Have you thought about sleeping in a room where Al Capone slept or where, just some time later, another mafia character like Santo Trafficante did? Or stay at the same rooms once used by Josephine Baker, Imperio Argentina and Libertad Lamarque? ¿Lola Flores, Tongolele, Tin Tan, Perez Prado? Hugo del Carril ¿or Jorge Negrete? The painter David Alfaro Siqueiros and chess icon José Raúl Capablanca… ?
All these possibilities exist at Sevilla Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Cuba. This is where part of the story of «Our man in Havana» takes place, which is one of the well-known novels of Graham Greene; who was also a guest of this hotel. So was Georges Simenon, creator of the famous literary character Inspector Maigret, and Ernest Hemingway, Novel Prize for Literature. Enrico Caruso and Rubén Darío also stayed in this hotel on their way through Havana, like did Mary Pickford, to whom the hotel dedicated a cocktail that is still the an emblem of the institution.
Thanks to the famous personalities who used its facilities, the Sevilla is a hotel with history. That and its already completed 100 years’of service. It was the first large luxury hotel in the Island, and today, a four-star category hotel, due to its comfort and the excellence of its services, it is still ranked among the favorite hotel choices for a pleasurable vacation in Cuba. It’s beautiful architecture contributes as well to its preference, which replicates the entrance to the Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra, in Granada, Andalucía, with arches, columns and mosaics profusion. And also its excellent location, right next to the famous Paseo del Prado and a few hundred meters from the Malecón in Havana, at the entrance to the Historic Center of town, and a few steps from famous museums and great bars and restaurants in the Cuban capital.
Hotel Sevilla in Old Havana.This hotel passed through several stages since its founding. The Sevilla hotel was inaugurated in 1908. If you get a glimpse of the image of its main facade, you can notice that its original owner was a Spanish man with the González surname. This person, a little bit later, sold the hotel to an American company that then sold it to the Biltmore Company, also of American capital. Americans have always known how to obtain the highest profitability of a business, and having knowledge of the growth of tourism on the island in the second decade of the last century, they strived to develop their facilities.
They bought a building of 10 plants that had been built next to the hotel Plaza, with its facade to the Paseo del Prado. At first this building was conceived to accommodate a hospital but it never opened because the owners had difficulties to get, from the City Hall of Havana, the declaration of the area as an area of silence, a prerequisite for establishing a medical institution. The American company then joined the new building with the existing hotel and reopened in 1924 as the Sevilla Biltmore Hotel. For that reason, even today, there are two styles in the constructive aspect of the hotel, an attractive older style that can be seen in the street Trocadero, and a more modern one that looks to the Paseo del Prado.
The hotel enjoyed the tourism boom of the time, which, as we said in an earlier article, was supported by national and international situations that benefited Hotel Plaza like no other hotel in Havana at that time since their owners also managed the Hippodrome and the National Casino.
Cuba was a paradise for the visitor interested in fun and entertainment, in exposing his luck at gambling and betting, but also according to the chronicles of travelers of the time, some peculiarities of Cuban idiosyncrasy made possible the tourism boom. In a book concerning our «tourist» attractions: «When it’s cocktail time in Cuba» (A la hora del coctel en Cuba), published in 1928, its author, Basil Woon, made these libertines suggestions to potential travelers: «You can drink all you want, try your luck at the lottery and lose what you think it is reasonable at the casino. In Havana there is no need to carry a marriage certificate if traveling as a couple and the visitor can look provocativey at beautiful Cuban ladies since that look in Cuba is a compliment and not a crime. «
In 1939, the Sevilla Hotel was held by Amleto Battisti, a Uruguayan man of Italian origin who was the head of one of the four families of the Havana Mafia Empire. He turned the hotel into one of the paradises of Havana’s gambling until 1959.
With the triumph of the revolutionary movement in January of the same year, Don Amleto, who also controlled the traffic of heroin into the U.S., left his hotel on the day of triumph for refuge in the Uruguayan embassy. He carried as his baggage several large suitcases full of money. The Sevilla Hotel then was used exclusively for local tourism until 1989, when it closed its doors for a big refurbishment, reopening in 1993 with the glory that always characterized it, but with the amenities of modernity.
I could tell stories of the many famous people who stayed at the Hotel Sevilla, but I will only refer to one of them in this article:
The great Josephine Baker stayed at the Hotel Sevilla when she first arrived in Havana in 1950, to perform for several nights at the América Theater. The Baker was initially seduced by the Hotel Nacional de Cuba as an ideal venue to stay. But unbelievably, as it was considered the flagship hotel of all Cuban hotels, she was not accepted because of the black color of her skin. In this situation, Amleto Battisti, who recognized the fame that accompanied the worldwide star, and knowing that her presence at the facility would be excellent advertising for the hotel, offered to host and serve her as a queen. The day after arriving at the Sevilla Hotel she began her performances at the América Theater. Despite her 54 years of age, she appeared agile and beautiful. Only… that she danced with her clothes on. Still, it is said that the lines of people that crowded outside the theater to see her, exceeded earlier lines for other shows in Havana. The Sevilla was the hotel that saved Havana from not appreciating, in situ, the immense value of a living legend of world art, Josephine Baker.