Hemingway’s Finca Vigia restored in partnership of Cuban, U.S. preservationists

October 14, 2011

When Ernest Hemingway departed Cuba for Spain on July 25, 1960, he thought he’d be coming back.

He was wrong. Less than a year later, on July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho, he leveled the barrels of his beloved W. & C. Scott & Son Monte Carlo B shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.

On the Caribbean island he left behind were his boat, his car and his house — a stuccoed, one-story affair that had been his base of operations for more than two decades.

Now, thanks to an unprecedented partnership between Cuban and American preservationists, his house, called Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), has been restored and photographed for a new book on the island’s little-publicized elegant architecture. Although most visitors, both foreign and domestic, are denied access to the house’s light and airy interiors, author Michael Connors and photographer Brent Winebrenner were granted carte blanche for “The Splendor of Cuba: 450 Years of Architecture and Interiors” (Rizzoli, 2011).

“We shot last year after the restoration of the house,” Connors says. “We’ve been the only ones allowed to step in the house and actually move the furniture, to style it for the lighting. Others have to shoot from the windows and doors.”

The late 19th-century Cuban vernacular house, surrounded by verandas, patios, walkways, tennis courts, guest house, pool and tower, was discovered in 1939 by Hemingway’s third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn.

“She was strategic,” says Mary-Jo Adams, executive director of the Finca Vigia Foundation, a small U.S. nonprofit organization that takes its name from the house. “She suggested he buy it because she wanted to get him out of the temptations of downtown Havana.”

He would live there for the next 22 years, his longest stretch in a single place. Inside, he left behind his clothes, his china, his papers and 9,000 of his books, 20 percent with writing in the margins. “He was a pack rat,” Adams says.

Today, through the concerted efforts of the foundation, along with the Cuban government’s Office of Cultural Patrimony and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a restored and pristine Finca Vigia looks as though the boyishly grinning, Nobel Prize-winning author might pop in at any minute, fishing rod in hand, back from a week-long cruise on the Pilar.

On his desk are period magazines, letter openers, pens and pencils. Nothing has been removed, and nothing added. No curator has stepped in for an interpretation. What’s there represents exactly the way he lived. The original bottles of liquor stand atop his living room bar, their labels cracking and peeling.

“It struck me as something you don’t see anywhere,” Connors says. “It’s preserving the exact history of the owner of the house. You walk in the library and see the paperbacks and the hardbacks of what he read.”

Much of the house’s historical accuracy can be credited to the efforts and recollections of Hemingway’s former majordomo, a native Cuban named Rene Villerreal, now living in New Jersey. For 20 years, Villerreal says, he loved Hemingway like a father and respected him as a friend and employer, even writing his own book, “Hemingway’s Cuban Son” (Kent State University Press, 2009). He knows Finca Vigia as if it were his own.

“Papa used to hide manuscripts in a valise on the top shelf of the closet in the study. The manuscripts were first wrapped in brown paper, then a towel and then stuffed in a valise. It was a way to assure that little humidity would get to them,” Villerreal said in a recent e-mail, interpreted by his son. “Hemingway also hid letters he received from his friend Marlene Dietrich and other women behind the bookcases in his workroom.” The others included Adriana Ivancich, a 19-year-old Venetian beauty who visited Finca Vigia in 1950, and who served as inspiration for Renata, the female protagonist in “Across the River and Into the Trees.”

A year after the author’s death, Villerreal gave a tour of the house to Fidel Castro, who would turn it into a museum and hire him as its director. From 1962 to 1964, Villerreal restored the house, which had been occupied by Cuban soldiers after Hemingway left. In 1968, he resigned, deciding to leave Cuba. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of its financial support, the Cubans maintained the museum, although water damage did begin to take its toll inside.

The story of the house’s recent rebirth is something of an unlikely miracle — a celebration of a shared icon that the people of two nations can claim as their own. It begins with Max Perkins, Hemingway’s editor at Scribner’s in New York — or more specifically, Perkins’s granddaughter, Jenny Phillips.

She was touring Cuba on a cultural trip in 2001 when she decided on a whim to visit Finca Vigia, thinking some of her grandfather’s papers might be there.

“We went out, and I introduced myself to one of the guards, who got very excited,” Phillips says. “He said: ‘Come back tomorrow, and you can go inside.’ ”

She returned, only to be denied access to the basement where most of Hemingway’s documents were stored. The refusal spurred her to action.

“It became a mystery and an energizer,” she says.

Back in the States, her husband, a political reporter for the Boston Globe, touched base with the John F. Kennedy Library in Cambridge, Mass., which houses Hemingway’s papers. “Someone there told him that the basement was full of things they’d been trying to see forever, but the Cubans wouldn’t let them,” she says. “Scholars had been trying on their own, too.”

He also contacted Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who, because of his favorable relations with the Cuban government, got the ball rolling on the preservation of the documents and books inside. McGovern “wanted to see the cultural legacy preserved and said it could be done by collaborating with the Cubans,” she said.

In March 2002, Phillips was back in Havana, signing an accord with the Office of Cultural Patrimony. By 2008, three sets of 3,000 of documents were digitized and microfilmed — one for the Kennedy Library, one for a Chicago vault for safekeeping and one for Finca Vigia. The originals never left the house, which was suffering from a leaking roof, with rampant mold and fungus.

“We were going to preserve the documents — preserve them like Twain’s or Faulkner’s,” Adams says. “But the house had moisture, and no temperature or humidity control.”

In 2005, the National Trust had listed Finca Vigia as an endangered site, with no objections from the Cuban government; that same year, the World Monuments Fund listed it as one of its 100 most endangered sites. When the Bush administration was slow to grant a license for the foundation to move forward in Cuba, Richard Moe, then president of the National Trust, called Phillips to say he wanted to get involved.

Once it was licensed, Cambridge-based architect Lee Cott and the National Trust’s chief architect, William Dupont, pulled together preservation architects, structural engineers and landscape architects to go to Havana to act as consultants on the house’s restoration. In Cuba, they were met by a corresponding number of counterparts.

“The Cuban architects did drawings, and we gave technical commentary,” says Dupont, now director of the Center for Cultural Sustainability at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“We used an overlay of yellow paper with notes on top of their drawings. When we were there, we were working together.”

The roof was replaced and windows reconstructed. The stucco was re-plastered. Termite-ridden wood was re-framed. The Cuban government funded all of the restoration, while Phillips’s foundation raised money to send the teams. Never before in Castro’s Cuba have U.S. architects been sanctioned to practice.

“They have their fingers on the pulse of the interpolitical — the political structure working in concert with Cuban conservators,” says author Paul Hendrickson, whose book “Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961” (Knopf, 2011) was published last month. “They have heroically gone about the business of getting Finca Vigia restored and getting the boat restored.”

And they’re not done yet. Hemingway’s car now sits on the property, awaiting its turn.

“It’s a 1957 Chrysler,” Phillips said. “It’s the most mangled-up and rusty thing. It looks like roadkill, but it will be restored.”

For the foundation and the Cuban Office of Cultural Patrimony, that would translate into the perfect Hemingway hat trick.

Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and regional publications. He also publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.

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