Hotel Inglaterra - over a century of history encapsulating Cuba's oldest hotel

The grand neoclassical structure that rises in front of Havana's centric Parque Central, right at the heart of the old town, is not only a colonial gem that has stoically endured the passage of time but also a place where history and culture have blended over the year to create one of the city's most legendary haunts. On the verge of its takeover by Starwood, which will add it to its Luxury Collection, on this post we go back in time to explore the allure of the Hotel Inglaterra, its famous past guests and its riveting history.

Hotel Inglaterra - over a century of history encapsulating Cuba's oldest hotel

Soon to reopen as Starwood’s second hotel in Havana, under the brand’s exclusive "The Luxury Collection", which encompasses a select number of worldwide independent properties, the Hotel Inglaterra still stands as one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and one that enjoys a unique history spanning Cuba’s independence wars and playing host to a long line of famous guests.

On this blog we explore what makes the Inglaterra such a special treasure, why it’s regarded as a gem of an exemplary hotel, and what its long past history entails. Let us look into what made Cuba’s oldest hotel a permanent fixture on the capital, one that so far had remained purely Cuban despite long being coveted by many international firms.

On the verge of its takeover by an U.S. hotelier giant, the first foreign company in its history that will soon be running it, Hotel Inglaterra might not change drastically overnight (we sure hope not) nor will any of its original features be lost in the process of exchanging hands, yet you might be curious of what this hotel represents and stands for. We proceed to enlighten you, so should you ever stay here you might treasure more your time at Cuba’s first ever hotel.

A little bit of background – humble beginnings with a rebellious backdrop

With over 140 years of history, the Hotel Inglaterra is one that certainly has many stories to tell.

Its foundation takes us all the way back to 1844, when building works started on a two-story edification that was known as the Cafe y Salon Escauriza. These were times during which Havana was still flanked by a fortified wall that protected it against pirates and invaders, tumultuous times that saw frequent confrontations between the “criollos” and the Spanish colonialists.

A little bit of background – humble beginnings with a rebellious backdrop

As a coffee shop and dancefloor, the site of what would later be known as the Hotel Inglaterra, proved immensely popular with local visitors, so much so that it was rivalling the prestigious Teatro Tacon (now Gran Teatro de La Habana) next door. The Spanish authorities didn’t much like the competition, or the fact that all the joyous laughter and dancing emanating from the young crowds at Escauriza detracted from Teatro Tacon’s more subdued atmosphere, to the point that Spanish authorities ended up forbidding dance sessions at Escauriza, in order to protect Teatro Tacon’s exclusivity and draw back the dancing crowds to the latter. This eventually provoked a revolt in which young party-goers at Escauriza threw milk punch to the Spanish officials, staining their uniforms with the whitish substance and seriously escalating the matter. Blood was spilt and deportations were in order. The ugly aftermath came to be known as “La Batalla del Ponche de Leche” (The Batlle of Milk Punch).

After Euscariza’s eventual closure, it took a new owner to reopen it, this time as Le Louvre, playing homage to the French origins of its new proprietor, Joaquin Payret. The name was eventually changed to El Louvre, in a nod to the language spoken locally and soon it became a place of reference, a hotspot with a fame that extended a few metres beyond its reach. In fact, the street it was one started being called “Acera del Louvre”, which translates as “The Louvre sidewalk”, extending all the way to San Miguel Street. It was at this point in time that history began to set in its walls. In 1866 this very same building witnessed yet another dispute between “criollos” and Spanish rulers when the latter offended the memory of renowned Cuban scientist, Ramon Zambrana, by handing back the flyers being distributed to gather funds for his widow.

Hotel Inglaterra, Havana, Cuba

Its conversion to a hotel happened a few years later, in 1875, when Mr Payret sold it to build a theatre that he later named after himself, and which also stands to this day. The Teatro Payret sits in a street corner, diagonally from the former Louvre cafe, on San Jose y Prado streets. But that’s another story entirely and I’ll tell it in due course.

Getting back to the Hotel Inglaterra; at the time of its purchase by its subsequent owners, Manuel Lopez and Urban Gonzanlez, when it was still known as El Louvre, there was an adjacent edification home to what then was Le Grand Hotel and Restaurante Inglaterra. Both sites came together to become a single hotel once and for all, and hence the Hotel Inglaterra was born on 23rd December 1875.

During these turbulent years when prominent members of Cuba’s creole bourgeoisie united to fight against the Spanish rule, the hotel became the favourite meeting place of some of the capital’s wealthiest rebels. After “La Guerra de los Diez Anos” (Ten Year War) was over and in the midst of an epoch that appeared to be pacific but was everything but, as strong anti-colonial sentiments were boiling and brooding under the surface. It was during this period of time known as “El Reposo Turbulento” (The Turbulent Repose), that Hotel Inglaterra played host to Cuba’s national hero, Jose Marti, when on 21st April 1879, the independence fighter and philosopher, gave a speech in honour of journalist Adolfo Marquez Sterling criticising the autonomy movement.

A few years later, in 1886 a third floor was added by Captain of the Spanish Army, Don Francisco Villamil. The hotel boasted such beauty and splendour that locals and foreigners alike took numerous pictures against it to later show them off to family and friends. The hotel of hotels had been born in Havana, comparable to the world’s finest.

The hotel at the dawn of the 20th century

The hotel at the dawn of the 20th century

Just before the end of the 19th century Hotel Inglaterra, after being adorned with mosaics bearing gold motifs and a new wrought-iron gate, expressly brought over from Seville and which still can be admired today, the General of Cuba’s Independence Army, Antonio Maceo, stayed as a guest for nearly six months, calling on the young rebels who frequented the famed “Acera del Louvre” to join in the fight.

By the turn of the 20th century, improvement works on the hotel had finished. In 1901 the local press claimed that over 300,000 gold pesos were spent in the process of upgrading and modernising the hotel. New additions included electric lighting, a telephone in each guest room as well as the fitting of bathrooms with hot and cold water. Newly installed telegraphic communication allowed guests to contact any corner of the world. These were Hotel Inglaterra’s golden years.

Its 100 rooms guaranteed elegance and modern comforts which, coupled with the hotel’s wide variety of services, put the Hotel Inglaterra on top, surpassing all its competitors in the whole of Latin America, and earning it a spot in numerous publications which listed it as one of the world’s best.

In March 1914, a new cantilever glass roof was added to the entrance of the hotel as was a new and final fourth story. It was during this time known as “Epoca de las Vacas Gordas”, roughly translated as “Period of the Fat Cows” and which refers to a major boost experienced by the local economy, thanks to the rise in the price of sugar (the backbone of Cuban economy back then) as a result of the First World War.

In the years to follow the hotel would benefit from the growing North American tourist market, partly in thanks to the many American business who begun setting up headquarters in the capital and partly due to those escaping the era of Prohibition in the United States, otherwise known as the “Dry Law”, which forbade the selling and consumption of alcohol statewide from 1920 to 1933.

Yet the hotel’s booming economy wasn’t able to survive the 1929 depression and by 1931 it was closing its doors and waving goodbye to its past glory. Eight years on, it came back to life, mostly playing host to parties, wedding and birthday celebrations. Although it continued operating as a hotel, little was left of its former splendour. Nevertheless, it continued to be a favourite hangout spot for the local youth, thanks to its privileged location next to Havana’s Historic Centre and the familiar service offered by its welcoming employees.

The triumph of the Revolution

The triumph of the Revolution

By the time Fidel Castro’s rebel-led revolution overthrew President Batista’s dictatorship in January 1959, the Hotel Inglaterra was already decayed and suffering. Add to this the fact that the U.S. imposed economic blockade that followed in the 60s, dealt a disastrous blow to the country’s tourism economy (with U.S. tourists gone) and you have the recipe for damaging even further an already vulnerable hotel.

Hotel Inglaterra faced its worst decade during the 70s, when it was forced to close down completely. Yet, coincidentally, by the end of this time period the country was gathering strengths to kick-start the tourism industry once again, in order to feed an ailing economy that would later suffer the consequences of the Soviet Union’s disintegration. With Soviet subsidies gone, it was time to look elsewhere to salvage what was left of Cuba’s impoverished economy.

It was then, in 1981, after a collective government effort to bring back tourism, that the Hotel Inglaterra saw its lamps turned on again. But decades of neglect and decay demanded much more. Its aged interiors had to be remodelled whilst taking every care to keep its past original essence and opulence. By 1989, the Inglaterra reopened its doors with hints of its former grandeur.

From here on, the hotel went back to rescuing old traditions that saw its second floor once again play host to cultural activities as it once did in bygone years dating back as far as when the hotel was known as “El Louvre”. During the years to follow the Hotel Inglaterra would cement its position in the community by inviting back prominent Cuban figures such as writers, artists and celebrities, as well as Havana’s Concert Band (Banda de Conciertos de La Habana) to organise a monthly programme of activities for guests, visitors and members of the local community.

Famous past guests

Famous past guests

Throughout its long history, the Inglaterra Hotel has welcomed an elitist crop of society’s most select, from the local bourgeoisie to internationally renowned visitors, the most famous of which is Sir Winston Churchill himself.

Arriving to Havana as a correspondent for Daily Graphic in December 1890, Churchill documented Cuba’s Independence Wars and drew inspiration from them. Even when he was based in Arroyo Blanco, a small town in the province of Sancti Spiritus, from which he observed and learnt from the Cuban war during the few weeks spent in the island, he did visit Havana and despite staying at the Hotel Nacional for most of his time there (where a bar is named after him), he did manage to pay a short visit to the Hotel Inglaterra and enjoy its atmospheric Louvre Cafe.

French diva, Sarah Bernhardt, came to pay a visit twice, staying in the Inglaterra in 1887 and then repeating in 1918. Following in her steps, yet another French actress of the time, Jane Hading, chose the Hotel Inglaterra as her base during her time in Havana.

One of the most revered poets in Spanish language, Ruben Dario also stayed here in 1910 while Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral received a special welcome with a Five O’clock Tea at the hotel’s Patio Andaluz during her visit a decade later, in 1922.

The most famous Italian tenor of all time, Enrico Caruso, also left his mark here, and it was said that every day, after enjoying a theatre performance he would head straight to the Louvre Cafe, to enjoy a cooling milk punch.

Among Hotel Inglaterra’s past famous Cuban guests we have Jose Raul Capablanca, unbeatable holder of the world chess championship title from 1921 to 1927.

The Hotel Inglaterra of today

The Hotel Inglaterra of today

Nowadays a declared National Monument (since 1997) and a heritage building of great pride for all Cubans given its long history, the Hotel Inglaterra is overlooked by no one. While the centric part of Old Havana it sits in might now be littered with more modern and luxurious hotels, none of these can boast a past history and charm that can compare to Inglaterra’s, and those who choose to stay here know it.

Numerous sightseeing landmarks surround the Hotel Inglaterra. In its vicinity there are countless attractions: El Gran Teatro de La Habana, El Capitolio, the Payret cinema we mentioned earlier, the Paseo del Prado promenade (which served as Chanel’s public catwalk during their May 2016 fashion show in Havana), the Museo de Bellas Artes and three more hotels: Hotel Telegrafo, Hotel Plaza and Hotel Sevilla.

Now a four-star hotel (by Cuban standards) the Inglaterra may be showing a few aging marks here and there, and while it doesn’t enjoy the grand status it once did, it remains popular with visitors seeking a historic backdrop to their Cuba holiday with a touch of shabby chic and old world charm that has been synonymous with Havana. Its rooms are spacious, with balconies overlooking the Parque Central and its rooftop bar offers nightly entertainment. Its most desired spot, by guests and visitors alike, is its breezy and scenic street-side ground floor cafe, with open views all-around making for an amazing vantage point ideal for people-watching.

Lookswise, the hotel’s exterior remains as grand as it ever was and its interiors still boast colonial chandeliers, glistening Andalusian mosaics, intricate iron-wrought gates and rails, floor-to-ceiling French windows and palatial motifs on its restaurant’s dramatic arches and ceilings. It will leave you breathless and you’ll find yourself many photo ops as you stroll around this architectural marvels. Can Starwood improve on that? It can on several counts, with a more attentive service perhaps, new facilities in some areas and the modernisation of some of its infrastructure, but as far as looks go, the Inglaterra needs very little to make it gleam, it already shines.

Starwood enters the picture

Starwood enters the picture

The announcement of Starwood striking a deal with Cuban tourism authorities to run three hotels on the island, came as a shock and surprise to many and made instant news. The historic move of Starwood taking over the Hotel Quinta Avenida, Hotel Inglaterra and Hotel Santa Isabel in Havana, was announced last March, and since then the world has been watching closely to see exactly how the American hotel giant proceeds about it.

On their part, Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ Senior Vice President and Chief in Latin American Operations, Jorge Giannattasio, said at the time of the announcement:

“We are excited to add this sought-after destination to our growing Latin American and Caribbean portfolio, and offer our loyal guests more choice in this evolving market. Hotel conversions, like those we announced today, allow us to preserve history, architecture and culture while offering a unique branded experience”

For the managing of the Hotel Inglaterra, Starwood partnered with its current owner, state-run Cuban company, Gran Caribe, and obtained permission to rebrand it and transform it into a member of The Luxury Collection. The idea for its rebranding process is to renovate and preserve rather than transform, with all works carried out aimed at elevating guests’ experiences whilst in-keeping with the hotel’s original layout and features.

So, hopefully, after Hotel Inglaterra’s conversion, Starwood will have kept to its word and bring the hotel back to its former glory with 21st century conveniences, without its losing its Cuban soul. And may it be as successful as Mr Giannattassio predicts:

“With our long-standing, locally based and highly experienced team in Latin America and the Caribbean, we look forward to welcoming guests to Cuba for many decades to come.”

On 31st December 2018 (according to Starwood's latest announcemnt on their official website) the renewed Hotel Inglaterra – The Luxury Collection, will show the world its upgraded look, hopefully not too distant from its original one, more likely shining brighter than ever.

What the future holds

What’s in store for this for years to come? No one can say. But with an international and prestigious brand like Starwood’s operating from 31st December 2018 we can predict very good things indeed, for the hotel infrastructure (whose interiors could benefit from an upgrade or two) as much as for future guests seeking a slice of history drenched in exclusive luxury.

Concerned about whether its essence will be altered? I for one, do believe a historic hotel like this cannot ever lose its inherent personality, and I bet Starwood will do very little to change it. Otherwise, we know for a fact Cuba would have blankly refused relinquishing it to foreign hands. The idea is to upgrade it, not change it in any drastic way. We can hardly wait. After all, we’re talking about a national landmark.

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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