Stonington gallery owner reveals ‘The Splendor of Cuba’

Posted Oct. 17, 2011, at 3:14 p.m.
Palacio Brunet, a two-story mansion that was first constructed in 1740 on Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba.
Courtesy of Rizzoli New York, photo by Brent Winebrenner
Palacio Brunet, a two-story mansion that was first constructed in 1740 on Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba.
The entrance hall of the palace of Countess of Revilla de Camargo includes one of the most beautiful residential staircases in Cuba.
Courtesy of Rizzoli New York, photo by Brent Winebrenner
The entrance hall of the palace of Countess of Revilla de Camargo includes one of the most beautiful residential staircases in Cuba.
Havana’s Bacardi building, once the headquarters of the Cuban rum empire, is distinguished by its modern architectural lines of art deco and glazed colorful terra-cotta embellishments.
Courtesy of Rizzoli New York, photo by Brent Winebrenner
Havana’s Bacardi building, once the headquarters of the Cuban rum empire, is distinguished by its modern architectural lines of art deco and glazed colorful terra-cotta embellishments.

THE SPLENDOR OF CUBA: 450 YEARS OF ARCHITECTURE AND INTERIORS by Michael Connors, principal photography by Brent Winebrenner, design by Massimo Dignelli, Rizolli New York, October 2011, $85, 320 pages.

His first visit to Cuba blew him away. In 1998, antiquarian Dr. Michael Connors entered one of the most inaccessible communities in the world and he soon realized that the mysterious Crown Jewel of the Caribbean was an architectural phenomenon.

With photographer Brent Winebrenner, Connors explored the island country to compile “The Splendor of Cuba,” a 320-page book of stunning photographs and historical knowledge released in October 2011.

“I had never been bowled over like that by anything in the Caribbean,” said Connors during a recent phone interview from his summer home in Stonington. “What I discovered — I was so enthralled with it all.”

Connors, who has summered in Maine since he was a child, received a doctorate in Decorative Arts from New York University, where he taught for 15 years. He’s credited for having brought Colonial West Indian furniture forward as an independent collecting field. In the late 1980s, he established Michael Connors International Inc., and became a resource to designers, private collectors and museums. He now spends his summers sailing and operating a fine art and antique gallery, Eagull Gallery, in Stonington.

Though he has traveled to many foreign lands in his career, when it comes to Cuba, he can’t stay away.

“As far as architecture goes, there’s a wealth of research that has never been done,” Connors said. “When we look at these books on Cuba, we see laundry hanging in a courtyard, children with no shoes, dilapidated buildings. They are beautiful photographs, but all in sort of a depressing way. I’ve taken a different approach.”

Connors shows the country’s “splendor,” from Quinta de las Delicias, or Estate of Delights, a castle-like residence designed after French feudal architecture, to Italian marble statues and palaces and summer villas built by sugar-cane millionaires. He continues to happen upon places that have never been photographed before.

“It’s the only place in the Western Hemisphere that has every kind of architectural style from the last 500 years,” said Connors. “So for me not to do something like this — I think it was just inevitable that someone do it, and I wanted to be the first.”

“Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get permission either from the government authorities or even the people themselves [to photograph buildings],” said Connors. “It’s very difficult to get in and that’s one of the reasons it’s never been done.”

As a board member of the Fundacion Amistad — a nonprofit foundation seeking understanding between the people of the United States and Cuba — Connors was allowed access to areas usually off-limits to foreigners.

For example, he and Winebrenner enjoyed the privilege of entering Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home, Finca Vingia, or Lookout Farm, which the public can only view from the windows and doorways.

Hemingway moved to Cuba in 1939 and spent 21 years at Lookout Farm, originally built in 1887 in the suburb of San Francisco de Paula, approximately 10 miles southeast of Havana. The house interiors have been kept as they were found in 1960 when Hemingway left Cuba. In “Splendors of Cuba” there are multiple views of the rooms, which include a mahogany plank writing desk, bookshelves holding more than 10,000 volumes and bull-fighting memorabilia.

Though they managed to gain access to the majority of the buildings, there were some thresholds they couldn’t cross. At Palacio de Aldama, considered by many to be the finest example of architecture in Havana and throughout Cuba, Connors was dismayed to be turned away from even the inner courtyard, famous for its beautiful marble staircases adorned with cast iron swans.

As would be expected from someone who spends much of his time in Maine, Connors made sure to include several photos of the original brass eagle from the Monument to the Victims of the Maine, which commemorates the lost crew of the USS Maine, a United States Navy’s battleship sent to Havana to protect U.S. interests during the Cuban revolt against Spain. On the evening of Feb 15, 1989, the USS Maine exploded and sank. Though the cause of the disaster is unclear, it was one of the precipitating events of the Spanish-American War. The brass eagle now presides over the gardens of the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Havana.

“My experience in Cuba over the last 10 years has brought me around to hope that somehow the people of Cuba and the people of the United States will communicate more,” said Connors. “I’m hoping that my book will somehow bring the people of both the U.S. and Cuba one step closer.”

You can’t visit Cuba as a tourist, Connors said, but you can visit on a people-to-people cultural exchange or for humanitarian purposes.

“It’s not impossible for Mainers to go to Cuba,” said Connors. “With [President] Obama in the office, rules haven’t changed, but they’ve been more lenient adhering to the rules … We don’t advise anybody to sneak in because it’s so easy to go legally. Any Mainer can go if they do the research and preparation.”

During his years of research, Connors said he has come to find the Cuban people to be “genuine, resourceful, industrious, generous and hospitable.” One family, in particular, stands out in his mind.

After inviting Connors and Winebrenner into their home, the family offered them coffee, and as guests, they politely accepted.

“Well, unbeknownst to us, these people were so poor they didn’t have coffee,” said Connors. “The young daughter goes out the back door and goes to one of the neighbors and procures some. They found coffee for us when they themselves didn’t have any, and they didn’t partake in the coffee when they served it. Those are the kind of people we ran into down there.”

Connors will return to the island in December, after his book tour, to reunite with the friends he has made over the years and lead architectural tours.

Purchase “The Splendor of Cuba,” at rizzoliusa.com or amazon.com. Connors has published several other books including “Caribbean Houses,” “British West Indies Style: Antiqua, Jamaica, Barbados, and Beyond,” “French Island Elegance,” “Cuban Elegance,” and “Caribbean Elegance.” To learn about Michael Connors International, visit michaelconnorsantiques.com.

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