One of the most striking things driving into Havana is the spread of tropical colors, etched on colonial and art deco buildings, some fitted with stained-glass windows and topped with elaborate Moorish-style rooftops that project over the Malecón, a sea wall that hugs five miles of the city’s coastline, and downtown’s cobblestone streets. Color is as integral to the architecture as the posts that hold it.
The colors are extraordinary, but I used to equate them only with Havana, not Savannah.
My husband, Luis, and I laugh now, but those shining colors, in all their glory, were central to a cultural bump we hit after purchasing our first home in 2004.
The house was a one-story ranch style structure set in a quiet, conservative Savannah block filled with understated shades of brick, beige, gray and white. It was plagued with outdated wallpaper, crooked shutters, peeling paint and a wretched kitchen. Luis first took a sledgehammer to the latter and its nasty, wooden cabinetry and laminated counter tops, replacing all with a small, well-appointed design mix of granite, stainless steel and tile. In went the dining and living room rosewood flooring and soft carpeting in the four bedrooms. All was good.
So when he made another Home Depot run for paint I didn’t think a thing of it. In my head there would be clean white walls, sleek silvers and icy blues, mirrored lighting and maybe a few pops of color with framed artwork, pillows and the sort, though we never talked about it.
Instead, when I looked at the tins set by the front door it was a rainbow collection, not a can of bone or ivory in the bunch. There was tangerine, turquoise, yellow, peach, red and light blue for the various interior rooms; Easter egg green for the exterior. Light green? Light green?
Yes – with much animation on his end – and there was a dark terracotta stain for the back porch’s cement ground.
Pause. What to do, what to say? I didn’t like any of it.
But there wasn’t a way for me to squash his excitement. It was clear – this was going to be his Little Havana, representing the community he’d left behind, smack in the middle of Gringalandia. This would be his one familiar when nothing else was. How was I to rob him of that?
On the island the sunlit shades lift you. Maybe, please, please, they would do the same here.
But as I watched the lime-ish tone take over the front exterior and the back patio turned into a deep, burnt orange I struggled. When the walls inside went from zero to pop, in a dizzying array, I cringed. Nothing – absolutely nada – was comfortable to me.
A couple of family members and our real estate agent reacted similarly, visibly taken aback by the color punches, and suggested we re-do all in neutrals, inside and out, to flip the house quickly, which was the plan from day one. We needed to infuse pale images on the walls and exchange the patterned pillows and throws for muted ones. It was too busy and would deter potential buyers (which it did for some time).
But our bit of Cuba, by then surrounded with palm trees and other semitropical plantings, gave Luis a small buoy he needed. I nudged gently here and there, but for the most part I kept my mouth shut, all stayed the same and eventually it was swooped up by a young, art student who came from somewhere in the Midwest, taking a creative outsider to buy another outsider’s vision.
We’re in our third house over the last 10 years and today it’s a good blend. There’s white, there’s color and yes, there’s terracotta, but I like it. All of it, immensely. It’s happy, festive and everything around us feels alive.
Latin America’s colors represented well in Miami:
On Calle Ocho (8th street) in Miami’s Little Havana, about five minutes west of downtown, is The Good Wall Project, a collection of 100-plus murals, giving the local community a chance to showcase its art in a public way, curator Diana Contreras tells me.
Stop by The Good Wall’s block party on November 22nd.
The last Friday of every month, the Viernes Culturales street party in Little Havana hosts late-night gallery openings, salsa bands, food trucks and other street vendors.