Imagine the year 1957. You are in Havana Cuba and heading out to the swinging Hotel Riviera to do a little gambling and see an act at the Copa Room. Tonight is the opening night at the club and the featured act is Ginger Rogers.
You arrive in your most glamorous outfit draped in furs and diamonds and pearls. Your date looks sharp in his shark skin suit. There, in the lobby, is the owner, Meyer Lansky greeting his guests as they drive up to the front where the spectacular fountain is lit up in the night.
The historical Hotel Riviera sits on the Malecon ocean front drive in Havana Cuba. It was built in 1957 as a posh resort and was owned by the notorious mobster Meyer Lansky. He spared no expense in his efforts to rival the Hotel Riviera in Las Vegas. Lansky hired two of Cuba’s formative artists, muralist Rolando Lopez Dirube and sculptor Florencio Gelabert.
When I first pulled up in front of The Riviera my heart sank because I had expected so much more, but then, there are a lot of things in Havana that only have a shadow of past glory. Florencio Gelabert designed the white marble sculptures of an intertwined mermaid and swordfish that fronts the entrance and a large sculpture in the lobby , “Cuban Rhythm” that has a male and female dancer. The fountain, long dry ,sits baking in the sun, deteriorating and cracked.
Once inside the main lobby I felt like I stepped onto the set of Mad Men.
Every where I looked there was something else that caught my eye and I appreciate the completely unique creative force that was 1950’s design.
I’ve seen so many reproductions of starburst clocks but this was the real thing.
The original floating staircase was under construction and was off limits so I wasn’t able to see it but I am hopeful that they will be able to restore it to its original coolness.
The 3-D flying cranes art accented a wall leading into the circular bar.
The days of glamorous couples sipping martinis and smoking cigarettes at the lively bar, with the incredible view, is now reduced to curious tourists, like myself, who love architecture and history. If I had my way I’d throw a party there with all of my friends and it would be cocktail dresses and suits that would harken back to a time where the Rat Pack could have strolled past with beautiful girls on each arm.
The breakfast area is light and airy and leads out to the most fantastic pool I have ever seen.
When I walked outside and saw the magnificent three tiered diving platform I felt like I was in a Doris Day/ Rock Hudson movie. I just couldn’t take my eyes off of it and I desperately wanted to climb up and try a swan dive.
It sounds crazy but I got the same feeling when I was staring at the statue of David in Italy. Maybe that makes me a little weird but I was hypnotized by this structure.
The dining room inside the Hotel is equally breath taking in its over the top style. The murals on the walls were painted by the Cuban artist Rolando Lopez Dirube and they are a tropical explosion.
I promised myself that next time I visit Havana I will stay at The Riviera, at least for a couple of nights. I know the rooms are nothing special; a total let down, actually, but I want the experience of swimming, diving, dining in that crazy tropical restaurant, and going to the Copa. It’s still a cabaret with show girls and, not very impressive these days, but the interior is the same as it was when Ginger Rogers twirled her gams for a crowd of mobsters and gamblers.
Even the elevators are cool looking.
If you love history, like I do, you will get a real joy out of seeing all of this original 1950’s cutting edge style. Of all the places I have been, Havana is one of the most interesting. You can’t put your arms around a memory… to quote Johnny Thunders… but you can touch it in Cuba. If you get the opportunity to visit please go. I don’t think you will be disappointed unless your idea of a vacation is 5 star luxury. You won’t find it there but you will find a city steeped in history that has not changed. You will find a people who are open and welcoming. I will always return and I will always love Cuba.