Chunks of this city’s rich and eclectic architectural history tumble to the ground every few days, piece by piece, forever lost in the rubble.

Neo-Baroque and Art Deco treasures deteriorate at an alarming rate. Every three days, there are two partial or total building collapses in Central Havana alone, according to architectural experts. No official figures are available.

“Buildings are standing by sheer luck,” said architect Jose Antonio Choy, president of a Cuban nonprofit organization devoted to the conservation of Havana’s modern architecture.

In September, after Hurricane Ike’s lethal 41-hour odyssey across much of the island, authorities reported 67 buildings collapsed in the densely populated capital — 60 partially, seven destroyed.

Experts say a combination of age, decay, neglect and the elements threatens important 19th century neoclassical villas and Spanish colonial mansions, along with some of the world’s finest examples of 20th-century architecture — Art Deco palaces from the 1930s and modernist structures from the 1950s.

The once luxurious lobby of Havana’s first high-rise, the Lopez Serrano building, bears the signs of decades of disrepair. So does the sadly weathered 1913 Art Nouveau home of Damaso Gutierrez and the crumbling palatial sugar baron’s home where the motion picture Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed.

“Many buildings will be totally lost in 10 years,” said Orestes del Castillo, a retired architect and restoration expert with the office of the city historian.

Centuries-old colonial buildings and picturesque squares in Old Havana have been restored since UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, designated it a world heritage site in 1982. Examples include the acclaimed restorations of the Church and Convent of San Francisco de Asis, constructed in 1738, and the elegant colonial-era buildings surrounding the Plaza Vieja.

The city historian’s office paid for the restorations. It has an exclusive agreement with the state that allows it to run and split the proceeds from hotels, restaurants, shops, rental properties and travel-related agencies in Old Havana. Those businesses earn about $60 million annually, with as much a half of the earnings invested in restoration, according to architecture experts.

Similar financing schemes don’t exist for historic neighborhoods such as Central Havana, Vedado and El Cerro. The communist state has been a reluctant supporter of capitalist ventures. The result: the city’s vast architectural repository is crumbling.

“These jewels are disappearing,” said Nicolas Quintana, a Cuban-born professor of architecture at Florida International University. “Time is the biggest enemy.”

Quintana, who was considered one of Cuba’s renowned architects when he left in 1960, said the neglect of modern architecture was politically motivated. “It represents the work of the republic, and Fidel would prefer to see it totally eliminated,” he said, referring to ailing former President Fidel Castro.

Other architecture experts said just the opposite is true: A half century of communist rule saved the capital’s stunning architecture from developers, even though a lack of money for repairs has taken a toll.

“Frankly, neither the state nor the people have the money for repairs,” said leading Cuban architect Mario Coyula, who fears many buildings are damaged beyond repair. “The average Cuban doesn’t have the funds.”

Choy and others say funding strategies such as the one used to save Old Havana could be employed to carefully restore other historic districts.

“We know the country has economic problems … but something has to be done,” Choy said. “Cuba as a nation is losing an important part of its memory.”

Choy said Central Havana, home to some of the city’s most important Art Deco buildings, is especially vulnerable. It is Cuba’s most densely populated district, with more than 160,000 people living in 1.3 square miles. Its buildings, including many dating to the 1920s and 1930s, are crumbling and overcrowded.

In Vedado, Isabel Riveron dug out an official document that said that the historic 19th-century house where she has lived for decades is a national monument with the highest protection status. That doesn’t really mean anything: The state doesn’t help with repairs or control changes to the property.

A marble sculpture of Venus was uprooted from the sprawling gardens by a former resident and sold during the economic difficulties of the 1990s, Riveron said. The wrought-iron gates around the house that once belonged to the family of renowned Cuban poet Dulce Maria Loynaz came down long ago. The once-bright garden is a burial ground for local pets, a neighborhood dump and a depository for animals sacrificed in Santeria rituals, she said. A roof collapse made one of three rooms Riveron shares with her son uninhabitable.

“There is no respect for history,” lamented Riveron, who said she doesn’t have the money for even routine repairs. “This house should be treated like a child.”

Ray Sanchez
Sun Sentinel
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