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Preserving Old Cuba: Eusebio Leal Spengler

April 27, 2016

Eusebio Leal Spengler.

Image courtesy of The Washington Post.

The University of Notre Dame announced the winner of the 2016 Henry Hope Reed Award would be Eusebio Leal Spengler. The Henry Hope Reed Award is given to a non-architect who has supported the development of a traditional city.

Leal has worked as the City Historian in Havana, Cuba for decades. His passion has been restoring and maintaining Old Cuba. In 1967, at the age of 25, the new City Preservationist halted construction on a historic street by lying down in front of the trucks. Instead of the restored, original wood paving Leal had planned, he had learned the street would be repaved immediately so it could be used for an important diplomatic visit.

By 1981, Leal had earned Fidel Castro’s support and was given substantial resources. An $11 million master plan to restore 30 buildings began, employing hundreds of architects, archaeologists, preservationists, craftspeople and laborers.

Cuba suffered through an economic crisis after the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 1993, Castro asked Leal how they could continue the work. Leal suggested the Office of the Historian be allowed to
generate its own revenue. Leal started with one hotel, the Ambos Mundos. He used the revenue created by tourism to renovate the historic district. This led to more tourism and more revenue. Leal now operates 16 hotels, restaurants and museums. He has even started a radio and television show called“Walking Havana.” Leal splits the revenue he generates between restoration and social programs for the residents of Old Havana, creating health clinics, schools and senior living facilities.

Eusebio Leal with Fidel Castro.

Image courtesy of Tracey Eaton.

Leal’s first big restoration assignment in 1967, The Palace of the Captains General. The Palace has since been become the City Museum.

Image courtesy of Digital Journal.

Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Ernest Hemingway wrote most of For Whom the Bell Tolls, was the first hotel run by Leal.

Image courtesy of Rikomatic.

The restored Plaza Vieja.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.