By Carleton VarneySpecial to the Daily News
Editor’s note: Carleton Varney recently explored parts of Cuba on a “cultural exchange” trip, accompanying students and faculty from Oberlin College, his Ohio alma mater. He’ll be writing over the next few weeks about what he saw there.
Havana’s Hotel Nacional de Cuba — overlooking the Malecon Avenue and the sea — remains a stately lady, enjoying a rich history that for many years made it a glamorous meeting place, dining destination and guest house for the literati and glitterati of the world in the pre-revolution era.
The hotel opened in 1930, designed to serve as the social center of the country. Today it still boasts a magnificent lobby with raftered-and-chandeliered ceiling, marble details everywhere, including picturesque columns and the Winston Churchill Smoking Bar Room Lounge. After all, Sir Winston did occupy the Republica Suite in the hotel and was even believed to have painted there!
Movie stars Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Bob Hope comprised only a handful of those who crossed the waters — just 90 miles — to Cuba, and then headed to the Nacional.
Perhaps the most elegant hotel and interesting hotel in the Caribbean basin, The Nacional was designed by the famous American firm McKim, Mead & White and constructed in some 14 months, a feat that today would be considered a miracle. The hotel’s design mixes Art Deco, Arabic and Hispano-Moorish architecture with neoclassical and neo-Colonial elements. There are even elements of the California Mission style in the overall design.
The hotel sits in the center of the city and has commanding views from 426 rooms scattered over eight floors. The rate today for a standard room is $129. For a Royal Suite Room, figure $1,000 a night.
The hotel has a superb swimming pool but no beach access. The Spanish government in the late 1920s prohibited any paths crossing over to the sea side. The promontory on which the hotel stands was known as Loma de Taganana, and a famous cave lies beneath the hotel’s foundation.
Mafia met here
The hotel was the venue for a mafia gathering in 1946, when the doors were closed to the public while accommodating the Cosa Nostra families. In 1956, the late Eartha Kitt inaugurated the hotel’s Cabaret Room.
Several of the rooms in the hotel have been zealously conserved and declared historic, including those occupied by Pablo Casals, Errol Flynn, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper and those of the Mafia bosses. The signature rooms have many photographs of the personalities in their particular rooms.
I was reminded on my visit how incorporating memorabilia is often important when decorating a particular environment. At the Grand Hotel on Upper Michigan’s Mackinac Island, I have often designed rooms to represent the style and times of a personality, including several honoring the country’s first ladies.
In the same way, a Lincoln bedroom, style-wise, would never be furnished in the style of South Beach, nor would a suite once occupied by the dance-actress Ginger Rogers be anything but feminine and colorful.
Rooms for each and every one of us need to reflect our individuality, whether we favor silks and satins, leather and deer trophies — or even Cuban tile floors and wood-beamed ceilings.
Similar to Breakers
The Nacional, by the way, has a U.S. cousin, architecturally at least. The front of the hotel recalls the look of The Breakers in Palm Beach, which was designed by Schultze & Weaver with inspiration drawn from the palaces of the Italian Renaissance. In any case, I know Palm Beachers especially would appreciate the stately details of the Nacional’s interior — the wood details, chandeliers, marble appointments, tilework, balustrades and other details not often found in the architecture of today.