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Gallery exhibit depicts old Havana through modern eyes

Cathryn Griffith with an old postcard of O’Reilly Street (top) and her contemporary photo of the same scene.
Cathryn Griffith with an old postcard of O’Reilly Street (top) and her contemporary photo of the same scene.
© 2014 George Leposky

Artist and photographer Cathryn Griffith collected old postcards from Havana, Cuba, and then went to the places shown in those postcards to photograph what they look like today. An exhibition of her work, Havana Revisited: An Architectural Heritage, opened at the Coconut Grove Arts Festival Gallery in Miami on Saturday, March 1, 2014, and will remain on display through March.

The exhibition consists of 30 pairs, each a postcard of a Havana landmark or street scene produced from 1900 to 1930, matched to a recent digital photograph that Griffith took from the same location. They include the Capitol, the presidential palace, the cathedral and several well-known churches, hotels and clubs, the José Marti and Maine monuments, and the shops along O’Reilly Street.

In addition to the exhibit, Griffith’s Havana photography and research has yielded a book, also entitled Havana Revisited: An Architectural Heritage. Published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2010, the 240-page book contains 350 illustrations, and chapters about various aspects of the city by 11 architects and historians – two Americans and nine Cubans.

History and happenstance

Griffith’s Havana projects are part of her second career. After her husband, James, died in 1979, she took over and ran his industrial real-estate development business, and raised their daughter, Sarah, who was five years old when her father died.

Cathryn also went back to school, one course at a time. In 1988 she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in French Studies from Wellesley College, followed by a Diploma in Studio Art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

In 2003 she traveled to Cuba with a group of art students to study the island’s architecture. “I was amazed at Havana’s architectural elegance and richness, and its state of decay,” she says.

The postcard collection

Later, on a trip to Paris, she began collecting old Havana postcards, and later bought more from all over the world that were offered for sale on eBay. Ultimately, her collection grew to more than 600 postcards. She photocopied them, took the copies to Cuba on subsequent trips, and sought to locate the scenes to photograph.

“I had an assistant who knew where many of the places were,” she says. “Also, we would go up to the oldest people we could find sitting on park benches and ask, ‘¿Dónde esta?’ (Where is this?) or ‘¿Dónde estaba?’ (Where was this?).”

Griffith has made 16 trips to Cuba, all via charter flights from Miami, all legally. The first four were on the art school’s license, the rest on a license issued for “academic research full time in my profession,” she says.

“The people were open and welcoming. I felt totally free and welcome there. Political issues are swirling around, but they haven’t impeded me at all.”

Griffith says many of the government buildings, hotels, and museums have been restored, but on the side streets in the old part of the city many buildings still await restoration. “They [the government] raise the money through tourism,” she says. “It is used for a fund to restore the city.”

The Coconut Grove Arts Festival Gallery is on the ground floor of Mayfair Center, 3390 Mary St., Suite 128. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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