Thursday, October 14, 2010

Palm Beach & Havana

The first Havana Night of the season at Nick & Johnnie’s filled the place with revelers aswim in Cuba Libres and Libra birthday parties, like the festive one above on the sidewalk terrace.
Palm Beach & Havana
By Augustus Mayhew

Here is a collage of Havana from three different perspectives: Friday night’s flash, flair, fashion, and fun at Nick & Johnnie’s channeling of Old Havana’s flavor; yesterday’s Havana with some recollections from longtime Palm Beach resident Mercedes Cassidy, her family’s Aerovias Q airline once shuttled between Florida and Cuba; lastly, some unfiltered snaps from my two-week architectural odyssey in 2000 when I found a Havana no longer home to Habaneros long since exiled. Miramar’s mansions, Fifth Avenue’s villas and the Prado’s palaces are occupied by revolutionaries whose indifference and neglect during the past fifty years has caused the deterioration, if not ruin and collapse, of an architectural and cultural heritage centuries in the making.
Postcards are reminders of when Cuba and the United States shared a common culture.
Steamers, car ferries, sailboats, and yachts once streamed into Havana from Palm Beach, Key West, Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville.
The Ponce de Leon prepares for a flight from Havana to Florida.
Havana offered more diverse colorful cultural attractions than those found in St. Augustine, Boca Grande, Thomasville or the Jekyll Island Club, as illustrated by this Deco Moderne artwork from Social, a popular 1930's magazine.
Havana Night at Nick & Johnnie’s, 2010
7:30 on Havana night at Nick & Johnnie’s whose Royal Poinciana Way site was once the same haunt of other legendary late night spots: among them, the Granada’s Spanish patio with flamenco dancing by Manolo the Magnificent, Leverett Miller’s Peter Dinkel’s and Chuck and Harold’s.
Restaurateurs Nick Coniglio, left, and J. Kent “Johnnie” Thurston, right, as seen in a 2008 photograph when they first opened their venture.
Two years later, and a few Havana Nights later, Nick Coniglio welcomes Mercedes Cassidy. Johnnie Thurston makes sure all the bases are covered for the night’s event.
Havana Night’s star attraction, a seasoned pig prepped and ready for the fire. Among the menu offerings: Pulled-Pork Corn Pancakes with Mango sauce, Spiced Shrimps and Snapper Ceviche for starters; followed by a Tropical Caribbean Salad with Hearts of Palm; then, Ropa Vieja seasoned with olives, peppers and onions, Mojo Lechon Asado marinated with garlic, onions, peppers, oranges, lemons and limes, Brazilian Roasted Chickens with equal parts fish sauce and honey, lemon butter; and mango sauce; Black beans and Rice, Plantains; finishing with Tres Leches.
Four hours later, chef de cuisine Scott Howie checks in on La Caja China roasting box.
A few minutes later, the evening’s main course is ready to be plated.
Laura Yager and Mimi Thurston, ready for the night’s party. Katie Caparros enjoys a pensive moment while folding the servilletas.
A pre-party look at Nick and Johnnie’s landmark Spanish patio with the roll-away roof that opens to the sky.
Eight o’clock and more than 100 reservations had already checked in for the night.
With the roof rolled back and temps in the mid-70s, the patio began to fill as Norberto y Marisela con su Septeto Caribe tuned their maracas.
Brenda Barquero checks the list. Mixologist Gillian Baker serves up the Mojitos.
Ginger and Birds of paradise centerpieces set on every table.
What more fun for the kids than a night out with the grown ups.
Laura Kroner, Kristen Hein, and Shaw Heydt, part of the night’s birthday celebrations.
Coy and Brenda Riestra.
Melanie Cabot and Kate Kuhner. Jeul Hennigan.
Sylvia Arruza, Marie Friedman, Marie Deckert, and Mercedes Cassidy.
Mimi Dhaka and Heidi Leigh.
Powell Pace. Laura Yager. Kristy Foster.
Marisela y Norberto and their Caribe Septet mix things up. The group regularly performs at Casa Larios in South Miami.
It may be Friday night in Palm Beach but this table is waiting for dinner from Havana.
Major domo Ryan McCartney with Johnnie Thurston. Meghan O’Malley.
Yesterday’s Cuba
Cuba’s formidable architectural centerpiece, the Capitolio’s sparkling centellador once lit up Havana’s night sky.
Palm Beachers once breezed back and forth to the Cuban capital for exotic pleasures and diversions not found at County Road boites or Worth Avenue bistros. Following the Spanish-American War, American colonists flocked to Cuba, establishing cattle ranches and citrus groves as well as all forms of Americana. In Havana, designers from Madrid and Paris joined New York’s A-list architects, Bertram Goodhue, Carrere and Hastings, Schultze and Weaver, and Walker and Gillette, transforming the Spanish colonial island into an international destination. Rene LaLique designed glass doors for Colon Cemetery’s finest mausoleums.

The W. K. Vanderbilt yacht was often anchored in the Bay of Havana for extended stays. Rodman Wanamaker’s American Trans-Oceanic Airways offered 3-hour deluxe moonlight hops from Palm Beach to Havana. In between daiquiris, Chesterfields and military coups, Eartha Kitt, Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier sang and danced on La Sirena’s stage at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba where the Munn sisters, Mary and Frances Munn, might be found sipping rum and cokes on the loggia with their uncle Ector Munn.
Palm Beach resident Mercedes Cassidy’s father, Col. Manuel Quevedo, second from right, founded Aerovias Q in 1945. Q was one of several airlines with daily flights between Cuba and Florida.
Palm Beach Life magazine devoted pages to Havana’s sophisticated who’s who that mirrored much of America’s country clubs and private club class. The annual Havana Marlin tournament was filled with entrants from Palm Beach’s Sailfish Club.

At 156 Clarke Avenue, the James Clarkes kept an 18th-century cannon with a colorful provenance in their front yard that they acquired in Havana. By 1958, three car ferries, including the Henry M. Flagler, were running between the Port of Palm Beach and Havana.
“I believe the fourth pilot from the left is the one who flew Batista out of the country,” recalled Mercedes Cassidy. “He was killed when he returned to Havana,” she added.
In 1953 banker Arthur Gardner, seen above boarding an Aerovias Q flight, was named US Ambassador to Cuba. When Gardner resigned in 1957, he was replaced by another Palm Beacher Earl E. T. Smith. Ambassador and Mrs. Gardner lived in a Howard Major-designed house at 830 South Ocean Boulevard for many years where they often welcomed the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the island’s totemic houseguests.
U S Ambassador to Cuba Earl Edward Tailer Smith and Mrs. Smith, the former model and fashion editor Florence Pritchett, supping at the El Morocco nightclub. Before their 1947 marriage, Mrs. Smith was most often mentioned as being Jack Kennedy’s girl friend. Longtime North Ocean Boulevard residents, the Smiths lived near the Kennedys. In 1962 Mr. Smith’s book The Fourth Floor recounted Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the American-backed Batista government.
Mr. Smith served as mayor of Palm Beach between 1971 and 1979. Following his death in 1991, Mr. Smith’s widow, Lesly Stockard Smith, was later elected the town’s mayor. Jorge Batista, seen above, at a South Florida event. Mr. Batista’s father Fulgencio Batista was Cuba’s president when Castro invaded the country. After fleeing to the Dominican Republic, Portugal, and Spain, the Batista family finally settled in Daytona Beach. The family’s art collection is now part of a local museum’s collection. Following his father death in 1973, Jorge Batista’s mother, Cuba’s former First Lady, Marta Fernandez Miranda de Batista, moved to an oceanfront house on Via Los Incas in Palm Beach until shortly before her death in 2006. Photo Palm Beach Daily News archive.
Opened in December 1930 with the same management of NYC’s Plaza Hotel, the lavish 540-room McKim Mead and White-designed Hotel Nacional de Cuba’s 15-acre spectacular promontory setting featured the Bajo la Luna supper club, a popular conga and rumba haunt among Palm Beachers. By the 1940s, Woolworth Donahue, Louis B. Mayer, Ernest Hemingway and Roy Cohen could be found in the hotel’s Aire Mar cocktail lounge or up on the Starlight Terrace.
Promising to fulfill every “whim and desire,” Havana’s cosmopolitan nightlife was among its many “no-limit” attractions. Dignified daytime tea dances gave way to more sophisticated after-midnight pleasures. Opened by Meyer Lansky during the 1930s, the Nacional’s casino was acquired in 1956 by Wilbur Clark, owner of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, while managed by Jack Lansky. During Batista’s presidency Havana’s 18 casinos rivaled Las Vegas as the world’s largest gambling center.
Located mid-way on the Paseo del Prado promenade between the Capitolio and the Malecon, the 400-room Schultze and Weaver-designed Sevilla-Biltmore Hotel was known for its Cuban Woods Room and rooftop terrace dining room. The Sevilla’s rooftop dining room is a faint shadow of its former self, now overlooking a 10-watt Havana skyline. We dined there twice. Both times we were the only diners who had the pleasure of the three-piece orchestra’s endless renditions of Beatles tunes.
The Sevilla-Biltmore Hotel has retained many of its Schultze and Weaver-designed original elements, including this tile plaque.
The University of Havana’s grand staircase remains one of the city’s scenic wonders.
Designed by Schultze and Weaver, the Havana-American Jockey Club’s 90-day meet at Marianao’s Oriental Park race track was a favorite afternoon diversion.
The Miramar Yacht Club was another Schultze and Weaver design.
The Havana Yacht Club.
Home to the Havana Cup, the Havana Country Club often had more American players than Cubans. Closed since 1960, the Cuban government recently announced plans to rebuild its golf courses.
Schultz and Weaver transformed the colonial-styled casino into a Louis XVI extravaganza. The architect’s drawings are part of the Wolfsonian Museum’s collection in Miami Beach. Demolished after the Castro revolution, the fountain was reportedly moved to the Tropicana nightclub.
Havana 2000

Here are some of my impressions from my two-week trek across Cuba with a small group of historic preservationists and architects. After several days in Havana, at the Plaza and the Nacional, our group flew to Santiago, then overland for ten days before returning to Havana, checking into the Hotel Inglaterra. .Forty years after Castro’s revolution, much of Havana has regressed into a medieval feudal state.
Today's Havana is landscaped as much with propaganda as royal palms.
The introduction of towering Mid-century Moscow Modern apartment buildings, perhaps more suitable for Kiev than Havana’s Vedado, makes for dramatic juxtapositions.
Historic properties under reconstruction turn plazas into other-worldly surreal landscapes. However much some preservation efforts have saved some buildings, Havana has lost hundreds of its 18th and 19th century buildings.
Glossy coffee table books glamorize Havana’s architecture when after decades of horizontal and vertical subdivision many buildings are crumbling or have completely vanished.
No doubt a committee meeting taking place, perhaps plotting the next step in this building’s five-alarm restoration.
From atop the Hotel Inglaterra looking towards the Malecon, Habana Vieja is a study in architectural despair. Most magazine articles feature anomalous 1950s cars and quaint cigar rollers but clearly the once “Paris of the Western Hemisphere” is today one of the monumental 20th-century tragedies.
A Vedado skyline as seen from along the Malecon. Appearing to be modeled from a radar listening device or a cubistic prison panopticon, the Russian Embassy building is always listed among the 20th century’s pantheon of anomalous buildings.
Designed in 1909 by a Valencian architect, La Lonjo del Commercio, vacant for decades, has been refurbished as offices for foreign companies.
Along the Prado, the 1930s Teatro Fausto is one of Havana’s fantastic Deco Moderne buildings, many crafted by French and Spanish designers.
Celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2010, the onetime “Enchanted Castle” still commands a presence however much the life for which the Nacional de Cuba was built has long since vanished.

Aerovias Q photographs courtesy of Mercedes Cassidy.
Postcard collection and Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.

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