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The “Steel Piglets” of the Havana Banking District

The vaults were the jewels of the technology of their time built by North American and European craftsmen. Photo: Rolando Pujol

Like similar financial districts, distributed in an area of ​​approximately two square kilometers, this building was the epicenter of what came to be called at the time of its greatest splendor, the Old Havana Banking District. It was a kind of tropical New York-style Wall Street, where there were more than twenty banks that operated mostly with capital from the United States, during the first half of the 20th century.

Founded in 1915, the Bank of Havana was one of the first to be built in the area by Cubans and with their own money, although it soon passed under the control of the National City Bank of New York. Very close to this, the Banco del Comercio was inaugurated in 1929, which was established in what was the church of San Felipe Neri, a beautiful building inspired by Mexican Baroque and which is today a chamber music concert hall.

Highlighted by its beautiful poly-chrome glass ceilings on metal frames, the Narciso Gelats Bank, built in 1910, is also distinguished by its prominent classical façade.

A spectacular façade also characterizes the bank of O’Reily and San Ignacio, the current branch of Banco Metropolitano. Another bank located in the area is the old Bank Nova Scotia, which is distinguished by its corner front supported on prominent columns in Empedrado and O’Reily, also operated by Banco Metropolitano.

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On Obra Pía street between Aguiar and Cuba, is the building that was built between 1903 and 1904 for the Royal Bank of Canada, later destined to house the Havana Stock Exchange, one of the most important financial institutions during the first half 20th century.

The former stock exchange in the Old Havana banking district
Banco Nacional de Cuba, Calle Obispo

The packaging of all these properties of the Havana bank is very luxurious, where the Hellenic-inspired architecture prevails, with beautiful floors of geometric designs of fine colored marbles, ceilings and walls covered with precious woods and with stuccoes beautifully decorated, veneers of plinths and columns in poly-chrome marbles, iron works on the counters and windows with elaborate designs and stained glass.

A part of the banks located in the “Banking District”, have already stopped fulfilling that function, but they conserve as patrimonial relics, the old vaults where the greatest fortunes of the country was kept and still remains, under the custody of the Central Bank of Cuba.

These vaults were jewels of the technology of their time, built with an elegant design, subordinate to its functionality. Their combinations of classical mechanics and the robustness with which they were built by North American and European companies, allowed them to efficiently fulfill their mission for decades, safeguarding the assets of rich businessmen, state funds, and the modest savings of people of humble condition for decades. Several of these boxes were made to order and are one of a kind.

havana banking district
Entrance to the vault.

With a special permit, we managed to enter the old vaults of the BCC, to show you for the first time in this report, the “little steel pigs”, which very few people have seen and where they were jealously guarded, from the humble pennies to the most glittering gold bullion.

This article on the old Havana banking district was written by Rolando Pujol with photos by the author. It was first published in Excelencias Cuba. It has been translated by Cuba Business Report.

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