Hotel Habana Libre, Architecture & Builders
Hotel Habana Libre, the most symbolic hotel in Havana City was named originally Hotel Habana Hilton in 1958. It was the biggest and, at first sight, the most attractive in the American Hilton Hotels group.
After the Batista downfall, Fidel Castro chose the Hotel Habana Hilton like the new revolutionary government's central headquarters in a temporary way, renaming it then as Hotel Habana Libre.
The Havana Libre, designed by Welton Beckett & Associates in the late 1950's with the Cuban firm of Arroyo y Menendez, remains at the spiritual heart of much of the action in present day Havana. Its location on a hillside at the boundary of central Havana and the Vedado district guarantees physical prominence and high visibility from nearly all of Western Havana.
This 630-room, 27-story slab tower has a surprisingly minimal impact on its immediate context despite being one of the city's largest built projects. Urbanistically it is highly successful at the neighborhood scale. Its designers were clearly cognizant of the surrounding context with its conflicting urban design scales.
The presence of the late 19th and early 20th century three-story buildings surrounding the site demanded a sympathetic low-rise architectural response, but the program demanded a high-rise solution.
To further complicate the matter, the Havana Libre sits astride La Rampa, the major street of mid-20th century Havana. La Rampa is a wide, sloping boulevard that was once the action center of the casino gambling and prostitution-filled days of the 1940's and 1950's. It appears that the designers of the Havana Hilton were well a war e of their challenge.
The result is a building complex that works surprisingly well at the level of urban design. The building occupies a full city block and is three stories taller at one end due to its sloping site.
The architects chose to place the structure on a wide plinth to provide a level platform-an organizing datum line-on which to build their tower and to place shops at the street level below the plinth, thus providing a nearly continuous retail space at the base below the entry level to the hotel.
The car exit is the built continuation of La Rampa onto the site-a brilliant urban design maneuver that intelligently connects the building with its pedestrian and vehicular surroundings.
By setting the tower back and above the plinth, the architects were able to provide a dramatic series of cantilevered roof structures at the two and three story level that align with the two and three story parapets of the neighboring structures across the street from the main entry.
In fact, on this level, as well as at the level of the surrounding streets, one is hardly aware of the 27-story tower that is set back at another upper level far behind the actual entrance from the porte-cochere. In this regard, the Havana Hilton provides a valuable lesson for the future large scale architectural interventions in Havana.
At the beginning the works, 5000 workers were chosen to carry out this important project. This labor staff was controlled by the Cuban Catering Workers' Union and its president; for the North American side, Frederick Snare Corporation was in charge.
The first step to execute was the land movement. To do this, in 1955 the block among the L, 23, 25 and M streets was closed with the most luxurious fence in Havana, according to the expression of the Diario de la Marina newspaper’s columnist.
The constructive stage accelerated the labor fight for improvements and demands, for this reason, with the purpose of calm them down, the management signed a series of work agreements by means of which the workers achieved some scanty improvements.
The press of the time put itself to the service of Hilton Hotels Group for the opening of the Cuban jewel. The inauguration was preceded by a propagandistic show through the national and international media.
El Crisol newspaper of March 19 1958: Hilton will be inaugurated March 19. New York, UP: Conrado N. Hilton, President of Hilton International Hotels Group announced yesterday that next March 19 the new and luxurious Hotel Habana Hilton will be inaugurated, in the Cuban capital. The new hotel built at a cost of twenty four million dollars has thirty floors, 630 rooms; one can affirm that it is the highest building in Latin America.