The Harrison & Abramovitz building in 1977.
U.S. Department of State The Harrison & Abramovitz building in 1977.

President Obama's order last week to restore full United States diplomatic relations with Cuba will bring new life to an aging modernist architectural landmark in Havana, and could also potentially rejuvenate one of the most impressive American ambassadorial residences anywhere in the world.

The former U.S. Embassy building in Havana, completed in 1953, will once again become a full-fledged embassy in the Cuban capital, according to the U.S. State Department. The modernist embassy was the work of Harrison & Abramovitz, the architectural partnership of Wallace K. Harrison and Max Abramovitz, which played a major role in designing Lincoln Center and the United Nations headquarters in New York City. The Havana building formed part of a string of sleek embassies commissioned by the State Department from prominent architects in the aftermath of World War II.

After the Havana diplomatic mission opened in 1953, the U.S. used it for just eight years, until 1961 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke off relations with the government of Fidel Castro over Cuban accusations that the embassy was a U.S. espionage base. Swiss diplomatic personnel safeguarded the structure until 1977, when U.S. foreign service officers returned to open the U.S. Interests Section, which has lesser status than an embassy, as part of moves by President Jimmy Carter towards improved ties with Havana.

Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico on the Malecón, the office building was once topped by the ambassador's office and other areas containing consular offices, a visa section, and public information services.

The Harrison & Abramovitz building in 1973.
Bin im Garten The Harrison & Abramovitz building in 1973.

The Havana U.S. Embassy garnered considerable acclaim upon completion, receiving high praise in the architectural press, and it was proudly displayed at New York's Museum of Modern Art in a 1953 exhibition showcasing new U.S. diplomatic architecture. Nonetheless, the embassy was plagued by climate control problems arising from large expanses of unshielded glass in a hot, sunny climate where both the air conditioning and cross ventilation failed to function as planned.

Much of the building was originally clad in ivory-colored travertine imported from Italy, arrayed in clean lines reminiscent of the international style that had taken hold in Cuba and other parts of Latin America by the mid-20th century. Thomas D. Church, an innovative landscape architect of that era, designed the original plantings in and around the complex. The interior furnishings were made by Knoll, and included reproductions of Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona chair and other contemporary pieces that complemented the architecture and heightened the sense of design unity.

Having weathered vicissitudes of U.S.-Cuban relations, the Havana embassy building endures as a still functioning relic of Washington's post-war bid to use modern architecture to project its image as a triumphant, dynamic superpower. As Ron Robin noted in Enclaves of America (Princeton University Press, 1996), Architectural Forum wrote in 1953 that with the Havana design, the State Department was "displaying to the rest of the world a colorful picture of a young, progressive and modern-minded America," and the article noted its dramatic contrast with the Soviet Union's outpost in Havana, which was housed in a Spanish colonial-style structure.

The Harrison & Abramovitz building in 2006.
Flickr/glichfield The Harrison & Abramovitz building in 2006.

Deployment of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana as a political billboard later took on an even more literal manifestation. In 2006, under the administration of President George W. Bush, the State Department put a scrolling electronic sign atop the building to broadcast news and human rights messages in Spanish. In response, the Castro regime installed some 130 poles bedecked with black flags to block visibility of the messages that included quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. The area fronting the building was renamed Anti-Imperialist Plaza, and massive Cuban billboards emblazoned with communist propaganda slogans arose nearby, including one depicting Bush as blood-soaked, fanged vampire.

The U.S. government has sought to keep the former embassy in decent repair, although State Department sources say this has been a difficult task in view of tensions between the two nations. A renovation by Caballero Architects of Alexandria, Va., was completed in 1997, and State Department sources said this involved replacing the travertine façade with granite and a complete mechanical upgrade. New windows were installed about five years ago in response to water penetration issues, according to William Miner, AIA, former director of design and engineering for the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.

Miner says he expects the State Department would soon send a design team down to survey the building and do remedial work to upgrade security requirements, since these are now very different from when the building was first built. "A place like Havana will have special criteria," says Miner, who is now the building director for Coral Gables, Fla.

In addition to the embassy building, the U.S. still owns the sprawling former ambassador's residence. Since 1977, it has been home to the head of the Interests Section, known as the principal officer, a position currently held by career diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis. The State Department plans for this to be used for the new ambassador. This neoclassical limestone residence, built in 1941 in a secluded neighborhood of Havana, contains 65 rooms and was designed by architect Paul Franz Jacquet, together with Leland King, and Frederick Larkin.

Jacquet and King had previously worked on other U.S. ambassadorial residences in Latin America, and together with Larkin in Havana they created spacious elegant chambers for receptions on July 4th and other occasions. The architects carved the U.S. seal into the limestone, which forms a focal point of the 32,000-square-foot building's curved entry colonnade, intended to project the might and influence of the nation 90 miles to the north. "The design and construction coincided with the American defense of the Atlantic and Caribbean waters against Axis submarines and U-boats and with a major effort by the U.S. military to build up the Guantanamo Bay naval base," noted Hermes Mallea, AIA, in his book Great Houses of Havana (The Monacelli Press, 2011).

The two-story mansion has four wings extending from a large formal hall at its core, and a tennis court and pool on its landscaped grounds. The residence was renovated in 1999 by the Washington, D.C., architecture firm of Karn Charuhas Chapman & Twohey (KCCT). This entailed cleaning the exterior of indigenous Jaimanitas limestone and the terrazzo and hardwood floors. The kitchens—there are several—and bathrooms were refurbished and new electrical and heating and air conditioning systems installed.

Karl Miller, a principal with KCCT who went to Havana to carry out the renovation project, says that when the mansion was first built, there was a plan for then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt to use it as a tropical retreat, and the upper floor included three separate master bedroom suites intended for the president, his wife Eleanor, and his mother, Sara Roosevelt. Wartime apparently prevented Roosevelt from spending time at the residence, but guests have included then-Vice President Richard Nixon, Senator John F. Kennedy, First Lady Bess Truman and archbishop Francis Spellman. That guest list seems set to grow longer now that a full-fledged ambassador may be moving back in soon.

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said at a Dec. 17 news briefing that she could not provide a precise timeline for the restoration of U.S. relations with Cuba, but said that this would depend on "a range of discussions" that would take place between Washington and Havana in coming weeks.