Bruner/Cott, founded in 1972 by Simeon Bruner and Leland Cott, FAIA, pioneered adaptive-use strategies. Based in Cambridge, Mass., it is a decidedly New England firm, with most of its projects located in and around Boston. Over the last decade, Lee Cott has consulted as a technical adviser on the restoration of Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home and workspace, Finca Vigia, orginally designed by Catalan architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer in 1886. The National Trust for Historic Preservation still lists the building as an endangered property, but it’s Cott and his team that have been instrumental to making sure that it stands at least a fighting chance.
Our practice here in Cambridge has its roots in adaptive use and preservation. In the early 1990s, I started teaching at Harvard and became interested in design studios using Havana sites. Havana represented many of the things I valued pedagogically: community development, housing, and the way architecture relates to those objectives. I had first been to Havana in 1977 as part of an early exploratory trip for possible U.S. business ties to Cuba. When I met Fidel Castro, he actually invited me to come back to Cuba to assist in its preservation efforts, but due to the U.S. economic embargo, it was an impossibility to do so.
By the late ’90s, Cuban culture had again become popular in the U.S.—with the Buena Vista Social Club and the comparative ease of cultural travel permitted by the Clinton administration. I had also been lecturing on Cuban architecture, preservation, and urban design at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Graham Foundation, Harvard, and Yale with topics about my interest in Cuba and in preserving its midcentury Modernist structures.
Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia, was in dire need of repair and already the focus of Cuban preservation efforts. It is an important tourist locale, but without adequate facilities to handle the crowds. The house was not getting the attention from the government that Old Havana was getting—it’s 15 kilometers [9.3 miles] outside of the city. The Cubans thought they had stabilized Finca Vigia, but the roof leaked badly, it had a deteriorating structure, and there was evidence of mold growth on some of the interior walls. In one instance, the Cubans had built a wall over an existing exterior wall that trapped moisture.
The Cubans were skilled preservationists, but they didn’t have access to modern preservation techniques and technology. So we—Henry Moss, AIA, from my office; William Dupont, AIA, at the National Trust; and I—were technical advisers with the U.S.-based Hemingway Preservation Foundation. We were able to secure approval from the Treasury Department and were granted a license to travel to Cuba to assist the Cubans in restoring the house.
They were guarded about our involvement at first. They’ve been fighting hard to control their culture, and the architecture community was guarded about publicity and receiving advice from North Americans. I speak Spanish fairly fluently; that helped. I understand Latin culture and was trusted by the Cubans; that helped. By mid-2005, I returned to Havana with an environmental design team to study the house and its site, and elected to begin our work that eventually culminated in a preservation report in 2007. It’s fairly comprehensive and details the work that needed to be done, ways to restore the materials in the house, and so on. I had been in the Peace Corps from 1966–68 in Colombia—and the kind of roof that they used in school construction was the same roof that Hemingway used. I recognized it immediately. —As told to William Richards