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Havana's Colonial Art Museum turns 395 years old - the story behind Plaza de la Catedral's oldest building

One of the oldest and most emblematic edifications surrounding Plaza de la Catedral in Havana, is the Museo de Arte Colonial (Colonial Arts Museum), an emblematic building that turns close to four centuries old this year. On this post we examine the long and interesting history of this memorable colonial treasure, from its impressive architecture to its many years serving as a luxury abode for the Cuban aristocracy of the times. A historic monument that lives on with a rich story to tell.

Havana's Colonial Art Museum turns 395 years old - the story behind Plaza de la Catedral's oldest building

One of the most visited of Old Havana’s famous four squares is home to a rather impressive relic, a unique timepiece that stands out for not only being the oldest building in the area but also for having one of the most colourful and authentic pasts, after being home to members of Cuba’s high aristocracy. We’re talking about what is now known as Museo de Arte Colonial (or Colonial Art Museum) but has a longer official name as Palacio de los Condes de Casa Bayona (Palace of the Counts of House Bayona). Over its nearly 400-hundred-year history it’s had numerous uses and dwellers, from serving as the not-so-humble abode of t he island’s three-time governor to being the office of the city’s court clerks, the headquarters of a republican newspaper and the seat of an old rum manufacturing firm.

In this post we celebrate this imposing multi-purpose mansion turning 395 years by looking back at its rather picturesque history, marked by decades of sumptuous luxury, domestic glory and unshakable prestige for this overall safe-keeper of imperial remnants of the island’s colonial past.

A privileged location in Plaza de la Catedral

Regally sitting directly overlooking the grand cathedral, the origins of the Museo de Arte colonial go as far back in time as 1622, though little is known from the time its building to its first century of existence. History books only tell us that it starts being occupied in 1622 and throughout it first years it served home to an unrevealed number of families and institutions. It achieved prominence when it became the official residence of its most famous owner: Lieutenant Colonel Don Luis Chacon, also known as Count of House Bayona and who was the island’s Military Governor two times. It was during this time that it earned its most prestigious reputation as one of the city’s grandest, most opulent mansions.

Its most famous dweller

It is said that Mr Chacon, the Count of House Bayona moved here in 1722, and if these facts are right it means that by the time he bought Plaza de la Catedral’s oldest mansion to make it his main residence, he was no longer active in his post as governor but instead enjoyed a peaceful and luxurious retirement in one of the city’s grandest abodes, which he helped make all the more beautiful, with a series of renovations, the addition of fine furniture and expensive decorative items, some of which can still be inspected today.

Little else is known of the time during which Bayona and family lived here, except that the house underwent a series of inadequate renovation projects. In 1754 a licensed was obtained to build a portal extension, but works to this end were never carried out. No one knows for sure whom inherited or bought the mansion after the Bayoma family abandoned it. Even the date and place of Count Bayona’s death remains unknown and oddly enough doesn’t feature in any history books of the time. Quite strange for the life of someone so important to Cuba, who governed the island from 1702 to 1706 and from 1711 to 1713. Could it be that his most famous feat beyond once ruling the former Spanish colony was actually living in this great house?

A Royal College, newspapers office and rum headquarters

The specific dates of when it hosted which institutions is less widely known, but at some point during its long lifetime this grand mansion was once home to the Royal College of Court Desks of Havana (Real Colegio de Escribanos de La Habana), founded in 1796. Later on, toward the end of the 1870s it served as office for the conservative republican newspaper “La Discusion”. It became its official seat right from its foundation in 1879 and thus its surrounding area was popularly referred to as “plaza de la discusion” (Discussion Square) for quite a long time until the publication’s very last days.

One of its last uses before becoming a museum was housing the headquarters of Arechabala, an old rum brand created by Jose Arechavala that would eventually become Ron Havana Club as we know it today. In 1934, after enjoying rapid growth and success, enough to rival Cuban giant rum producer - Bacardi’s, the company set up camp in the Palacio de los Condes de Bayona by establishing their headquarters there with a private bar.

After the triumph of the revolution in 1959, when all private property was expropriated or confiscated by Fidel Castro’s government, this iconic grand house became vacant for a long time, housing a variety of institutions in quick succession until a new purpose was envisaged for its premises. Thus, in 1969 it was reborn as a museum, a task that accomplished two great revolutionary goals, preserving its structure and original value as an architectural masterpiece and giving access to the general public in an effort to educate the newer generations as it became a cultural hub and point of reference in the city.

What you can admire today

The Museo de Arte Colonial allows visitors to immerse in its olden days and admire its elegant, spacious interiors just as they would have been seen when the housed served as domestic residence for members of the Cuban aristocracy.

Its exterior remains pretty much intact and unchanged – a classical example of the fine stonework and masonry of the 17th century. Thanks to meticulous maintenance and upkeep its grand old façade remains as authentic as ever, with doors, balconies and French windows painted in bright blue, adding a picturesque touch that puts it in harmony with the similar colonial constructions that surround it.
Step inside and the real magic happens as you are instantly transported back in time and get to feast your eyes on authentic colonial household items and furniture, beautifully preserved as though still in use.

A lived-in museum that still looks like a house

The museum is split into four different exhibition halls, with three of them housing a permanent exhibition and one hosting seasonal exhibits related to Cuba’s colonial time period.

Each of the permanent rooms have been furnished and laid out to look like they way they would have when Cuba’s upper classes used the building as a family home. One of them is a bedroom, exquisitely furnished with quality hardwoods and including every detail, from the imperial marital bed to an ornate baby crib next to a rocking chair, a bedside table, chest of drawers, picture frames and even the quintessential Christ on the cross ornament on the wall.

Another room recreates a dining hall with a huge, elaborate lamp hanging from the ceiling, original dining furniture and original crockery set at the main table or displayed in the wooden cabinets. There’s also a sitting room, immaculately arranged with valuable time pieces including an old stand-up clock. All rooms have large French windows allowing plenty of natural light in and adding to the overall classic tone.

Features to look out for

Details not to overlook during a visit, include paying special attention to the many fine porcelain ornaments, room-dividing folding screens made in wood and glass with colourful artwork, the stained-glass windows in a half-crescent moon shape, and even the original horse cart parked in the garage.

Here I proceed to list the most valuable items, grouped into categories:

Dining set collections

One of the most valuable objects housed inside Museo del Arte Colonial are the complete dining sets made from the finest china by the most famous European crockery brand of the time. The dining sets are from the 18th and 19th century and include prestigious names like Limoges, Worceser and Royal Doulton, to name a few.

They are diverse in style, originality and design, indicative of the luxury that the higher classes of the time could afford and the ostentatious nature of dining rituals and banquets.

Spanish and English porcelain also have their place here with names like William Adams, Pickam and Sargadelos, whose designs were based on the transferring of engravings depicting typical Cuban scenes.

The dining sets most representative of the Cuban families who owned include that of the counts of Fernandina, Casa Romero, Casa Montalvo, San Ignacio, Pedroso y Garro, Macuriges and San Juan of Jaruco as well as the marquis of the Real Campina, Almendares and Real Proclamacion.

Furniture pieces of remarkable value

The second floor exhibits a specialist furniture and glass collection, with items belonging to the upper crust of Cuba’s bourgeoisie. Here you can see the evolution of Cuban carpentry across different time periods with fine examples that define the taste and peculiarities of the island.

There are some items of religious nature spanning the 17th and 18th century, rescued from convents and churches that are interesting to look at, especially if you have a penchant for religious paraphernalia. You can also inspect wardrobes, cupboards, armchairs and chests of varying sizes and styles and there’s also a special collection of Cuban “taburetes”, a chair typical of the Cuban countryside and found in a variety of materials.

Lastly, there are some fine examples of the kind of furniture that shaped the first half of the 19th century, with exquisite items from what was dubbed the epoch of the “Cuban Empire”, evidencing the use of plating, carving and marquetry, as well as the “medallion” design of chairs that became so popular towards the half of the 19th century. There’s also the quintessential wicker chairs, some furnishings made in the Thonet style and American designer chairs.

The living room, sitting room, bedroom and dining room

I’ve already briefly sketched out what you can expect to find inside the different rooms recreated to look as the residential spaces of Cuban families, but I’m going to further highlight some very specific details not to overlook as you peruse them.

The sitting room or study feels as intimate as it ought to once have been, the place where the family gathered and conversed on a daily basis. Its elegantly yet simply furnished with some items that particularly stand out, like the Sheraton-style English piano and the rocking chairs laid out in a circular arrangement - a prominent feature in many Cuban homes of the times.

The living room encapsulates the spirit and décor of a traditional Cuban house of the 19th century, with medallion furniture pieces and an ornate cabinet showcasing opaline glass adornments and elaborate fans. There’s also a Rococo-Victorian living room set crafted and designed by American carpenter John Henry Belter, found alongside European porcelain and fine glassware.

The dining rooms is the one place that best shows the wealth of Cuba’s aristocrat family, with numbered French glassware, European porcelain bearing nobility titles especially made to order to prestigious manufacturing companies and the finest table linen with handmade embroidery. Oil paintings from famous Cuban artists adorn the walls, with some notable works from Cuban landscapist, Esteban Chartrand.

The bedroom is perhaps the most evocative household room and the one that feels most homely. Its furniture belonged to the Count of San Juan de Jaruco and there’s a worship corner with a prie-dieu, an ornate basin containing holy water and a variety of religious paraphernalia ranging from picture frames to figurines. The wardrobe showcases elements that were part of ladies’ daily wear: pins made with human air, binoculars and hat brooches.

Timeless structural touches

Some of the main structural attributes that add value and character to the museum are the beamed ceilings, the large French windows and the ornate railings found in balconies, iron gates and lamp holders.

There is a room dedicated to showing a collection of the most commonly used doors in Cuban houses from the 18th to the 19th centuries, displayed alongside a group of locks, hinges and nails. Encased in a protective glass cabinet you´ll also find a collection of door knockers and keyholes from the 18th century, in different shapes and sizes, evocative in some aspects of the African artisanal influence in Cuban culture.

A precious gem you can´t overlook

Next time you´re walking down the beautiful Plaza de la Catedral in the heart of Old Havana, make time to stop in front of this magnificent building to fully admire it and if you can spare a few more minutes, then don’t think it twice and step inside to fully immerse in a Cuban time capsule like no other. I promise you´ll walk away feeling all the richer.

Susana Corona

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