Ever since the administration of General Tacón (1834-1838) there was a manifest intention to include hotels and inns in the public construction plan for the city of Havana. The increase in the number of foreign travellers and investors, mainly Americans, who came to study our capital as fertile ground for their business, gave rise to plans that conceived Havana at the turn of the 19th century as a city earmarked for tourism.
The growing number of visitors contributed to the changes and modernization of the old hotels, and the residential Spanish ambiance was substituted with new American designs that come to stay in the early 20th century.
The old “Las Murallas” district continued being the focal point of these investments and of the architectural “modernisation” boom that erupted in the colonial area, featuring a series of hotels that would be built along its boundaries. These hotels increased their value of these, especially after the construction of the Capitol Building (1929).
In this context was built in 1933 the present Hotel Saratoga, leaving its previous location on Monte Street, in front of the former Campo de Marte, where instead was built the still-standing Hotel Isla de Cuba.
The “new” building on Prado Street, as historian Carlos Venegas points out, was conceived for homes, warehousing, and guestrooms. The building was commissioned by the Spanish merchant Eugenio Palacios between 1879 and 1880:
“Don Gregorio Palacios, born in Santander, was one of the richest landlords in Havana and amongst the most important taxpayers. This realtor, who also owned low-priced rooming facilities, as also did the Marquise of Villalba, signed a contract in 1879 for $ 98,000 in gold for the construction of the building. As one can see, it is a three- story building. The ground floor comprised a tobacco warehouse, a shop and a throughway to the four apartments on the main (or first) floor. The second floor was used as hotel or guest house with 43 rooms and a dining room”. *)
In 1935 it was considered as one of Havana’s most important hotels, with the comfort and recreational facilities fashionable then, but especially because of its colonnade, where the most prominent Cuban musicians played local rhythms, and particularly “son”.
Bands and orchestras attracted large crowds of passers-by who gathered around the hotel to enjoy a nice show. This was the launch pad of the “Anacaonas”, the first Cuban all-female orchestra, which, as of its debut there, was a permanent attraction of the Hotel Saratoga’s popular “Aires Libres”.
The “Aires Libres” comprised the colonnade and sidewalk along Prado and up to the corner of Dragones Street. The space had the vegetation designed for that purpose, and featured a superb canopy that hung from chains that, in turn, were fixed to two lion heads on the façade. The “Aires Libres” combined gastronomy service with a clever distribution of the furniture and the music being played.
Thus it became a real attraction for tourists and passers-by, a gathering place for the “habaneros” from all walks of life. Hearsay has sit that one of the frequent visitors was Antonio Guiteras, Minister of the Interior during the “Government that lasted 100 days”. Senators and other politicians with offices in the Capitolio Building were steady costumers of the ground floor shop that sold men’s goods.
Since it was first conceived, the building was characterised by its layout and its multi-purpose use, which did not prevent it from being functional and having efficient circulation between the floors. Its distribution reminds us of the circulation of a Cuban colonial house, where the ground floor was used as storage area and commercial locales, including rooms for leasing. The service areas were on the first floor, while the guestrooms were on the top floor, without altering the uniformity of the façace. In this regard, Venegas reveals:
“All this heterogeneous layout, starting with the warehouse and continuing to the house of apartments and guest rooms, unified in one extensive, important, and monumental façade that instead of having a bevel, enhanced the corner with a circular angle topped by a parapet. The lower arches were of a Doric order, while the upper floors showed Ionic and Corinthian features joined by moldings and with a marked academic design. The railings were forged by the William Gardner, an English ironsmith living in Havana. The façade render was not a common mortar, as it included Portland cement”. *)
The façade of the building still has these features despite the high level of deterioration. However, this is not the case of the inside of the building. The original characteristics of the interior have been lost due to indiscriminate interventions, lack of maintenance in recent years and the inadequate use of the building.
The building still has valuable topological elements, among them its railings, French carpentry, fan-lights, timber trellises, marble stairs, columns and pilasters, which give it its true expression. Some of these features, including the deteriorated parapet on the strategic corner, which could be fully restored, are true signs of good craftsmanship.
Though we have not been able to verify the origin of its name, it is likely that it stems from the US resort town of Saratoga in the State of New York. The thermal waters of the resort are indicated for several ailments. Saratoga is still one of the favorite summer resorts of tourists that go there for treatment. Important battles of the American war of independence took place near the resort town and possibly the relation of the owners of the hotel to this place may have inspired them to name the hotel “the Saratoga”.
The building kept its vitality until the 60s, when the revolutionary government nationalized it. Later it became a low class rooming house with many sub-partitions, until it was finally closed down due to its deplorable condition.
The restoration of its features and the coordination of its functions, will give the once famous Hotel Saratoga the distinction it deserves.
Lic. Yamira Rodríguez Marcano
Department of Patrimonial Architecture
City Historian’s Office
*Quotations from Carlos Venegas Fornias, apprearing in “La urbanización de las murallas: dependencia y modernidad”. Havana, 1990.