‘Great Houses of Havana’: Opening the door to a lost world

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A review by Stephane Bruno for the New Orleans Advocate.

Once known as the “Paris of the Caribbean,” Havana’s distinctive beauty has been largely forgotten over 55 years of communist rule.

But now that travel restrictions have eased and many Americans are visiting Cuba for the first time, visitors once again have the opportunity to see the city’s “Great Houses” for themselves.

With staggering riches generated by the sugar industry, wealthy Cubans in the 19th and 20th century hired the finest architects and designers from around the world to create their sumptuous homes. If you’re fond of interior design, Hermes Mallea’s Book “The Great Houses of Havana: A Century of Cuban Style” makes a terrific starting point for discovering how the city’s most affluent families decorated their homes in the century before the Revolution and what those homes said about life in the island nation.

Mallea — a Cuban-American architect who lives in New York — paints a complex portrait of the cultural, social and political landscape of 19th and early 20th century Cuba. He discusses the government’s re-use of many of the finest old homes, explains how the rise of the sugar industry generated staggering riches and illustrates lush interior courtyards and their importance in residents’ daily lives.

Friday evening at 6 p.m., Mallea presents an illustrated talk at the New Orleans Museum of Art about the houses he researched, wrote about and illustrated.

Released by The Monacelli Press in 2011, “Great Houses” was Mallea’s first book. Since then, he has written “Escape: The Heyday of Caribbean Glamor,” a visually arresting guide to the design of estates in the Caribbean and Florida.

Mallea’s NOMA talk is hosted by the New Orleans Hispanic Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes appreciation of the city’s Hispanic history.

The talk is free with admission to the museum and is followed at 7:30 p.m. book signing.

Some of the distinctive homes have been turned to public uses — a decorative arts museum, a distribution center, a nursing home. Still others have been converted to embassies. Although few remain in pristine condition, fewer still (of those included) exhibit signs of serious decay.

Given the communist revolution, it was surprising to learn that some of the homes featured are still occupied by later generations of the families that built them.

A book on the topic could easily have devolved into political commentary: longing for or rejection of the past, criticizing or applauding the Castro regime, advocating for a different kind of future.

Mallea avoids all of that by allowing the reader to form his or her own opinions. And that may be one of his book’s most significant achievements.

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