By Maya Quiroga
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 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.