Sept. 21 2016 11:47 AM

Christman Co. joins historic fight to rescue the Cuban legacy of Ernest Hermingway

Ernest Hemingway lived at Finca Vigía, or Lookout Farm, on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba, from 1943 until 1960, a year before his death.
Courtesy Photo

As a scrappy kid growing up in the Dominican Republic and later in Detroit, Manuel Martinez felt a kinship to Santiago, the never-say-die Cuban fisherman in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The old man lost his hard-won marlin to sharks, but Martinez absorbed a lasting lesson from Santiago and his creator.

“Putting up a good fight,” he said, “that’s it, short and sweet.”

Two college degrees later, as a project engineer for the Lansing-based Christman Co., Martinez is a key player in the fight to restore and preserve thousands of Hemingway’s documents and artifacts, from books, guns and shoes to an embalmed lizard. All of it is still stashed at Finca Vigía, the house in Cuba where Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The house, now a museum run by the Cuban government, and its priceless contents are under relentless attack from the slow sharks of time — heat, humidity, mold, termites and the occasional hurricane.

The Finca Vigía project is relatively small in comparison to some of the monumental projects Christman has taken on in the past 20 years, which include Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Capitol in Richmond to Lansing’s Capitol dome and colossal Ottawa Power Station. But Christman Senior Vice President Ron Staley, who helped coordinate the project, called it “the biggest small project we’ve ever had.”

Courtesy Photo
The Finca Vigía restoration team included William Dupont, an architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation (left), Christman's Ron Staley (right) and Bob Vila, former host of TV's "This Old House," who has Cuban ancestry. Dupont asked Staley to join the team after they worked together on Abraham Lincoln's summer cottage near Washington.
“We’ve worked on Henry Ford’s estate, but he didn’t just walk out and leave everything there,” Staley said. “Hemingway slept on that bed, on that mattress. The books he touched are still there. How much closer can you get to history than that?”

The project is also a milestone in the history of Cuban-American relations. In May, after a delicate dance involving the Cuban government and the U.S. Dept. of State, the first shipment of materials for the project arrived safely in Cuba. The tools and raw materials are being used to build an archival storage facility near the Hemingway house — the first structure built in Cuba with American materials since the 1950s, according the Texas Society of Architects.

Endless carpentry

Hemingway is as much of a cultural icon in Cuba as he is in America. A baseball diamond, where neighborhood kids still play, is one of the first things you see when you enter the gates of Finca Vigía, one of the island’s top tourist destinations.

Finca Vigía, Spanish for “lookout farm,” lies about 10 miles outside of downtown Havana in the relatively poor suburb of San Francisco de Paula. Hemingway lived there from 1939 until 1960, when he and his fourth wife, Mary, moved to Ketchum, Idaho, where he committed suicide in 1961.

Busloads of visitors content themselves with peeking through the doors and windows of Hemingway’s abandoned home. But in 2012, Staley and the restoration team enjoyed the rare privilege of walking through the house. (Michelle Obama got the same privilege in March during President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba.)

Staley was dumbfounded. There were Hemingway’s furniture, his telescope, his water buffalo head, his portable “laptop” gambling set with tiny roulette wheel.

Two sections of bathroom wall are still scribbled over with Hemingway’s daily weight checks. A magazine rack, designed by Mary Hemingway to fit into a corner, still stands in the living room, full of magazines from the 1950s.

Mary Hemingway, an accomplished journalist, met Ernest Hemingway while they were both covering World War II in London. As far back as the 1940s, she bemoaned the “endless carpentry” and constant renovations going on at Finca Vigía. Termites were already chewing up the window frames.

“The ancient red tiles of the terracing were crumbling and calling for replacements,” she wrote. And, of course, “we needed more bookshelves.”

The bookshelves are still there, along with Hemingway’s humidor, his phone, a picture of him talking on that phone, his Picasso painting of a bull and on and on.

When Martinez went through the house, he was just as impressed by the trove of belongings.

The house at Finca Vigía is packed with thousands of his belongings, including over 9,000 books, 2,000 of which are annotated in Hemingway's hand.
Courtesy Photo
“It’s as if he just walked out and left his home,” Martinez said. “It was shocking to me.”

The house is packed with more than 9,000 books, about 2,000 of which have notes or inscriptions from Hemingway. For decades, this trove of possessions and documents has been sitting in a house with no air conditioning and minimal protection from ultraviolet light.

Building trust

By the time Staley joined the preservation team, the 8-year-old, Boston-based Finca Vigía Foundation had already built a working relationship with the Cuban government. A wealth of Hemingway artifacts, many of them from Mary Hemingway, are stored at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library, where the foundation is based. The Cuban government agreed to loan 100,000 pages of documents and 4,300 photographs from Finca Vigía to the foundation to be digitally archived.

“They built up trust, a piece of paper at a time,” Staley said.

The restoration team was tasked with assessing the condition of the original house and two new buildings, an administration building and a taller (pronounced “tie-yare”), an archive being built to preserve documents and other artifacts from deterioration.

Lansing-based Christman Co. is helping the Cuban government build a tropics-proof archive for Hemingway's delicate books, documents and belongings — the first building in Cuba to use American materials since the 1950s. A double wall design will keep moisture out even during power outages and hurricanes.
Courtesy Photo

Besides Staley, the team included Bob Vila, famous as the longtime host of PBS’ “This Old House;” National Trust for Historic Preservation architect William Dupont and New Jersey architect Michael Henry.

Dupont and Staley worked together on the restoration of President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, where Lincoln spent three summers during the Civil War. They also teamed up on a workshop at the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, advising Native Americans on how to preserve their heritage.

Dupont swept Staley into the Hemingway adventure on the strength of Christman’s work at the Lincoln Cottage and its long resume of historic restoration projects.

Vila brought a lot to the team, including name recognition and the ear of the State Department. Born in Miami to Cuban émigré parents, Vila was raised in both Miami and Havana until the 1959 revolution.

“He’s a huge fundraiser for the foundation and he knows the best restaurants in Havana,” Staley said.

The team checked out the estate and found the two newer buildings, the taller and an administration building, in bad shape. Even the Cuban Ministry of Culture had doubts as to whether they were adequate to protect the Hemingway collection.

The team, as Staley put it, found a polite way of telling the government the buildings were “junk.” Floor slabs that should have been three and a half inches thick were only an inch and a half thick. Many areas lacked reinforcing steel, and the concrete was crumbling. The team recommended that the Cubans tear down the partially built taller and put up a new one.

‘That’s illegal’

A year later, Dupont told Staley the Cubans were back at work on the taller, and they were interested in using American materials.

“Bill, that’s illegal,” Staley said to Dupont.

But wheels were turning behind the scenes. The State, Commerce and Treasury departments were working on legislation to make it legal.

“It was based on the theory that the project was protecting an American citizen — Hemingway,” Staley said with a conspiratorial grin.

The team returned to Finca Vigía in Oct. 2013 to draw up a list of construction materials that were needed and could be safely sent.

By spring 2016, no legislation was needed. Obama carved out exceptions to the embargo on Cuban-American trade, allowing exports to Cuba for the purposes of science, archaeology and historical preservation.

Left to right: Raul Espinosa, Manny Martinez and Ron Staley of the Christman Co. visited the Finca Vigía site Sept. 7.
Courtesy Photo
The restoration team decided to send four carefully limited and sequenced shipments of materials and tools to Cuba. Sending everything at once could have caused confusion and loss or even black marketeering, as building materials and tools of any quality are almost impossible to get in Cuba.

In early May, when the first containers arrived in Cuba, a celebration was held, with CNN and ABC on hand. The two containers were carefully set on a smooth stretch of street (newly paved for the visit by Michelle Obama), with a security camera in place.

“The Cubans are taking it very seriously,” Staley said. “If you lose what we send you, you don’t get the next shipment.”

The first shipment included hurricane-proof windows, heavy stacks of roofing tiles, flooring and sealant for the exterior — everything needed to keep the building watertight.

On June 13, Martinez and an American crew inventoried the materials and it was all there, with slight breakage of roof tiles. It was his proudest day on the project.

“It was my baby, and to see the materials get there, that experience was extremely rewarding,” he said. “The containers were sealed, totally untouched. When we did the inventory, it was item for item, exactly how we packed it.”

Martinez and the team accustomed Cuban contractors to wearing hardhats, safety glasses and work boots. The tool belts looked like something out of a superhero movie to the Cuban work crew. (Flip-flops and bare chests are the customary work outfit.)

Earlier this month, Sept. 6 through 9, Staley and Martinez returned to Cuba with Mary-Jo Adams, director of the Finca Vigía Foundation, to see how the work was going.

They also brought along Raul Espinosa, a Spanish-speaking construction superintendent for Christman, to beef up the training. Reports from Dupont in July warned that some of the work wasn’t being done to proper standards.

It was an intense three days. None of the 12 workers on the site had ever seen a mitre box, a common tool in any handyman’s garage in the U.S. They needed help sorting out the different types of saws used for tile, concrete and aluminum. Even a basic carpenters’ chalk box, with a string that unrolls and snaps to measure and mark out a straight line, was a novelty.

“It was kind of like being Santa Claus or a magician, showing them some of these tools,” Staley said.

The crew had only worked with woodframed windows and had never seen anything like the hurricane windows that will be used for the taller, which are made of heavy aluminum and close tightly with precision latching to seal out moisture. When Staley went to inspect the wall, a scorpion scuttled out from a space under one of the windows.

Some improvisation was in order. Termites made wooden shims, usually used to hold windows in place, out of the question. So the crew used bits of leftover ceramic tile, cut to shape, and PVC pipe.

Deferred maintenance

Despite the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Staley called the Finca Vigía restoration “unbelievably delicate.”

The second shipment, originally scheduled for the end of August, has been put off until current work is up to snuff. That delivery will involve even more complicated equipment, such as mechanical systems, ventilation, light fixtures and plumbing.

The third shipment will be the most delicate package of all, with lab equipment and supplies, including stainless steel cases and conservation chemicals — everything needed to set up a true conservation laboratory. Staley still hopes the taller will be done by the end of the year.

Martinez, who works at Christman’s Detroit office, has proven to be the perfect point man for the project. He moved to Michigan from the Dominican Republic when he was 10 and has engineering and architectural degrees from the University of Michigan.

The translation of documents required impeccable linguistic and mathematical skills. Hundreds of dimensions had to be converted from English to metric units, with no room for error.

Hemingway with his sons Patrick, left, and Gregory, and cats Will, Princessa, and Boise relax at Finca Vigía in the early 1940s.
Photo Courtesy John F. Kennedy Library
“You have to make sure you have everything, every bolt, you need,” Martinez said. “It’s not like you can go to Home Depot and buy it.”

When the taller is finished, the restoration team will tackle Hemingway’s guest house and garage, which is so ravaged by termites it may have to be torn down and rebuilt.

With the end of months of planning and negotiation in sight, Staley has begun to consider where the trail blazed by the project might lead.

Last month, the Cuban Ministry of Culture asked the project team to include some stained glass, unobtainable in Cuba, in the next shipment, for the renovation of a historic church.

“That door is opening,” Staley said. “We believe there are other historically significant projects we could help them with.”

There is a lot of grand old architecture in Cuba, and even more of what Staley diplomatically calls “deferred maintenance.” But the day when an American company like Christman could come to Cuba to renovate or repurpose a building on a scale similar to Lansing’s Ottawa Power Station is still distant — but no longer unimaginable.

Ernest Hemingway's daily weight checks, down to the quarter pound, are still visible on the bathroom wall of his house at Finca Vigía near Havana, Cuba.
Courtesy Photo
Two weeks ago, Staley was struck by the presence of Cuban and American flags in every taxicab, many of them Soviet-made Ladas.

“Sometimes it was just an American flag,” Staley said. “Five or six years ago you could go to jail for that.”

However, there is still a lot of resistance, or at least skepticism, in Cuba where Western presence is concerned.

“We don’t need the Empire to give us anything,” Fidel Castro thundered in a full-page letter published in Granma March 27, after Obama’s visit.

Staley estimates it will be “another 30 or 40 years” for significant changes to take hold.

Saving the lizard

After Finca Vigía is restored, Staley and Martinez will doubtless move on to grander projects. But they aren’t likely to encounter another job that combines international relations, literary history, structural engineering and the science of document preservation as the Finca Vigía project has.

Out of the huge Hemingway hoard at Finca Vigía, Martinez was struck most of all by a large Cuban chipojo lizard, embalmed in a jar. The lizard was cornered and killed by one of Hemingway’s many cats. The author said he liked to keep the lizard around because it had put up such a good fight.

Persistence and pluck in a lopsided confrontation have a lot to do with Cuba's Hemingway fetish, right down to Castro's most recent broadside.

The lizard put Martinez in the mind of the old man and the marlin.

“Seeing the materials we’re preserving, you get a good idea of what was running through his head,” Martinez said.

Now, when Martinez visits young people in Detroit schools, he talks about the Hemingway project as the kind of adventure only a good education can lead to.

“In my community, being Hispanic, a lot of people know who Hemingway is,” he said.

It only sweetens the job that, for him, Hemingway is a personal hero.

“He still lives,” Martinez said. “Growing up in Detroit, coming from the Dominican Republic, that’s my mentality — put up a good fight, work hard and you’ll be remembered. That’s why he saved the lizard.”