Vedado. A neighbourhood that witnessed the flourishing of a city at the turn of the 20th century and saw the settlement of the emerging upper classes in newly-built mansions exquisitely erected in a variety of styles (from Neoclassical to Art Deco with touches of Art Nouveau in some cases) this is one of habaneros’ favourite haunts. Beyond palatial homes, there’s a wealth of galleries, cinemas, jazz clubs and nightlife that simply can’t be matched elsewhere in the city.
Beloved Vedado, as admired as it is desired (it’s a fact that most habaneros would like to reside here), full of leafy avenues that lead to the city’s famous seawall, is an obligatory stop for anyone visiting Havana, and one of its most scenic attractions is precisely mansion-spotting. There are so many and so varied in colour and style (although they follow a similar pattern in many ways) that you could spend days ticking them off a list. But for most a list of top ten Vedado mansions would do and seeing that the vast majority of these have either become embassies, government offices or cultural centres like libraries or museums, you can step inside to ogle at their roomy, elegant interiors, still bearing original features and fixtures of a bygone era.
Today I’m going to focus on five mansions of exceptional beauty and unique historical value, home to famous members of the “criollo” aristocracy of the times and of the world of arts and literature. These are the homes whose owners frequently appeared on the society pages of local magazines and whose lives many habaneros followed with a mix of admiration and respect. To this day, habaneros look longingly at these grand homes and try to envisage the lives of its past owners, the grandiose lives they led and their exuberant parties.
And here it is, a list of 5 Vedado mansions not to miss
Museo de Artes Decorativas (Museum of Decorative Arts)
Quite possibly the most visually impressive of all the mansions on this list, this grand home feels and looks like a palace inside out, an abode fit for princes and princesses, lord and ladies. Of course, no autochtonous “criollo” Cuban bore regal titles in post-colonial Cuba, but that didn’t stop this small palace’s wealthy owners from hosting members of European royalty. As a matter of fact, this mansion’s famous owner was a countess with a nobiliary title from Spain.
This was the not-so-humble residence of the Countess of Revilla of Camargo (Condesa de Revilla de Camargo), a title created on 14th November 1927 by King Alfonso XVIII of Spain to honour the founder of the schools of Revilla de Camargo in Cantabria, Spain. The title was first granted to Agapito de la Cagiga y Aparicio, and his wife, Maria Luisa Gomez-Mena y Villa inherited it and bore it until her death in 1953.
Erected on the corner of streets 17 and E, this exquisite mansion, took three years to build (from 1924 to 1927) and was designed by French architects P. Virad and M. Destugue. The interiors were richly furnished with expensive works of arts, full-size sculptures made to order, hand-painted porcelain, hard-wood cabinets, plush furnishings, ornate decorations and fine china on display. You can admire all this and much more on a visit, as the museum has gone to painstaking lengths to preserve everything as it was when lived in
The widowed countess was famous for being a patron of Cuban arts and artists, an influential figure in the Havana of her time. Her palace hosted parties and gatherings attended by society’s upper crust and socialites from the world over, from Hollywood movie stars to intellectuals, writers, painters, politicians and other members of the nobility. Most notably, the Counts of Barcelona, the Duchess of Alba and the Dukes of Windsor, which were all visitors between the 1940s and 1950s.
The countess and her family fled the country upon the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 and their former palace lay abandoned for years, until in 1964 it reopened as the Museo Nacional de Artes Decoratives, showcasing an invaluable collection of personal objects comprising over 33,000 art pieces of singular historical value with objects spanning the reigns of Louis XV, Louis XVI and Napoleon III and oriental pieces spanning the 16th to 20th century. Other valuables include masterpieces from renowned French manufacturing companies such as Sevres, Paris, Chantilly and Limoges, as well as English names such as Wedgwood, Derby, Chelsea, Worcester and Staffordshire.
Museo Servando Cabrera (a.k.a. the former Villa Lita)
An elegant building that stands out for both its monumental size and eclectic style, with Art Nouveau and colonial architectural touches, you´ll find our next beautiful mansion on the wide and leafy Avenida de Paseo. It´s also the oldest in this list, built in 1912 on the residential area known then as Monte Vedado.
After inheriting the 7th and 8th parcels of the block between 13th and 15th streets, Rafael Maria Munos y Rodriguez decided to erect a magnificent building, two floors high and with an annex building that served as garage and home to the servants. The property was surrounded by beautiful tropical gardens and fenced off from prying eyes to guarantee the owners ´privacy.
After the abandonment of its first owners, the house was auctioned off and bought by a rich Italian couple of merchants and Italian marble traders who had set up a commercial store (Casa Pennino) on the nearby Infanta street. The house was named after the owner´s wife, Emmanuela, affectionately called “Lita” and thus it became known as Villa Lita. Its original name can still be seen in the large inscription adorning the entrance.
After the last member of the Pennino clan passed away without descendants in 1980, the servants’ families took over the home until the property passed hands to the Ministry of Culture and Villa Lita was remodelled and converted into the Servando Cabrera Moreno Museum and Library (Museo Biblioteca Servando Cabrera Moreno), a Cuban painter famous for his work depicting Cuban peasantry and part of the “vanguardia” movement.
Beyond perusing his paintings and admiring his multi-faceted talent in a curated selection of works spanning his entire lifetime, the former residence also houses a library with a bibliographic collection of great personal and patrimonial heritage value in the form of manuscripts, books, catalogue and others
Its rich marbles can still be admired today, as can its beautifully framed stained-glass window on top of the stairs and in a room overlooking the gardens.
Centro Cultural “Dulce Maria Loynaz”
The former residence of the internationally-acclaimed Cuban poet and writer this now cultural centre is named after, this grand home has a rich historical and cultural past. One of the first mansions to be built in the Vedado neighbourhood, this colossal property was the family home of Dulce Maria Loynaz, winner of the Miguel de Cervantes Literary Prize (the Nobel equivalent in the world of Hispanic language), the National Literary Prize and received of the Order of Isabella the Catholic, as well as being a member of the Real Academia Espanola (Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, abbreviated as R.A.E.).
Found on the corner where streets 19 and E meet, this is one of the most representative residences of Cuba’s emerging bourgeoisie class of the turn of the century. Its first owner inhabited it for over two decades before deciding to sell it to the Cuban writer and her husband in 1947. This is where she lived from then on until her peaceful death in 1997. She passed away at the grand old age of 94 years old just days after receiving an award to mark the 45th anniversary of her
The house, now a museum in her memory, preserves many of its original features in an immaculate state, with exquisite furnishings and beautiful decorations, from ornate ceiling lamps to expensive porcelain. You can still admire many of her lavish possessions in three rooms: El Dorado, El Colonial and La Capilla (The Chapel), where you can get to know more about the life and works of this great author, whose writings were translated into several languages.
Casa de la Amistad
Perhaps the most emotionally compelling of all the mansions in the list, there’s a great love story behind the construction of this beautiful residence. Havana’s most scandalous couple of the time happily resided here until death did them part.
Of all the ones in this list, this mansion also the most visually stunning interior-wise, with an eclectic mix of styles, but most notably because of its impressive Art Deco touches, taking over entire rooms in a dramatic, jaw-dropping way. You can tell of the love that went into the building of this house by the painstaking effort that went into designing and decorating every little space of this home, the ultimate haven of two lovers whose devotion for each other defied mortality (upon her untimely death, he built her a colossal mausoleum in Havana’s Colon cemetery, one of the most eye-catching and famous, right on the cemetery’s main avenue).
Made to order, this grand abode was built by wealthy Spanish landowner Juan Pedro Pedro and his beautiful Cuban wife, Catalina Lasa, famous for being a renowned beauty in the upper-class society of her time and for having previously married into one of Cuba’s most influential families. He loved her so passionately that after overcoming the many hurdles their relationship was faced (society scorned them and looked down on divorce) he built a sanctuary like no other and hired gardeners to create a yellow rose he named after her and which was to adorn the house’s gardens. Her divorce rocked the nation and they were forced to elope.
Their romance was so notorious it appeared on the society pages of local and international magazines and upon refusal from the local authorities to dissolve their marriage they travelled to the Vatican to meet with the Pope who finally divorced them. The house is a testament to undying love that defied all odds. Nowadays it has been turned into Casa de la Amistad (House of Friendship) and welcomes the public with frequently-held concerts in its patio, as well as a restaurant and bar.
UK Embassy in Havana
Another mansion that popped as a result of Cuba’s booming period, otherwise known as “Danza de los Millones” (Millionaire Dance), this stately home stands tall and proud on the corner of Avenida Paseo, boast ample gardens and has two entrances, the main one of which looks out to 15 Street.
The previous residence of wealthy banker Pablo Gonzalez de Mendoza, this two-story building is regal to stay the least. Both front and back facades are ornately and exquisitely designed with the interiors being just as impressive. Divided into spacious rooms flooded with natural light, a beautiful marble staircase stands out for its undulating, twisting design giving way to the second floor, with six bedrooms, four bathrooms and a sitting room.
An amazing indoor pool was added in 1918 by American architect John H. Duncan, famous for having designed the clock tower in Havana’s Fifth Avenue. Built among columns and latticed glass walls while crowned by wooden beams on a glass ceiling, this beautiful pool was referred to as the Mendoza’s Roman bath, with its design having been clearly inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. From bronze candelabra with mythological creatures hanging from the ceiling beams to the room’s focal point - the sculpture of Aphrodite, with a dolphin at her feet pouring water over the pool, no small detail goes unnoticed.
Since 1950 the property has become the official residence of the UK Embassy in Havana and a visit here will show you the exquisiteness of its interiors (I don’t know about the pool though, and whether visitors are able to get a glimpse of it, but it’s definitely worth a try).