Along the Calzada del Cerro
During the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a booming plantation economy developed in western Cuba, spawning a dramatic increase in the country’s population as well as prompting a consolidation of its land-owning Creole aristocracy within the capital city of Havana. In the span of only a few decades, Havana grew well beyond its colonial city walls, branching out along several urban axes, among the most important a road running to the southwest known as Calzada del Cerro. Over time, the three-kilometerlong Calzada became the virtual backbone of El Cerro, a newly established private enclave for Havana’s burgeoning elite, whose fortunes were derived in large part from sugar harvested by slave labor. Thanks to a bountiful supply of fresh water provided by the Zanja Real, or royal canal, built in 1592, and a host of more recent civic improvements—new roads and bridges—and the development of an urban transport system, El Cerro reached its apogee in the mid-nineteenth century. The allure of the district was further enhanced by a quest for potable water during a severe cholera epidemic in 1833. Those who could afford to leave Havana’s fetid city center simply did.
The casa quinta, or country estate, was the archetypal house of the nineteenth-century Creole noble of El Cerro. It was during the district’s golden age between 1830 and 1880 that the casa quinta came into its own, a blend of new flat roofs in the neoclassical style with traditional alfarjes— pitched and coffered wooden ceilings covered with Creole clay tiles. The Calzada itself was greatly enhanced during this period by the addition of a colonnade that ran its entire length and linked many of the mansions’ porches one to the next. Erected as part of the Building Ordinances of 1861, the colonnade presented the passerby with a dramatic rhythm of light and shade. While neoclassicism appeared in other areas around Havana, it was in El Cerro—and particularly along the Calzada—that it found its greatest expression. The most prominent houses were located either on the calzada itself or could be accessed from it via several roads. Some shared sidewalls; others were fully detached buildings, offering a visual counterpoint between private porches and public corridors. Among these were the mansions of the Counts of Villanueva, O’Reilly, Fernandina, Lombillo, Santovenia, and San Esteban de Cañongo; those of the Marquises of Pinar del Río, Almendares, Gratitud, Real Campiña, San Miguel de Bejucal, and Sandoval; as well as the residences of other distinguished families such as the Ajuria, Echarte,