HAVANA, June 17 For one couple, realizing their dream house as a cultural salon in Havana has been more than a labor of love. It’s been a lesson in patience, perseverance and wild invention.
About once a month, the Havana villa that Pamela Ruiz and Damian Aquiles brought back to life amid obstacles that only a Cuban could appreciate becomes electric.
Massive chandeliers cast dancing shadows on the tile floors, the saffron perfume of paella fills the air and guests like Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Anne Bass and the Proenza Schouler designers mix with local artists and cultural figures.
Ruiz, an American, came to the island two decades ago to scout locations for an ad campaign, then met and fell in love with Aquiles, an artist. Since then, she has become Cuba’s Peggy Guggenheim — without the inheritance and retinue of famous lovers.
Against the backdrop of the couple’s magnificent house — it took them eight years to gain rights to it and another seven to renovate — Ruiz, who grew up in a middle-class household in Queens, has become an unlikely social locus as the country rejoins the West.
It may seem that she is merely in the right place at just the right moment, but back in the mid-1990s when Ruiz decided to immigrate to Cuba, everyone, including Aquiles’s family, thought she was crazy. The Soviet Union had fallen and food and gas were scarce; cats became a delicacy and horse-drawn carts replaced buses.
There were virtually no other Americans except for Black Panthers and fugitives; the few European expats and diplomats weren’t interested in socializing with her as she didn’t have the right sort of pedigree.
But settling Aquiles and their son, Bastian, now 18, in the United States would have meant huge hurdles, and despite the privations, she loved the culture: the colors, the energy, the warmth of the people.
In 1999 she spied the villa while walking through the leafy Vedado neighborhood where she and her family were living in a two-bedroom apartment. They had always fantasized about owning one of the pre-revolution estates in that part of town, where the cratered sidewalks are speckled with bougainvillea blossoms.
This once-grand house looked abandoned, its shutters closed, the paint peeling, a mountain of junk in the yard. When she knocked on the enormous door, the tiny face of an Afro-Cuban woman peered out.
“Excuse me,” Ruiz said in Spanish, “but I wanted to meet the woman who lives in my dream house.” “You have transparent eyes,” said the woman, who immediately sensed Ruiz’s sincerity and let her in.
The hundred-year-old house was dark but clean; it smelled vaguely musty, like the bottom of a grandmother’s purse. Best of all, it hadn’t been subdivided into apartments for hoards of relatives as many Havana houses had.
The woman, Vincenta Borges, had come there in 1950, as a housekeeper. The childless owners had died in the 1970s and left the house to her. She couldn’t read or write, and lived on food vouchers. She had no money for repairs.
Ruiz desperately wanted the house, but real-estate transactions in Cuba are a Kafkaesque ordeal. Buying and selling property is illegal, but a permuta, or swap, is allowed. The houses need to be of equal value; size and land aren’t figured in, so a large villa in disrepair might be worth the same as a two-bedroom apartment with a new kitchen.
But Borges didn’t want Ruiz’s place — too many stairs. A ground floor with a veranda to hang her laundry would be perfect, she said. It took Ruiz eight years to arrange a three-way swap — someone with a place Borges would want who also wanted Ruiz’s apartment.
The permuta was just the beginning of the couple’s long voyage to bring the house back to its original glory, however. As renovations began, they realized how much the structure had declined in the years since they first set eyes on it. The plumbing had deteriorated; the only running water came through the leaks in the roof and veranda.
Rodents had gnawed through the ancient cloth-covered wiring in the attic, producing fireworks of sparks. One afternoon, midconstruction, when Bastian brought some friends into the kitchen, a tornado of roaches flew out of the pipes, “like a horror movie,” he recalls. “Gross, but sort of cool.” Then came the hurricanes.
In 2008, just after they moved in, three deadly storms washed away more than 100,000 homes and nearly a third of the island’s crops.
The government commandeered all construction material — bricks, concrete and wood — so the couple was left to comb the city for salvage. “Whenever we found a building that had collapsed we’d ask if there was anything for sale,” says Ruiz. The mahogany beams of their roof are from a wrecked historic site, the century-old bricks of their patio from a burned-down cigar factory.
With no hardware stores in Havana, Ruiz, who retained her citizenship, made trips to the U.S. to carry back suitcases crammed with new wiring. Friends from Aquiles’s hometown moved in — for years — to help them with labor. “I called it ‘campismo con techo,’ ” she says, camping under a roof.
Over the years, Ruiz collected bits and bobs of Modernist furniture on the island, a legacy of Cuba’s midcentury stylishness, pre-Castro. Rather than fill the rooms with random battered pieces, she hired a car painter to spray the lot in black lacquer.
She brought the chandeliers back from the mainland and from Mexico, disassembled and stowed in luggage; one Murano masterwork weighed 150 pounds. As the house started to come together, so did Ruiz’s influence.
During her early career in New York, she had represented the photographer Juergen Teller, who was just starting out, and worked with a lot of well-connected people with whom she had stayed in touch.
The philanthropist and art collector Beth Rudin DeWoody, an old friend, sent an increasing numbers of travelers her way and Ruiz began to throw parties, a godsend in a culture that until recently has forbidden privately owned businesses and had virtually no place for creative people to mingle.
Over the years, Ruiz produced shoots in Havana for Teller, William Eggleston and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and arranged for U.S. galleries to bring ambitious exhibitions to the island, including one of Louise Bourgeois’s work that was the country’s first show of a major contemporary artist.
The house was finally finished last year, and since December the flow of visitors has become a flood. Meanwhile, Ruiz recently co-founded a foundation, Cuba Untitled, to continue the cross-pollination of cultures and artistic ideas.
“The house is beautiful, but it’s what goes on inside the house that’s important,” Ruiz says. “I have waited my whole life for this moment to occur.”
Photos: Stefan Ruiz