the Administration of Gerardo Machado, Havana's Capital has been one of the greatest symbols of the city. In late 2012, this National Heritage monument closed its doors to be submitted to the most complete restoration in its History.

According to Mariela Mulet, boss of the Investment Group, the building isn't in structural bad conditions and that is of course very positive, but there are many problems with the installations, she stated. Restorers have worked on the dome, on garden and backyard areas and on sculptures.

When the millionaire restoration is over, the Capitol will again be what it originally was until 1959: the headquarters of the highest legislative body in Cuba, in this case, the the National Assembly of People's Power .

'It's the project of a country, not only the Office of the Historian of the City's project. In the same way that funding comes from the States, other institutions are also participated’’ said Mulet.

Great Theatre of Havana.

Near the Capitol, there's the Great Theatre of Havana, another emblematic building that needed an urgent restoration.

''The initial works on the roofing and dressing rooms started in 2004, but later the closure of installation was decided and all the companies that had their main headquarters there, such as the National Ballet, had to be resettled'' said Luis Doce, Manager of the Investment Department in the Ministry of Culture.

With an investment of 21 million Cuban pesos (900.000 CAD), the project of the Great Theatre includes the total substitution of all the elements in the García Lorca Hall, one of the most heavily attended in Havana.

''We hired the services of an Italian company for the stage's flooring boards, while the lower level was negotiated with China; and we work stably to have all the restorations done by August or September, 2014'', stated Doce.

A brewery on Paula's breakwater.

Many facilities have been inaugurated in Old Havana in 2014 as part of the wide restoration programme led by the Office of the Historian of the City.

For a long time, at the end of Paula's Board-walk, one of the most visited places in Colonial Havana, three abandoned breakwaters could be seen. Only one of them was saved, while the other two were demolished. After three years of intense work, a factory was built on the surviving breakwater, and it then became 'The Old Store of Wood and Tobacco' where different kinds of beer are made and sold with Austrian technology.

''In the restoration process, the general structure was kept and we worked hard for maintaining its architectural physiognomy, without changing a single thing, to respect the historic memory of the neighbourhood. The base of the brewery was set by the Austrians but all the copper and steel piping system was made by the Cuban part'' explained Juan José Díaz, General Planner of the work.

According to Dr. Leal, the work is important, because it helps to ''give its vitality back to a historic structure built more than a hundred years ago. We tried - in both, project and making- to respect all smallest details, even in those technological equipments that belong to the early 20th Century, and that now, although immobile, they still remind us how things were done in the big stores of Havana's port'', he said.

The brewery can comfortably accommodate 400 people in the tables and other 30 in the bar's stools, and it also has the capacity of producing ten hectolitres of beer daily. Master brewers guide the process in which three types are elaborated: lager, dark ale and stout. ''We are happy, because it's a very nice place, the equipment is new and although it's a small industry, it's very well planned and it has all the elements to get a high-quality beer'', assured Belkis González, a master brewer.

New places and projects.

In 1947, the Asturian Manuel Pérez Rodríguez - known as 'Bigote de Gato', that is, Cat Whiskers- settled down in an old colonial house, right in the corner of streets Teniente Rey and Compostela. There, he opened a bar soon gained notoriety. His witty slogan ''Know Cuba first, visit Cat Whiskers then'' made it even more popular. Great figures such as the American writer Ernest Heminway and Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén would often visit the place.

Cat Whishkers died in 2002, although his bar had disappeared long before. The place was in ruins; but the restoration works brought it back to life in 2014. In the building's front-face, the same old slogan can still be read.

Restoration works go on in a city that, despite the adversities, seems not to give up. After being closed for almost , Martí Theatre reopened to the public, and works are already being made in Manzana de Gómez, in front of Parque Central, to turn this green space into a luxury hotel.

In the next few months, other buildings will be inaugurated, such as Casa de Obrapía and the Colonial Art Museum; and it is expected that, on the second floor of San José Stores, a new project will be built: a book market, where the today sellers of poetry books, novels, historical and philosophical treaties in Plaza de Armas would move. According to Leal's words, in this store could be ''the most beautiful of all book markets''.

Restoring is a complicated process, slow and expensive, but essential for Cuba. Leal defines his work quoting National Hero José Martí: ''Mankind is composed of two sorts of men — those who love and create, and those who hate and destroy. - we are determinedly doing the first'' , he concluded.

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