Michigan firm has role in preserving Hemingway’s Cuban legacy

Cocooned by palm, mango and avocado trees and bamboo shoots atop a hill overlooking downtown Havana 12 miles away, Finca Vigía — Ernest Hemingway’s home for more than two decades until just before he committed suicide in 1961 — is one of the top tourist attractions in Cuba.

On its 12 acres in tiny San Francisco de Paula are some of the famed American author’s most prized possessions: about 9,000 books, rough drafts of his own work, letters, photographs, the heads of exotic game — and the guns he used to get them — from hunts in the island nation’s brutally hot and humid climate.

It’s that climate and the way the documents were stored that jeopardizes many of Hemingway’s more fragile items, and it’s that climate that Ronald Staley, senior vice president of Lansing-based The Christman Co., first experienced nearly three years ago as an adviser to a nonprofit trying to preserve those artifacts for many more years to come.

Today, Staley and Christman, which earlier this year opened a new office in the Fisher Building in Detroit, are more than advisers for a new Finca Vigía (which means “Lookout Farm” in Spanish) project.

They are responsible for coordinating logistics for getting materials for a new 2,500-square-foot building on the property to house Hemingway’s artifacts in a climate-controlled environment, which would spare them from the harsh Caribbean elements.

It won’t be easy, though.

If the project was being built in America, it could easily be completed in six months — an in-and-out job.

But this is Cuba, which for more than 50 years has been under a trade embargo that only recently has been relaxed under the Obama administration.

“If I need a bag of cement, electrical wire or flat washers here, I’ve got Home Depot or Walmart,” Staley said. “Those aren’t on the island. The raw cement for making mortar is all from China. An air conditioning unit is from China. That’s their logistical problem for getting the building done — and they don’t know when it will show up or what government project it will go to.”

Irreplaceable documents

There were times in the past 11 years when Mary-Jo Adams thought the project to build the “taller” — pronounced “tai-ER” and translated as “workshop” in Spanish — would never become a reality.

The executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit Finca Vigía Foundation since 2004 has traveled several times to Cuba to visit Finca Vigía and discuss the project and its necessity with Cuban officials.

“These are irreplaceable documents, some of them coming from the 1910s and 1920s that Hemingway brought with him to Cuba because he thought they were important,” she said.

“But the inks were faded. They were being stored in the basement of the guesthouse, which was filled with termites. I think it was in danger of imminent collapse and that would have crushed the collection.”

Financing not finalized

In large part because labor costs are so difficult to predict — Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban peso, or CUP, and the Cuban convertible peso, the CUC, which is worth 25 as much as the CUP — a final project price tag has not yet been finalized.

But this much is known: about $862,000 will be spent divided about evenly on the actual construction materials, as well as things like materials shipping and warehousing.

Approvals have been secured from the Cuban government as well as the U.S. departments of State, Treasury and Commerce, Adams said. If everything goes well, she said, the first large shipment of construction materials could land on the island in the fall.

Although financing has not been finalized, it’s expected to come from a mix of private companies and foundations, Adams said.

Sense of historic value

The Christman Co., and in particular Staley, was selected for the project because of previous work at President Lincoln’s Cottage national monument in Washington, D.C., said William Dupont, San Antonio Conservation Society endowed professor in architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio who is working on the Finca Vigía project. He and Staley worked together on a $15 million restoration by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with the cottage opening for the first time to the public in 2008.

“I recognized Ron as one of the pre-eminent construction managers for historic preservation work,” Dupont said. “One of his strengths is protection of the existing historic fabric and being very good at planning out a project so that things go smoothly. He has a particularly keen sense for the historic value of what we’re dealing with and a great passion for making sure that the finished product we are aiming for retains that value.”

Christman, founded in 1894 (five years before Hemingway was born), has 20 employees in metro Detroit and 274 companywide. It had $601 million in revenue in 2014.

Finca Vigía, owned by the Cuban government and managed by its National Cultural Heritage Council, has cultural and literary significance.

Consisting of Hemingway’s main house and several smaller ancillary buildings, it is where he wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Old Man and the Sea” as well as a significant portion of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

It was also in and around Finca Vigía that he spent much of his time hunting, fishing and playing baseball with the young children of San Francisco de Paula.

He paid $12,500 for the property in 1940.

President Barack Obama has been loosening the Cuban embargo, including authorizing in January that building materials for certain types of projects could be shipped to the island for the first time since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959.

The U.S. severed relations with Cuba in 1961, the year after Hemingway left Cuba.

His legacy on the island remains.

“It’s like going into Memphis with Elvis,” Staley said. “The bars he went to, there are cast bronze statues in the bars. The places he hung out, went fishing — they are all important. He is Cuba, in a lot of ways.”

By Kirk Pinho, Crain’s Detroit Business

June 27, 2015

Kirk Pinho: (313) 446-0412. Twitter: @kirkpinhoCDB

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