Architectural Treasure in Havana’s Vedado Neighborhood

By Maya Quiroga

The fascade of the British embassy residence in Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — There is a very special house in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. According to what renowned historian and visual arts researcher Lillian Llanes says, it is the first mansion in Havana which we have bibliographical evidence about that has an indoor pool.

The inauguration of the covered pool made headlines in the Cuban press during the 1920s. Photos of the swimming pool were published in Social magazine. In his book “Great Houses of Havana”, researcher Hermes Mallea tells us that back then it was called the “Mendoza Roman Baths”.

At this point, you might be asking who the owner of this mansion in Havana was. Well, the first owner of this house, which was inaugurated on October 5th 1917, was the rich banker Pablo Gonzalez de Mendoza.

Gonzalez de Mendoza’s house was a project by the well-renowned architect Leonardo Morales y Pedroso (1887-1965), who studied at Columbia University in 1909 and founded the Morales & Mata firm, with Jose F. Mata, a year later. The firm Morales and Company was created in 1917 too.

Testimony to the Mendoza family’s wealth, this property was built on Paseo Avenue, one of the city’s main avenues. Nevertheless, its main entrance is located on 15th street. The house coherently falls within Vedado’s architecture of the first 25 years of the 20th century.

A garden with sculptures and a round fountain isolate it from the hubbub outside. This same strategy is used in a similar fashion at the back of the house in order to separate it from neighboring buildings. The back of the garden is more intimate and even more abundant in furniture, with benches and statues, a group of sculptures known as “The Kiss” particularly stand out right at the back.

A small rectangular pond which could be found in the middle of this area was taken out, just as other sculptures were which originally used to stand on adjacent terraces and in the mansion’s hall.

Inside the property, a marble semicircular staircase stands out which is illuminated by a leaded glass window. Instead of a big entrance hall, there are two smaller connecting rooms and terraces.

The ground floor also has a dining room and a service area. Meanwhile, on the top floor, there are six bedrooms, four bathrooms, a pantry and a living room, all of which are connected by a gallery, terraces and balconies.

According to architect Juan Garcia Prieto, the property has another floor which, along with the combination of flat ceilings with other more sloped ceilings, give it a certain informality contrasting with its monumental size.

The pool today. Photo: Maya Quiroga

The swimming pool made news headlines

In 1918, a Roman indoor swimming pool was added to the house. In order to build it, Morales worked with New York architect John H. Duncan who designed a rectangular room with a swimming pool in the middle, a sculpture, three French doors which you could see the garden’s greenery through and a ceiling covered in beautiful wood with a light hanging down off it.

The covered pool is unique in its design as it links the image of an impluvium in old Roman homes with the way of building wooden ceilings in colonial architecture.

The house today

The property has been home to the British embassy since the 1950s. Its residents have always been very concerned about preserving the mansion’s architectural value, especially the delicate plasterwork on its ceilings, which were restored with real art by experts from Havana’s City Historian’s Office.

The restoration work by the office of Eusebio Leal Spengler, the City’s Historian with his Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos School/Workshop, are features that are worth admiring because of the way they have been conserved, such as the bronze filagrees in the main entrance, the house’s furniture, the original sculptures or art copies.

Over the past few decades, many socio-cultural activities have been held at the British residence, especially in its gardens and the swimming pool, attended by nationally and internationally-renowned artists.

On the mansion’s 100th anniversary last year, the documentary Cien anos de una casa, by filmmakers Boris Ivan Crespo and Roberto Chile, was screened and attended by famous architects, historians and researchers from Cuba and the US. During the soiree, the current British ambassador to Cuba, Antony Stokes, promised to hold a new party in 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of the indoor pool’s inauguration.

  • bjmack

    Beautiful building and thank you for these photos.

  • Nick

    Just to clarify:
    This is not the British Embassy.
    It is the Queen’s official Havana Residence. It is where her representative in Cuba (The British Ambassador) resides.
    I attended a previous Ambassador’s leaving party there once. He and his family were very sorry to be leaving Cuba.
    It is wonderful historic house.

    • Moses Patterson

      I have been to this residence and it is indeed very beautiful as are many embassies and homes to foreign diplomats. One of my Cuban friends once lamented the irony of the fact that so many foreigners living in Cuba live in such beautiful homes that once belonged to Cubans.

      • Nick

        Not an issue specific to Cuba Mr P.
        One can lament as much as one likes…..
        It is far more of an issue in London that homes once owned by Londoners are now owned by wealthy foreigners…..
        This is much more of an issue in certain parts of the world than it is in Havana.
        As always:
        If you’re saying that Cuba is imperfect then I 100% agree…..
        But the rest of the world is f**ked up too.
        Just in different ways that’s all.

        • Moses Patterson

          Nick, here’s the difference: while it is quite true that many wealthy foreigners living in London live far above the means of the average Londoner, there are far more native Londoners living even better than their foreign counterparts. There are NO CUBANS living in Havana who live better than the ambassadorial class….not counting, of course, those whose last name is Castro.

          • Nick

            I take your point and would say it has some validity.
            However a small percentage of Habaneros are now beginning to achieve a significant level of prosperity due to their business acumen.
            I don’t wish to engage in a big disagreement on a relatively small point and I feel sure you don’t either……
            But I would suggest that some Cubans living in Havana have more spending power than certain of the ‘ambassadorial’ class.
            One example would actually be the ‘globally successful musician’ class ??
            Some of the Cuba’s uppermost resident exponents have some serious dollar tucked away.
            But then you know what they say about heaven, camels and eyes of needles!!