To my surprise and delight, I’ve recently learnt how an iconic landmark in the most centric location of Old Havana will finally be rescued from oblivion and turned into a luxurious new boutique hotel. The rapidly aging and withering away "Manzana de Gomez" building is currently undergoing an intensive refurbishment process that will see its rebirth as a new ultra-deluxe boutique property to be managed by Kempinksi.
This is great news, not only because the city will be increasing its capacity to accommodate tourists (which is limited as the island grows and grows in popularity among worldwide travellers) but because one of the largest, most iconic buildings in Old Havana’s downtown area will receive a decades’ overdue makeover.
The faded glory of Manzana de Gomez does not go unnoticed. The building may look lacklustre now, with worn paint crumbling to bits, boarded up windows with their glass shattered and rather shabby interiors, but back in its heyday it was worthy of admiration, not least of all because it was the city’s first ever shopping centre (or mall as it was built in the American style of the times).
Occupying an entire block and surrounded by iconic buildings, on each side of its eclectic facade this impressive building faces different landmarks of the city; the Parque Central on one side, the Hotel Plaza on the other, the Plaza San Rafael and the Museo of Bellas Artes on the third side and Monserrate street on the fourth; where you will also find the famous Floridita bar just a few steps away (in fact you’ll spot it right from Manzana de Gomez, if you look towards the right corner.
Read on to find out more about the history of this centenarian building from its rocky starts up until today and how it will change in the future after restoration works come to a halt.
Manzana de Gomez and its background
Although the building as we know it today dates back to the 20th century, its actual beginnings go as far back as the end of the 19th century, when back in 1890 construction works began on the site. At the time, work began under the orders of the powerful businessman, Julian de Zulueta (after which one of the streets facing the hotel is named), a Spaniard from the Vasque region that amassed great wealth thanks to the slave trade. He was the one to first purchase the land on which the Manzana de Gomez building now stands.
But as luck would have it, shortly after construction works kicked off, upon conducting the first excavations they found a series of springs that changed the whole project and transformed its design and budget entirely, which meant that in the end it was costing too much, leaving Zulueta bankrupt and the project abandoned. With works discontinued, for many years after, the site was known as “Zulueta’s Ruins” and for quite a while no one volunteered to pick up the pieces.
It wasn’t until a few years after Zulueta’s failure that the ruins were picked up again, when sometime around 1894; the unfinished project was sold to Andres Gomez Mena. It was Mr Gomez Mena who actually made the building what it is today and as such “Manzana de Gomez” is rightly named after him. With “manzana” translating into Spanish as "apple" (in its most literal sense) but also used as a colloquial term to describe “block” or “square”, Manzana de Gomez, was a name that came fittingly, as the building occupies an entire block and was home to so many different businesses over time, that a generic name with the surname of its developer and creator described it best.
It was Mr Gomez Mena himself that commanded and oversaw the construction of the first floor which ended up becoming a one-story commercial building. This first finished part of the building offered spaces for recreation, amusement and shopping. It joined dozens of new buildings, theatres, hotels, cinemas and circuses that arrived with the turn of the new century.
Soon after, in 1909, construction began to add two theatres on top of the first floor; “El Politeama Pequeno” and “Politeama Grande”, inaugurated between 1909 and 1910. The Ploliteama Grande offered capacity for up to 1500 spectators while the Politeama Pequeno could hold up to 1200 people. It was on the latter that in 1913 the firs ever silent film to be filmed on the island was screened.
And it was on the Politeama Grande that the then famous Cuban singer, guitarist and composer, Maria Teresea Vera performed for the first time when she was only fifteen years old, and if you’re surprised by the young age of this artist you’ll be amazed to learn that this theatre’s orchestra was directed by a young musician that was only 16 at the time: the great Eliseo Grenet!
Evolution, downfall and final completion
Between 1910 and 1917 the building kept on growing taller at a rather slow rate, seemingly in no rush to ever be finished and with no one knowing exactly where it would stop. New additions included a skating rink, a shooting range and other entertainment attractions, a restaurant and some kiosks. This is how Cuba’s first ever mall or shopping centre was born.
The first shop to open on the edge of San Rafael street was a shoe store called La Exposicion, another one quickly followed on Zulueta street, called “El Lazo de Oro” and right next to it another shop called “El Escandalo” soon flourished. While on the heights of the building you could enjoy refined entertainment, listen to Spanish zarzuelas or watch a cinema projection, the ground floor was busy with the rush of shoppers who excitedly browsed the latest arrivals from fashionable cities like London, Paris and Rome.
Quite sadly, after some time, business deteriorated and some of the steel structure was demolished, as were the interiors, keeping only the exterior façade and the theatre’s main staircase. Instead, expansion was planned upwards, with new floors planned to give space for new offices and bank branches.
Between 1916 and 1918, Mr Gomez Mena added four more stories above the originals ground floor and eight lifts were installed, two on each street. Beautiful interior corridors that crossed and divided the building diagonally were fringed by colonnades that were inspired on the arches of the Segundo Cabo Palace (Palacio del Segundo Cabo – you can find it just a few steps from Manzana de Gomez, in Old Havana’s historic centre, close to Plaza de Armas in O’Reilly street, between Avenida del Puerto and Tacon).
Each floor was divided into 560 cubicles which were destined to become offices, although they also served as space for whole firm branches such as “Pittman” on the second floor and “Gregg” on the fifth. It was in one of those cubicles that the Iberoamerican Institution of Culture was based, presided by the illustrious Don Fernando Ortiz, a.k.a "Cuba’s third discoverer", after Cristopher Columbus and Alejandro de Humboldt. This Cuban anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, essayist and scholar of Afro-Cuban culture was a prolific cultural figure dedicated to studying, understanding and exploring all aspects of indigenous Cuban culture and at his office in Manzana de Gomez many consulates and cultural celebrities of the time stopped to pay a visit.
The building also hosted many lawyer firms as well as the headquarters of Show magazine, which published the latest news about show business in the island.
The Manzana de Gomez of today
As beautiful as ever, yet with a somewhat decaying beauty, on its last few years and months before being closed down to the public for extensive repairs and renovations, the Manzana de Gomez still glimmered with a titillating light of faded splendour. Yes, the facade looked dirty, the paint was barely there, windows were broken, boards put up here and there, and yes, a certain air of sheer abandonment may have brought a nostalgic tear to the eye, but still many of its grand features could be admired.
After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in the late 50s, the building kept its lower ground level as a space for shops and commercial outlets, while other floors were used as the base for different government organisations, schools and editorial offices. The passage of time and the neglect clearly left their mark and Manzana de Gomez was in desperate need of rescue, with most of the building in serious structural damage.
I don’t know how much it will change after the restoration works to convert this fine piece of architecture into a new and exciting boutique hotel are completed, but if you were able to access it today (you won’t because of the building works currently taking place) you would still see the original emblem (or logo) throughout the building, all over the granite floors. A motif with a ‘G’ intertwined with an ‘M’, to represent Gomez Mena’s two surnames graces the entrance halls, and one can only wonder, do these initials really represent the man behind the building’s construction, or do they stand for “Manzana de Gomez”? I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Coming soon in 2016 – Hotel Manzana de Gomez
The new proposal by Habaguanex, the firm behind the restoration of Havana’s crumbling historical buildings, as part of the Office of the Historian of the City, is to convert the iconic Manzana de Gomez into a new deluxe boutique property offering refined accommodation to tourists staying in the heart of Old Havana
According to official sources, Habanaguanex has teamed up with government-owned hotel chain, Gaviota S.A. to turn this early 20th century marvel into a sophisticated 246-room luxury hotel.
But the firm actually managing and operating the property once it’s ready to welcome guests, will be luxury Swiss hotel chain, Kempinksi, which will be making its debut in the island with their first ever property to be located in the capital. This is a significant move for the company not only because they will enter the Cuban tourism market but actually this will become their first ever property in the whole western hemisphere. This prestigious Geneva-based company boasts deluxe properties in the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe, China and Africa.
According to reports the new hotel will be ready to receive guests by 2016 and will include a long list of first class facilities. The full list includes: lobby, lounge bar, cigar bar and library, jazz bar, cocktail bar, two theme restaurants, one panoramic restaurant, panoramic rooftop swimming pool, spa, meeting rooms, business centre, shopping centre, boutiques, tourism bureau, car rental service, money exchange, art gallery and Habanos cigar store.
Structure-wise, the plan is to respect the original infrastructure and original features. Renovation works are being carried out with special care to preserve the core soul of the building. The main aspects of the restoration works are: the faithful refurbishment of the exterior, the restitution of the original shopping centre, which will be designed according to the building’s original architecture and lastly, the creation of a new patio, a place flooded in light where past and present can harmoniously coexist.
Remaining true to the building’s original purpose and soul, they plan to keep the lower ground floor as commercial space for shops, galleries and various stores.
All four fronts of the building will be restored using original materials and following the original design as it was when construction was finished in 1917. So, by converting this amazing gem, we’ll not only be rescuing a grand building from oblivion and destruction but we’ll also be getting back a piece of history in its original form, a century after its first inauguration...I simply can’t wait!