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Portrait of María Luisa Gómez-Mena, by Mario Carreño

Everyone has a dream of Cuba–the images of art, architecture, and glamorous lifestyle have been part of the collective consciousness for decades. Without western brands everywhere and filled with classic cars and art, the character of Havana is a unique tapestry of influences. After last week’s blog about traveling to Cuba, I started to think about the interaction of art, architecture and lifestyles. The houses reflect the colorful people that built and lived in them. The character of some of these homes continues to tell their story long after the original inhabitants are gone–imprinting their tastes and influences onto the city.

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French Parisian influences came together at the countess María Luisa Gómez-Mena’s home. The house was built in the mid-twenties by a sugar baron with his first wife, but bloosomed as the residence by the countess and talented hostess María Luisa Gómez-Mena. She entertained a steady stream of renowned international visitors and cared deeply about art, starting one of the first galleries in Havana.

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Palacio de la Condesa de Revilla de Camargo

Today the house is Havana’s Museum of Decorative Arts, its impressive entry welcoming visitors. The limestone house sits behind an imposing iron fence and was designed by French architects P. Viard and M. Destuges.

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Another house with a storied resident was the home of Catalina Lasa & Juan de Pedro Baró. Catalina had the reputation of being the most beautiful woman in all of Cuba, and even had a rose named after her. She was married to Pedro Estevez Abreu when she met the wealthy sugar baron Baró and they fell madly in love, fleeing to Paris together. At the time there were no divorce laws in Cuba, so they remained in Paris until the law changed and they could return in the 1920’s.

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The house was designed by Evelio Govantes & Felix Cabarrocas–society architects of the day. It was a reflection of their personalities and influences, with passionate Deco-inspired interiors and much of the house in pink–said to be Catalina’s favorite color.

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Said to be the most beautiful house in Havana, their happiness was short-lived as Catalina fell ill & passed away. Baró was devastated and commissioned the French glass artist Rene Lalique to design a deco tomb for her, which he visited daily.

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Mausoleum designed by Rene Jules Lalique

Lalique was an amazing glass and jewelry designer. His work is imaginatively reflected in the design of the tomb, albeit at a different scale.

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Eventually, Baró could not live in the house without Carlita and returned to Europe. The house is now called La Casa de la Amistad and receives visitors from all over the world.

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Oreste Ferrara fought for Cuba’s independence. He was also an attorney, a journalist, writer & entrepreneur who founded the newspaper La Habana

Another home by the same architects but with different influences, is the Tuscan fortress in Havana that now houses the Napoleonic Museum. The Italian born Oreste Ferrara went to Cuba to fight for the resistance. Once know as La Dolce Dimora, the house now contains one of the most important Napoleon collection in the Western hemisphere.

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The mystique of place in Havana originally came from the individual ideas and collaborations of people who made it their home. From many cultures and countries, the sum of these different parts creates Havana’s unique style–a style that has inspired people for generations–and likely will continue to inspire for generations to come.