Inside the Ruins of Havana’s Regal Past
During the 1940s, Cuban residents put on their weekend’s best and headed to Frontón Jai-Alai – a massive structure in Central Havana that housed a sport as thrilling as baseball.
This was the cultural heyday of Cuba — the island had won their independence from Spain, the famed Tropicana club was a global phenomenon, and tourists were flocking to the pastel-colored city to see the world’s top talent.
Twenty years later, Frontón and countless other structures locked their doors and fell into disarray, leaving remnants of past celebrations on dusty floors. They still sit vacant and decaying today – beautiful and eerie.
This is the post-Revolution Cuba. One where strongholds from Fidel’s government and an embargo from the U.S. sent the Cuban economy in a downward spiral. Officials can’t afford to restore these government-owned structures, at least not yet. Apartments have been built on top of many, with residents becoming unwilling caretakers. Squatters can sometimes be found inside, along with gangs of cats and birds.
Quite often citizens will find a new use for the buildings because space is a rare commodity, according to René Caparrós Aguiar. A historian and professor from Havana, Aguiar helped us to explore and understand these impressive sites, like the former Verdun theater.
Verdun is ornate with regal, pink balconettes suitable for the most formal performances. It was home to many musicals and variety shows and later became a cinema. The carved walls are now water-logged and moldy from gapes in the ceiling. If you’re lucky enough to make it inside, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by ballet barres lining the walls. The structure now serves as a practice facility for local dance companies – helping to restore its artistic pride.
Havana is a stunning city, despite its architectural decline, which is a testament to its rich history and generous people. Here are Havana’s most unique urban ruins:
The ghostly exterior of the Verdun Theater in Central Havana, which was once popular for musicals, variety shows and later, films. It has been abandoned for nearly 40 years.
This massive, decaying gem is the famous Frontón Jai-Alai, which dates back to the early 1900s. Jai-Alai, or Pelota Vasca in Spanish, was the most popular spectator sport (along with baseball) in Cuba from the 1930s to the 1950s. Babe Ruth is said to have played and watched the game often in Havana.
Ballet barres line the interior of Verdun, which is now used as a makeshift practice facility for local dance companies.
Despite extensive damage and gapes in the ceiling, Verdun is still beautiful with its pink walls and intricate balconettes. Some sources say the roof was removable, so attendees could watch films under the stars.
Despite being vacant for nearly 50 years, a game net still hangs in Frontón and the numbered seats are all still intact.
An old snack cart, most likely from the Verdun’s cinema days, still sits in the corner.
In the hall of the sports arena, evidence of caretakers living next door and the markings of children’s martial arts classes that sometimes inhabit the structure.
Frontón was the largest facility for Jai-Alai in all of Cuba.
Teatro Musical de la Habana
The Teatro Musical de la Habana (lower structure) was once known as the Theater Alhambra, one of the most famous in Cuba, and offered performances until the 1980s. Rumor has it the theater was shut down due to the government’s disapproval of shows’ content.
A piano still sits in the lobby, despite being vacant for nearly 30 years.
A mural at the rear of the lobby is telling of the theater’s famous past. Cuba’s elite actors, musicians and dancers had many successful runs here. Now, residents live above the teatro, which appears to be causing stress on the original building.
Cine-Teatro Fausto is an art-deco landmark in Habana Vieja that offers theater performances and films. It’s only been out of use the past few years while receiving renovations – a rare occurrence in Cuba. However, no date has been set for a reopening.
The art deco design in Fausto’s lobby is a reminder of Havana’s vibrant past.