Hotel Habana Riviera
|Hotel Habana Riviera|
Hotel Riviera taken in May 2009
|Location||Paseo y Malecón
|Opening||December 10, 1957|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||Igor B. Polevitzky|
|Number of rooms||352|
The hotel was owned and operated by Riviera de Cuba S.A. company, which was established by Meyer Lansky, though the incorporation papers listed the names of Miami hotel operators, a Canadian textile company and several others. It was built at a cost of US $8 million, most of which was provided by the Bank for Economic and Social Development (BANDES), a state-run development bank set up by Fulgencio Batista.
Lansky's investment partners included some of Las Vegas's biggest power brokers, among them his old friends Moe Dalitz, Morris Kleinman, Sam Tucker, and Wilbur Clark of the Desert Inn (and of Lansky's Hotel Nacional casino); Edward Levinson of the Fremont Hotel; and Hyman Abrams and Morris Rosen of the Flamingo Las Vegas (of Bugsy Siegel fame). As with all of Lansky’s dealings, he and his underworld associates’ ownership of the Riviera was hidden behind layers of managers and front men.
Work began on the 21-story hotel, located on the Malecón right next to the Meliá Cohiba Hotel, in December 1956 in the midst of the revolutionary upheaval. Not since the Nacional was constructed was there such resort excitement in Cuba. Already envisioned as "The Riviera of the Caribbean", it was considered the epitome of resort-construction, and certainly was one of the more costly hotels in Cuba. It was also the first of its kind in Havana to have air-conditioned rooms. Each room had a view of the Gulf of Mexico, with the hotel itself within sight of not only busy Havana but also the quiet splendor of the residential Miramar and Country Club sections.
In selecting an architect for the Riviera, Lansky initially approached Wayne McAllister, who was the prolific Los Angeles–based designer of Las Vegas's stylish Desert Inn, Fremont, and Sands hotels—all properties controlled by Lansky’s associates in the "Cleveland Gang." But Lansky's insistence that the hotel be completed in less than six months led McAllister to respectfully decline the commission. Instead, Igor Boris Polevitzky, one of the deans of Miami Modern architecture, took the job. Irving Feldman served as the project's general contractor.
Albert Parvin of the Parvin-Dohrman Company of Los Angeles, designed the hotel's decor. Lansky also hired two of Cuba’s great artists, muralist Rolando Lopez Dirube and sculptor Florencio Gelabert, who designed the white marble sculptures of an intertwined mermaid and swordfish that fronts the entrance porte cochere, and "Ritmo Cubano" (Cuban Rhythm), a large lobby sculpture that depicts twirling male and female dancers rendered in bronze. Between them, the three men deftly captured the marine outdoor atmosphere. At that time the president of the hotel was Harry Smith, a prominent hotelman from Toronto, Canada. T. James Ennis, who was well known in Cuba hotel circles, was the managing director.
The spacious feeling of capturing the outdoors and framing it in the luxurious interiors characterized the entire hotel. The vast color-accented lobby was conceived and designed as an open promenade. From the promenade, bridges over sunken gardens lead to the L’Elegante cocktail lounge and the L'Aiglon dining room. Extensive and practical use was made of tropical trees and plants, thus enhancing the outdoor aura.
The Al Fresco dining terrace fused into the pool, cabana club, and adjacent gardens. Particularly striking was the casino's elliptical shape. Its perfect half-dome was like a great inverted golden goblet.
The casino's exterior Malecón-Blue tile roof rivaled the fair Havana sky. From an unusual suspended ceiling hung seven out-size specially designed crystal fixtures. The gold leaf walls were embellished with large-scale designs reminiscent of Mayan jewelry. Lansky initially appointed Dino Cellini from Ohio to run the casino. Cubans had never been trained for gambling operations on such a large scale, so pit bosses, dealers and stickmen were brought from the States as "technicians" and in that category were allowed to stay on two-year visas. These men, veterans of the working class of illicit U.S. gambling, eventually turned into tutors for the Cubans. The casino would make over $3 million in its first four months of operation.
The rich color accents of the entire hotel were carried into the hotel's elaborately designed nightclub, the Copa Cabaret Room. The stage, of full theatre proportions, was considered an electronic marvel equipped for any maneuver deemed necessary in the production of the spectacular and what used to be known as the "Extravaganza". Lansky arranged for the top orchestras to play in its famous cabaret, where movie stars mingled with the mob.
In the main dining room known as L'Aiglon, the murals contributed a tropical note by telling the story of the Cubans at carnival time. The main cocktail lounge, L'Elegante, was a strong center of interest because of its intimate quality. There was a dance floor which had continual Latin music and casual entertainment. Behind suits and sports attire were the "formal dress" for the Al Fresco sidewalk café terrace, which overlooked the pool and cabana club. And the Primavera coffee shop had a leisurely, yet colorful informality that is consistent with the fun-loving aspects of the entire hotel.
The Riviera also had its own elaborate bakery in which breads and pastries were prepared with a flair to delight the most discriminating palates. As for the cabana club and pool area, the seawater pool where Esther Williams once splashed, was the largest in Havana, surrounded by 75 cabanas, each of which had two dressing rooms and telephones (Lansky would reserve the largest for himself). Outdoor dining and dancing terraces were also key features. Among a host of other conveniences for the vacationer were private dining and meeting rooms. All corner suites had wide balconies overlooking the Malecón shoreline drive. Other luxuries included a buffet restaurant, an à la carte restaurant, a grill bar, a 24 hour snack bar, room service, medical services, a money exchange, a souvenir shop, a tour desk and of course a casino.
After the hotel was finished, Lansky installed himself in the Presidential Suite on the top floor as his command post. When the hotel opened on December 10, 1957 the opening act at the Copa Cabaret was Ginger Rogers and her music revue (which was directed by Jack Cole). Lansky's official title was "kitchen director," but he controlled every aspect of the hotel. He complained that Rogers "can wiggle her ass, but she can't sing a goddam note!"
Within days the hotel became a symbol in Havana, attracting such acts as Abbott and Costello and Steve Allen who taped an episode of his prime time Sunday night show, The Steve Allen Show from the hotel. Celebrated guests included William Holden, diva Jean Fenn, Nat King Cole and Ava Gardner who was rumored to have dragged a bellhop into her bed.
But the seeds of the revolution had already sprouted a stronger, determined movement that would not allow the future of the Cuban nation to remain in the hands of gangsters and corrupt politicians. On January 1, 1959, after formally resigning his position in Cuba's government and going through what historian Hugh Thomas describes as "a charade of handing over power" to his representatives, remaining family and closest associates, Batista boarded a plane at 3 a.m. at Camp Colombia and flew to Ciudad Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
Lansky, suffering from ill health, also flew out that night, headed for the Bahamas. With him went his dream of being at the center of Cuba's gambling operations.
On January 22, 1959, a press conference was held at the Copa Cabaret, which was attended by national journalists and some guests, and there Fidel Castro gave his response to the world in regards to the Cuban Revolution.
- Schwartz, Rosalie (1997). Pleasure Island: Tourism and Temptation in Cuba. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-9265-1, 9780803292659 Check
- "History of Hotel Habana Riviera". HabanaRivieraHotel.cu.