It all started with Ernest Hemingway’s pool.
Stuart Andrews was in Havana, Cuba, in February, just enjoying a vacation with friends, when he decided to visit Finca Viglia, the legendary writer’s house in a tiny working-class town just east of the city. Now a museum dedicated to its former owner, it was where Hemingway wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea,” as well as “A Movable Feast.”
Having been neglected for years, the property is on the World Monuments Fund list of most endangered sites. To Mr. Andrews, who is owner of Shinnecock Pools in Southampton Village, the most galling part was the condition of the pool: empty of water and in serious need of the kind of attention that is Mr. Andrews’s stock-in-trade.
“This is a pool that Ava Gardner swam in. Hemingway swam in this pool,” he said recently, with the kind of exasperation that can be felt only by a man whose career is keeping pools in tiptop condition. “I thought, ‘Wow, maybe they need some help getting this pool running.’”
That February trip led to a return to Cuba in November, when Mr. Andrews, 53, participated in the Havana International Trade Fair. Sixty-five countries were represented at the fair’s various pavilions—including, for the first time, the United States. The American pavilion featured about two dozen companies, and Mr. Andrews, representing the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals.
He said he spent his own money to attend, though the APSP provided a great deal of support, including materials to hand out at the trade fair. He shared space with Bill Max and his import/export company; it was Mr. Max and his wife, Liz Max, who had accompanied Mr. Andrews and his wife, Karen, on the initial visit to Cuba earlier this year.
Today, Mr. Andrews is the APSP’s official representative in Cuba—though his goal is not making money. Instead, he said he hopes the association, which writes technical standards for commercial swimming pools, residential pools and hydrotherapy spa facilities, can provide expertise, training and advice, with the goal being safety.
At the trade show, Mr. Andrews said, he talked shop with many people in the fledgling swimming pool servicing industry in Cuba, and the response was “fantastic,” he said, adding, “They are sort of information-starved, I would say.” One conversation was with a man who manages hydrotherapy programs for patients with arthritis at hospitals throughout Cuba, who invited Mr. Andrews to visit and inspect the nation’s facilities. He hopes to do that and is asking for special permission through the Cuban embassy.
His point: There are real and significant safety concerns, not just with pools but particularly with hydrotherapy spas. In the United States, a new law was enacted by Congress in 2007, the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act; it is named for a 7-year-old girl who drowned in a hot tub in 2002, trapped by the powerful suction from the tub’s drain. The law sets new standards designed to make such fixtures safer.
Mr. Andrews said he believes similar standards are needed in Cuba, and that dangers could exist without them. “It’s not even on their radar. However, it’s a very real thing,” he said.
Beyond that, Havana and the nearby resort town of Varadero have a “swimming pool culture,” Mr. Andrews said, even though new private pools are currently banned in Cuba because of water conservation concerns. Existing pools, however, can be renovated or repaired at private homes. Larger pools, at public aquatic centers and certainly at the many resorts along Varadero’s peninsula, are popular with locals and visitors alike, and there are plans to revive some that have fallen into disrepair.
“In Havana, there will be a renovation and repair market that will be pretty substantial,” he said. “These pools have good bones. These pools can be brought back to life.”
New business cooperatives are forming to meet the needs of pool owners, and Mr. Andrews said, “I see my role as providing information in support of these new business co-ops, so they can be successful.”
On his recent trip to the trade fair in Havana, Mr. Andrews had a slight advantage. Today, he’s a Hampton Bays resident, but while he was born in Rochester, New York, he spent his teenage and college years living in Mexico, after his family relocated there when his mother fell in love with an Italian cheese shop owner who lived in the country. Mr. Andrews still has property, and family, in Mexico. As a result, he is fluent in Spanish, and very familiar with Latin American culture—both of which put many of the Cubans he met at ease.
At a time when U.S.-Cuban relations are improving—“There is huge progress being made,” he said—he is hoping to use his 25 years as a member of the APSP to begin making connections between the two countries within his industry.
Which brings us back to Hemingway’s pool—“the spark that lit the fire,” Mr. Andrews acknowledged.
A foundation in Boston has $900,000 and permission to renovate Finca Viglia, making it the first construction project in Cuba that will be permitted to use materials from the United States. When Mr. Andrews discovered that, he said his first reaction was: Here’s the chance to fix the estate’s pool, and fix it properly.
He recently wrote to the foundation, offering, via the APSP, to set up the necessary commercial equipment for the pool renovation. It’s too late for Ava Gardner or Hemingway himself, but soon enough, someone could take a dip once again—and if they do, they’ll have a Southampton pool professional to thank.
Joseph P. Shaw, 27east.com
December 21, 2015