Havana and Savannah have a lot in common. Beautiful historic cities, settled by Europeans centuries ago, built on the backs of slaves in plantation economies, great seaports, and world class destinations for tourism. In fact, Savannah was part of the Archdiocese of Havana until it became independent in 1853, when we got our first bishop, and built a beautiful cathedral in Spanish Gothic style. It is fair to say that General Oglethorpe founded Savannah in both response and opposition to the influence of Havana and the Spanish missions in Florida.
Something happened in 1959 that separated our cities even more. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government and severed relations with the United States. I remember as a child being told that Cuba had let the Soviet Russians aim nuclear missiles at us, and how close we came to Armageddon as a consequence. I also remember how John Kennedy, our young and glamorous president, was gunned down by a man who had been to Cuba. It was the end of innocence in many ways.
Recently, after over 50 years of embargo and isolation, Pope Francis persuaded President Obama to begin re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba for humanitarian reasons. Although Canadians and Europeans never stopped going to Cuba, Americans have been limited to travel there except for educational and philanthropic reasons. Soon we will be free to travel to Cuba again. The Castro communist government will decide how to restrict or regulate this travel, but seems hungry for the hard currency that we might bring.
I have been fascinated with the prospect of visiting historic Havana for a long time. It looks frozen in time, from the photos I’ve seen, with automobiles from 1959 still on the streets, and an endless inventory of Spanish Empire and Art Deco style buildings that haven’t been destroyed or perverted. Castro is still alive, and the spirit of communism in Cuba is agrarian, not urban, so her cities were not “renewed” like ours, or converted to brutalist apartment enclaves like Eastern Europe. No Nike, Disney, Apple or Walmart either. In a way, it is like a living, breathing time capsule, waiting to be opened.
Add to this intriguing puzzle box a sizzling climate and a sultry Latin culture. Smoke and sea breezes, rum and sweet plantains, spicy food and hot jazz. Get it?
I think that the work that Gunn Meyerhoff Shay has done in Savannah over that same 50 years–restoration, renovation, rehabilitation and transformation of historic urban places–might be real handy in Havana. Getting there before Nike, Disney, Apple and Walmart figure out how to franchise it would be good, too. With our portfolio of hotels, restaurants, and urban housing, designed to be compatible with historic city fabric, maybe we could help them find their badly needed hard currency without losing their world-class city in the process…
Patrick Shay, LEED AP, AIA
President, Gunn Meyerhoff Shay Architects, PC