Friday, May 31, 2013

Rebuilding Old Havana

Nick Dettorre
Reporting from Havana

It is believed Christopher Columbus once described Havana as the, “loveliest land ever beheld by human eyes.” Today, much of the old city is in ruins. Years of neglect and unfortunate weather have reduced many of the buildings in the heart of Havana to rubble. In some cases, facades stand as an empty reminder to 16th and 17th century (or colonial) architecture that once stood proud along cobblestone streets.

A building in a densely populated Havana neighborhood, reduced to rubble on the street. More than two-million people live in Cuba’s capital city, many in buildings that may end up one day like this one.

However, there is some truth in Columbus’ words. Parts of the city are under renovation, and the students tasked with the job are using many of the same techniques that built the city Columbus encountered more than 500 years ago.

Plaza Vieja, once home to some of Havana’s wealthiest residents. The square has been part of a collaborative restoration project between the Gaspar Melhor de Jobellanos Workshop School and the City Historical Manager. A construction crane is in the distance where another restoration project is underway.

In 1992, the Gaspar Melhor de Jobellanos Workshop School (or La Escuela de Restauración) was established. Working in collaboration with the City Historian Office, the school offers students wood and metal shops, a masonry studio and teaches classes in mural painting and plastering. There is also a workshop for students to learn stained glass techniques utilizing wood frames instead of metal, which are more commonly used today.

Students from the Gaspar Melhor de Jobellanos Workshop School employ many of the same techniques that were used centuries ago to build some of the buildings they restore, including the stain-glass windows in this Plaza Vieja building. 
About a thousand students have attended the two-year program, and more than 150 buildings have benefited from their work.

Out with the old, in with the new? Not entirely. Students from the Gaspar Melhor de Jobellanos Workshop School use as much of the existing structure as possible in their renovations, however, when needed, new materials are used. Here, new lumber is brought in to support the second story of a building. This particular shade of blue paint dates back to at least the 17th century.
While the students repair the Old Havana’s crumbling buildings, government workers have the job of updating its plumbing and electrical systems, a modernization project long overdue since Fidel Castro took office in the late 1950s.

Streets of Plaza Vieja. On the left, a restored block leads to the square while providing a glimpse into Old Havana's past. Pictured on the right, new piping and electrical wires are buried under what will soon be a new cobblestone street.

The buildings and squares that have been finished are stunning, and are now vibrant gathering spots filled with cafes, restaurants, and upscale shopping boutiques. Several of these buildings proudly display before and after pictures, allowing visitors to see the progress.

The undated photo to the top left shows the condition of Colegio Santo Angel, a colonial house in Plazo Vieja. The building collapsed in 1993. The other pictures show the building after its restoration was complete. It now is home to El Santo Angel restaurant as well as upscale apartments.

The restoration project has brought new life to Old Havana, but in doing so, it begs the question – will it expand to the city's more densely populated neighborhoods or will future projects continue to cater to commercial districts and the tourists that occupy them?

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