Hotel Habana Riviera

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Hotel Habana Riviera
Hotel Riviera (525406392).jpg
Hotel Riviera (2007)
General information
Location Paseo y Malecón
Cuba Havana, Cuba
Opening December 10, 1957
Owner Gran Caribe Grupo Hotelero
Technical details
Floor count 21
Design and construction
Architect Igor B. Polevitzky
Developer Parvin-Dohrmann Co.
Other information
Number of rooms 352

The Hotel Habana Riviera, also known as the Gran Caribe Habana Riviera, Hotel Riviera Havana or Havana Rivera, is located at the mouth of the Almendares River on the Malecón waterfront boulevard in Havana, Cuba. The hotel, which is managed by the Cuban chain Gran Caribe, was built in 1957 and still maintains its original 1950's style. It has twenty-one floors containing 352 rooms all of which feature views of the water and the Vedado neighborhood.


The hotel was originally owned by mobster Meyer Lansky who had been inspired to build it after visiting his friend, Moe Dalitz's nine-storey Riviera Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. It was intended to rival the comfort and contemporary luxury of any Las Vegas hotel of the era. The choice to build in Havana was because Lansky simply did not want to be subject to U.S. laws or the scrutiny of the FBI. The hotel was officially operated by the "Riviera de Cuba S.A. company", established in 1956. The original incorporation papers also listed the names of certain "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 then President, Fulgencio Batista.[1]

Lansky's investment partners included some of Las Vegas's biggest power brokers. Besides Dalitz were his old friends Morris Kleinman, Sam Tucker, Wilbur Clark of the Desert Inn (and Lansky's Hotel Nacional casino); Ed Levinson of the Fremont Hotel; Charles "Babe" Baron looking after Sam Giancana's interests 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.

The Habana Riviera, seen from the Malecón.


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 offer. Instead, Igor Boris Polevitzky, one of the deans of Miami Modern architecture, took the job with Irving Feldman, who had a dozen prestigious hotels and apartment blocks to his credit in Miami Beach, serving as the project's general contractor.[2] Original blueprints of the hotel were made in Miami by the Feldman Construction Corporation, as well as by the Cuban-based architect, Manuel Carrera Machado.[3]

Lansky then hired Albert B. Parvin of the Parvin-Dohrmann Co. in Los Angeles to design the hotel's original decor.[4][5] Parvin was an interior decorator whose only previous chief claim to fame in decorating was having laid carpets in many of the big hotels in Vegas. His main occupation was operating the Flamingo, a post he held between 1955 and 1960; nine years after Lansky himself agreed to Lucky Luciano's demands that a hit be put out on the casino's would-be original operator, Bugsy Siegal at the infamous Havana Conference.[6] 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.[7]

Work began on the site of a former sports arena 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 where, at the beginning of the 20th century, Cuban magnates and American businessmen built their opulent homes.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

The casino's exterior Malecón-Blue tile roof rivaled the fair Havana sky.[citation needed] From an unusual suspended ceiling once hung seven out-size specially designed crystal fixtures. The gold leaf walls were embellished with large-scale designs reminiscent of Mayan jewelry. 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[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] There was a dance floor which had continual Latin music and casual entertainment.[citation needed] Behind suits and sports attire were the "formal dress" for the Al Fresco sidewalk café terrace, which overlooked the pool and cabana club. The Riviera also once boasted its own bakery.[citation needed]

The pool from above c. 1973.
Cabanas and the three-level diving platform c. 1973.

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, appointing Harry Smith, a prominent hotelman from Toronto as president of the hotel and T. James Ennis, who was well known in Cuba hotel circles, as the managing director. Lansky's official title was "kitchen director," but he controlled every aspect of the hotel, especially the casino which was operated by Frank Erickson, Giordino Cellini, Ed Levenson and Dusty Peters. He had initially appointed Dino Cellini from Ohio to run the casino but replaced him with Erickson who was serving as Frank Costello’s representative in Cuba.[8] Since Cubans had never been trained for gambling operations on such a large scale, 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.

Opening and famous guests[edit]

When the Riviera opened on December 10, 1957, it was the largest purpose-built casino-hotel in Cuba or anywhere in the world at that time outside Las Vegas (the Havana Hilton surpassed its size a year later). The opening act that night at the Copa Cabaret was Ginger Rogers and her music revue directed by Jack Cole. Lansky complained that Rogers could "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 featuring Mamie Van Doren swimming in the pool.[9][10] Other 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.

The Revolution[edit]

Unfortunately for Lansky seeds of the revolution had already sprouted a stronger, more 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, President Batista boarded a plane at 3 a.m. at Camp Colombia and flew to Ciudad Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. In a pirate radio broadcast from the mountains, Castro stated that he preferred executing gangsters to deporting them. Now his bearded battalions were less than 500 miles away from Havana. By now suffering from ill health, Lansky charted a plane that same New Year's Eve headed for the Bahamas. With him went his dream of being at the center of Cuba's gambling operations.

On January 22, 1959, Fidel Castro held a press conference at the Copa Cabaret inside the hotel where he gave his response to the world with regards to the Cuban Revolution. In October of the following year he nationalized all the island's hotel-casinos and outlawed gambling.


The hotel still maintains the famous "Palacio de la Salsa Club" where salsa bands regularly perform


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 23°08′23″N 82°24′14″W / 23.1397°N 82.4040°W / 23.1397; -82.4040