Bob Vila is a television icon. For nearly 30 years he hosted the programs – This Old House, Home Again, Restore America, the eponymous Bob Vila – that turned home restoration into an American pastime and made the cottage industry big business. What many people don’t know about the Home Improvement inspiration (and guest star) is how he’s leveraged his engineering and renovation expertise in the service of architectural preservation. Vila has worked with the Peace Corps and Habitat for Humanity, but his current project has him working with a very different organization: the Cuban government.
Vila has become deeply involved in the restoration of Finca Vigia, the lavishly decorated home in Cuba Ernest Hemingway bought in the early forties after marrying Martha Gellhorn, his third wife. Hemingway finished For Whom the Bell Tolls and wrote The Old Man and the Sea while living at Finca, which was seized by the Castro regime after the writer’s suicide. Working in and around the house has given Vila the opportunity to spend time on the island, get in touch with his Cuban roots, and rediscover some of Papa’s forgotten treasures.
How did you get involved with the effort to restore Finca Vigia?
I became involved with the Finca Vigia Foundation about eight years ago after having a long talk with a good friend in Cambridge who, like me, had been disconnected from her Cuban roots for decades. I had last been on the island in 1958 when I was 12 years old and – having been born in the states – I was 100% Americano. She explained the impact that her first visit had on her and how she’d fallen in love with the place, people, and culture. I was invited to join the board and take my first trip back to Cuba as a construction expert.
What has your role been in the project?
In particular, I was to consult with the team at Finca Vigia regarding termite infestations in the guest house. My role in the project quickly evolved into a friendship with the staff that has led to creating the sort of trust which makes our relationship successful. We’re the only U.S. cultural group active in Cuba [with] a formal accord with the Cuban Culture Ministry and their institute for the protection of Cultural Heritage.
Our founder, Jenny Phillips, originally visited the site to learn how she could find out if her grandfather’s correspondence with Ernest Hemingway still existed. Max Perkins was the Scribners editor who worked closely with EH, and was Jenny’s grandfather. She and the rest of the team have built this relationship of trust over the years and aside from the safety of the house and the collections this is our most important achievement.
Where are you in the process of the restoration?
The guest house that I examined on my first visit was built by Hemingway so that his sons could visit and not be under the same roof. It also served as a garage for his Chrysler convertible. That car was lost for decades, but has resurfaced in the last couple of years and is being refurbished. The guest house is a disaster and is still being used for staff offices. When I inspected it the Cubans were very wary of allowing me into the lower level, but I prevailed on them that the structural frame had to be inspected. When they let me in there I felt a little like Lord Carnavon opening Tut’s tomb. In the dim light were rows of African trophies, stacks of crates and luggage and on a stand in a corner was Papa’s typewriter.
The guest house remains a shambles, but plans are in the works to get a replica of it prefabricated and erected this year along with new construction for a conservation lab and offices for the staff. The amazing swimming pool and cabana complex will also be restored.
Is there general awareness of Finca Vigia in Cuba?
Finca Vigia is unique and remains the biggest cultural attraction for international visitors to Cuba.
Will you remain involved with Finca Vigia once the restoration is complete?
I intend to remain involved in the project because it gives me a reason to remain involved with the Cubans. My last relative who still lived in Havana died last year, but because of this project I feel that I still have family there.
I am much more connected to my Cuban heritage than I ever thought possible. The music and the food have always been with me, but to get to know the streets of Havana and the landscapes of the interior is of immense value to me. I’ve been there many times now and have brought my wife and daughters and hope to bring my son and his young family to visit someday soon.
Are you optimistic about Cuban-American relations?
People to People cultural exchange is stronger than ever and, even though we have a long way to go, I know that eventually the embargo will die of atrophy. The historic personalities on both sides of the divide are aging, retiring, and dying. Young people on the island and in the states want normalization.
Are there any contemporary home improvement shows you find especially interesting?
House of Cards is the only show with house in the title that I watch.