The Sevilla, one of the earliest hotels in Havana (it was a hundred years in March 2008), has many stories to tell and enjoys more than one privilege.
When talking about the history of the Sevilla Hotel, one cannot ignore the history of Havana’s Paseo del Prado. The construction of this famous promenade began in 1774, in the outskirts of the old wall erected in an attempt to protect the city from the attacks of corsair and pirate raids during the 16th through 18th centuries. In time, a new urban concept was advanced, consisting of wider streets fringed by leafy trees. The most luxurious mansions in the city stood on both sides of the avenue. Shortly after, the Prado became the heart of Havana’s social life especially on Sundays, when numerous aristocratic families would display themselves, riding along the thoroughfare in horse-drawn carriages and during the carnival season, since the Prado marked the high point of this popular festivity.
With the passage of time, the fortification system became obsolete and the demolition of the city wall began in 1863. A few years later, the construction of the first luxury hotel in Havana, the Gran Hotel Sevilla, was initiated in an area adjacent to the famous Paseo del Prado:.
The owners of the Inglaterra Hotel, Manuel Lopez and Urbano Gonzalez, erected this hotel on the corners of Trocadero and Zulueta. According to Juan de las Cuevas Toraya, in his book 500 años de la construcción en Cuba (Five Hundred Years of Construction in Cuba), the hotel was designed by Jose Toraya and assisted by engineer Aurelio Sandoval. However, according to sources consulted by the hotel historian T. Pupo, the architects were Antonio and Rogelio Rodriguez, inspired by the magnificent Moorish entrance leading to the legendary Court of the Lions of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, a style characterized by arcades formed by slender marble columns topped by arches and a profusion of colored tiles. Works began in 1880 by one of the few companies operated by Cubans, El Guardian Construction Company, whose president was Mr. Perfecto Lopez with Mr. Felipe Beltran as its manager. The Gran Hotel Sevilla was inaugurated on March 22, 1908, in a pompous ceremony attended by the crème de la crème of Havana’s society. The Bishop of Havana and members of the town council were also present and Mrs. Maria Pilar Beltran, together with Mr. Perfecto Lopez, served as sponsors.
The entrances to the hotel were located on Trocadero and Zulueta Streets and the ground floor housed a drugstore, barbershop, café, meeting room and other facilities. The 162 rooms, with bathroom and telephone, were distributed throughout the rest of the floors which could be reached by two lifts and two staircases; there were family suites and sitting rooms in every floor. The total cost of the building was 500 thousand pesos. In the center, a large Andalusian- style courtyard enhanced the circulation of air through the rooms, which had very high ceilings and were therefore very comfortable during the summer months. Luxurious furnishing, manufactured by Vila and Rodriguez, a Cuban company, added to the comfort of guests. With this hotel, Havana opened its doors to the nascent tourist industry.
Its architecture, stylish decor, services and, especially, its centric location, made the hotel one of the most frequented during the early years of the Republic and its fame extended beyond the island’s boundaries. In it, debutantes were presented to society, charity dances were organized and funds were raised for the erection of a statue in honor of the illustrious Jose de la Luz y Caballero. The Roof Garden became the meeting place par excellence of rich businessmen and politicians, where many important deals were struck and political campaigns of the times arranged.
There are many scandalous anecdotes about the illustrious guests who stayed in the hotel, such as the time when the famous tenor Enrico Caruso became so frightened by the explosion of an artifact in the Teatro Nacional where he was performing that, without changing his clothes or removing his make-up, ran to seek refuge in the Sevilla Hotel where he was staying. On another occasion, Josephine Baker, who had been refused accommodation at the Hotel Nacional because of the color of her skin, was received at the Sevilla and declared an Illustrious Guest. A press conference was organized, which proved to be a great publicity stunt for the Hotel.
During the early twenties, the American Bowman Hotels company purchased the Gran Hotel Sevilla and the building next to it (which was initially destined to be a hospital, but was never used as such because it failed to obtain a silence zone authorization in this densely populated area). An extension of the hotel was concluded by the Arellano and Mendoza Company in 1924, allowing access to the Paseo del Prado and to the central courtyard of the original hotel. Now there was a total of 300 rooms. The building was ten floors high and covered an area of 27 X 47 m. The ground floor had space for ten shops and the top floor was occupied by a roof garden, with a spacious hall, kitchen and pantry. The rooms were distributed among the eight intermediate floors. The contract for the construction of the building was signed on January 24, 1923 and the works concluded on January 2, 1924, an actual record at the time. Following this investment, both buildings were joined and the construction became the highest building in Havana. On December 1924, the buildings were christened with a new name: Hotel Sevilla Biltmore. The hotel had four floors with 300 rooms and nine apartments, all provided with telephone and bathroom.
The prestige of the Hotel was such that, in 1928, many of the participants to the OAS Pan American Conference, held in Cuba, were accommodated there. The stock market crash of 1929 had a negative effect on its operations, to the point that Biltmore decided to close in 1931 and did not reopen its doors until four years later, now under the auspices of multimillionaire Succession Falla Gutierrez.
As a result of these events, together with the growing US penetration of the country which would give tourism an overtone associated with vice and racketeering, the Sevilla underwent major changes. The life of the hotel changed its course in 1939, when Don Amleto Battisti Lora obtained full control of the Sevilla Biltmore Hotel shares. This Uruguayan of Italian origin arrived in Cuba after a shady past linked to the South American and European underworld. As the wealthy owner of Arrendataria S. A., he bribed government officials and bought the stocks of the Hotel, encumbered by a mortgage obtained from the City Bank Trust Company, and established his center of operation at the Sevilla. Some time later, Battisti entered negotiations with the Italian-American mafia which was beginning to take over Havana, first through Lucky Luciano and later Santos Traficante (senior).
With regards to innovations to the building, Don Amleto carried out a series of important adaptations and repairs. He opened a bar decorated by famous Cuban caricaturist Conrado Massager. This was the first air-conditioned bar in Cuba. Years later, he built a casino over the hotel cafeteria which operated until the triumph of the Revolution.
Given the splendor and elegance of the Hotel and the business relations of the personalities linked to it, the Sevilla Hotel became the scene of numerous important social events. Due to its elegance, popularity and personages who regularly frequented it, the Roof Garden became the fashion show of high society. During the thirties, the Havana Chapter of the International Association of Lions Clubs hosted its lunch-meetings every Tuesday at 12:00 noon in the Chinese Room. Life in the Hotel remained more or less the same throughout the following two decades, until January 1st, 1959, when the Cuban Revolution triumphed and its owner, Don Amleto Battisti Lora, speedily sought asylum in the Uruguayan Embassy. Shortly after, the Hotel became property of the Cuban Revolutionary State.
The Hotel continued rendering services until 1965, mainly to national tourism. Between 1966 and 1969, the facility underwent a general overhaul and areas destined to a hotel–school were adapted. The current hotel-school was opened on October 1969, with capacity for 400 guests in its 188 rooms and two living quarters for scholarship students. This school has the honor of having trained most of the country’s hotel staff.
Twenty years later, in 1989, a complete revitalization of the Sevilla Hotel was undertaken and its appearance completely renovated. In 1993, the Hotel resumed operations with the splendor that always characterized it, but now modernized with a new concept of comfort and international hotel service.
Since November 1st 1995, the Sevilla Hotel, property of the Gran Caribe Cuban Hotel Group, has been operated by the French ACCOR Group.