Inside Old Havana

The crumbling mansions of Havana offer a glimpse into a past that is rapidly disappearing as Cuba opens up to the world
Inside Old Havana

Bernhard Hartmann

The city of Havana is, in some sense, defined by its dilapidated splendor, as the once grand Pearl of the Antilles has receded into a ghostly mix of nostalgia and neglect. This spirit is embodied most vividly in the city’s varied architecture, an accumulation of styles spanning Spanish colonial, neoclassical, art nouveau, art deco, mid-century modernism and Soviet brutalism. 

German photographer Bernhard Hartmann — whose book Havana captures the melancholic beauty of these buildings — first came to the city six years ago, an experience he now likens to traveling back in time. 



“As I explored the city, I noticed a lot of untouched but rotting mansions, built in a time when beauty reigned,” he says. “Many of these buildings have wonderful art deco and Spanish colonial styling, but are crumbling. A handful have electricity and some don’t even have running water.”

Some of the city’s most impressive buildings were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to house upper-class and aristocratic families. Their decay, says Victor Deupi, a lecturer in architecture at the University of Miami, is due to a variety of causes. These include a lack of financing, the corrosive effects of salt water and the fact that, for many years, there hasn’t been much emphasis placed on the comfort of aristocrats. 

“As many Cubans left the island, these buildings were confiscated, and families from the slums inhabited many of them,” Deupi says. “For the regime, it was a popular and easy way to win the support of the people.”

Many of those who remained in their homes — often privileged families from Spain, who had special permission from the regime — still live there, though you wouldn’t know this to look at Hartmann’s images. “I decided not to shoot the residents out of respect for their privacy,” he says. “Many are elderly, like a 94-year-old woman I found next to a portrait of her younger self.”

Many of the crumbling mansions are on borrowed time as Cuba opens up to the world. New bars, restaurants and hotels are opening all the time, and many old buildings are being restored, such as the Gran Teatro theater.



Even the iconic 1950s Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets are gradually being replaced by Asian cars due to new import rules.  

“I wanted to show people a beauty that might disappear,” says Hartmann. “It’s a sentimental idea, but to me it’s a romantic one.” 

For Hartmann, despite all the changes,  Havana is still unique. “If you walk along the Malecón waterfront as the sun goes down, there’s music, talking, flirting, and so much life on the street. It’s one of the most romantic places on the planet, and there’s an energy to it all. There’s a special brand of Caribbean flair here. It’s intoxicating.”