On Reading “Building Bacardi” — and a global architectural tour

I travel often to Cuba, leading a study abroad program with university students. Any study of Cuba, of course, has to include a discussion of the social, cultural, political and economic importance of — rum or ron.

A number of museums, including the Museo de Ron in Havana, a Havana Club creation, provide some of the history and even the processes involved.

Conspicuously absent is any discussion of what was, for a century, Cuba’s leading manufacturer and distributor of rum — Bacardi.

I knew a little of the story. Bacardi, founded in Santiago, Cuba, in 1862, was the dominant rum producer — perhaps the dominant company — in late 19th and early 20th century Cuba.

The company had deep connections with U.S. corporations, however, and with the revolution, all of its land, facilities and buildings were seized in the early 1960s by Castro’s forces — and Bacardi executives and rum makers fled in exile.

I wanted to know more of this story and found numerous accounts, including a beautiful, lavish, strange, wonderfully focused book on the architecture of Bacardi. It tells the history of Bacardi through its buildings: Building Bacardi: Architecture, Art & Identity, by Allan T. Shulman (Rizzoli, 2016).

As I read the book, probably passing too quickly through the details of architects, architectural styles, periods and other areas of which I know little, I found myself wanting to visit the buildings cataloged by Shulman. As Shulman emphasizes again and again, the buildings tell the story not only of Bacardi but of Cuban identity, globalization, political and cultural exile and more.

Thus, rather than provide an analysis of the book (more appropriate for someone with a doctorate in Art and Architecture), I will seek here to provide a kind of global tour guide for myself and others so, if we find ourselves in one of many cities that Bacardi eventually called home, we can visit these iconic sites and know something of their history.

Santiago

The story begins, of course, in Santiago, Cuba where a Catalan immigrant, Don Facundo Bacardi Masso, using rich and abundant Cuban sugar, developed a technique in 1862 for an especially refined, consistent and delicious rum. He set up shop and a distillery (a tin shed) on Matadero Street, near the port.

In the rafters of this shed soon lived numerous fruit bats and the bat became the brand and emblem of Bacardi rum.

For reasons unknown, Don Facundo’s son planted a coconut tree near the shed and the tin shed and the tree (which eventually received the name El Coco) became iconic images in Bacardi’s branding, history and myth making, along with the black, winged bat.

By the first decades of the 20th century, a new Bacardi distillery and other facilities sprawled along Matadero Street into the San Pedrito district. The distillery should be a modern tour stop. The president then, Emilio Bacardi, was deeply interested in architecture and the Bacardi distillery was designed to be an award winning building and modern tasting room — and constructed around El Coco.

More Santiago buildings make this tour. Emilio Bacardi was also mayor of Santiago during the American occupation, which began in 1898, and created schools, museums and libraries. The Museo Emilo Bacardi Moreau, initiated by his widow, was completed in 1927 and became a kind of shrine to Bacardi but also contained a museum, library and art gallery. It was Santiago’s most prominent building.

And lastly, by 1927, Bacardi also had a brewery in Santiago, specifically for the production of Hatuey Cerveza, named after an indigenous Cuban chief who defied the Spaniards and a brand made famous by Hemingway in Old Man and the Sea. As we will see below, when Bacardi wanted to expand production of Hatuey, it did so in Havana.

Havana

Though Santiago was the heart and business and industrial center of Bacardi, during U.S. prohibition, 1919 to 1933, Havana became of central importance. The capital of Cuba and easily accessible from the United States, Havana became an epicenter of U.S. tourism as well as Cuban cultural life. Bacardi needed to be there.

Bacardi’s second president, Henri Schueg y Chassin, knew he required a dynamic structure that could capture two of the dynamic symbols of the Jazz Age — the skyscraper and the cocktail room — yet also maintain Bacardi’s Cuban roots and heritage.

With money to buy whatever land he wanted, he purchased a block on Avenida de Belgica, right at the edge of colonial Havana, near the glamorous Paseo del Prado and a block from the new Parque Central and the neoclassical Capitol building under construction.

The company heightened the stakes by announcing a public competition to design the building, a competition that attracted the leading architects of the day. The winning entry, by Esteban Rodriguez Castells and Rafael Fernandez Ruenes, was a block-long masterpiece with a tall, imposing tower that literally towered over Havana, crowned with a bronze bat.

Author Shulman devotes pages to describing the ornate beauty of the building, finished in 1930, with red granite, burnt umber brick, glazed terra-cotta, polished marble and precious wood.

I visited this building while in Havana, without knowing anything of its history, simply attracted by its dominant profile in the city and its luxurious interior.

Bacardi actually had few business interests in Havana and rented out most of the building. But the public rooms on the first floor and the legendary cocktail bar in a mezzanine served as Bacardi’s center for the mostly American clientele. The site is surely worthy of a visit today.

Just outside Havana, after World War II, Bacardi created another industrial-tourist destination — its first brewery outside of Santiago, Cerveceria Modelo. The location in El Cotorro was significant. Not only did it sit on a natural spring for fresh water, it also sat near the Carretera Central, the 700-mile highway built in 1927 that connected Havana with the provinces and Santiago.

Bacardi commissioned another design competition for the brewery, which was to be a tourist destination, complete with beer garden, as well as beer production facility — “experience marketing.” Modelo’s beer garden was made famous, Shulman writes, with a legendary celebration of Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Prize.

A third brewery was constructed, also near the highway, between Havana and Santiago in Manacas, near Santa Clara. Another “destination” building, this brewery had a tall sign, visible from the highway, as well as a motel for those making the trip across the country.

New York

With the end of U.S. Prohibition, American drinkers had less reason to visit Havana. Bacardi, like other distillers, needed to establish a presence in the U.S. cultural capital — New York.

In Havana, Bacardi had pointed the way for attracting a sophisticated drinking crowd with an impressive and imposing building and cocktail lounge. U.S. distillers, such as Seagram’s, had been watching closely and within months of the end of Prohibition in 1933, they were setting up exquisite cocktail rooms in some of Manhattan’s most exclusive addresses, such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

The New York Club in 1945 from The New York Times

Bacardi’s presence in New York was arranged by the Schenley Import Company, one of the large liquor conglomerates formed after Prohibition. Schenley transformed the classic but defunct New York Club into the Bacardi Bar at 20 W. 40th Street, a splendid building that survived until 2014.

What a stop it would have made on a global Bacardi architecture tour! The bar was white leather. The ceiling was gold leaf. Murals covered two walls with Cuban scenes, juxtaposed for contrast with European vineyards and towns. The great Lewis Mumford, writing for the New Yorker, called the artist, William Gropper, a realist, a Surrealiste, a fantasist, an objectivist, a satirist and an idyllist. But the work was bulldozed away for taller buildings.

Bacardi also set up shop on the 35th floor of the Empire State Building with another dominant, wall-sized mural emphasizing the company’s Cuban roots. “Waiting for Coffee,” by Cuban artist Antonio Gattorno — recommended to Bacardi by Cuban resident and American writer Ernest Hemingway — was a complex picture, depicting Cuban workers in the fields while a more advantaged, privileged couple sits patiently . . . waiting for coffee. What did advantaged, privileged American drinkers make of this mural?

Gattorno working on the mural

Bacardi left the Empire State Building but thankfully the mural was saved and Gattorno moved it to Miami.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Beginning in the 1930s, Shulman says, Bacardi began expanding its production facilities to other sugar-producing lands, beginning with Puerto Rico and Mexico. The strategy looked even wiser 30 years later when Bacardi was exiled from Cuba.

With the end of U.S. Prohibition, Bacardi established itself in a U.S. territory — Puerto Rico. With its Cuban reputation, Bacardi looked to embrace its new home. It placed itself in a Puerto Rican institution, the Hospital Civil, in Puerta de Tierra, the last building constructed by the Spanish colonial government. Bacardi eventually sold the building to the Institute of Puerto Rican culture, which established the General Archives of Puerto Rico there.

Hospital Civil

However, Bacardi had much bigger plans in mind. Its leader, Pepin Bosch, oversaw the creation of a Bacardi campus on the Palo Seco peninsula, opposite old San Juan, across San Juan Bay.

The next chapter follows Bacardi and its architecture into Mexico. The company again fits its global brand into the local context.

But the remaining chapters step back to consider the implications of it all. “Bacardi in Exile” is a fine rumination of capitalism in exile from the triumph of a Communist revolution and the resulting “diaspora” for Bacardi — a richly ironic appropriation of the word for a transnational corporation.

The diaspora is the subject of a following chapter, “A Larger Archipelago,” that briefly traces Bacardi’s entry into Ontario, France, Martinique, Spain and Panama and finds that Bacardi continually fit its architectural design into the local culture. Until finally, the next chapter affirms, Bacardi is “At Home Everywhere.”

The final chapter, a single page really, “Beyond Corporate Ambition,” looks back on the evolution of Bacardi’s architecture from a tin-roofed shed in Santiago de Cuba to luxurious campuses and complexes worldwide. Shulman notes that Bacardi structures, even when overtaken by revolutionary forces, as in Havana, or forsaken by the company for newer quarter as in San Juan and Miami, remain memorable and iconic, something beyond Bacardi’s intentions and ambitions, something that captures the rich, impossible, ironic admixture of capitalism, architecture and art.

Bacardi Building Biscayne

Professor of Journalism, Lehigh University. Reader. Writer. I write about what I read.

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