Mansion where Obama to stay in Havana 'built to impress'

HAVANA (Reuters) - The mansion in Havana where U.S. President Barack Obama and his family will spend two nights has survived war, revolution and an Albanian occupation.

Slideshow ( 11 images )

Now, with U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties restored and overall relations warming, the U.S. ambassadorial residence is re-emerging as a center of influence on the Communist-ruled island.

Built from 1939 to 1942, the two-story building is more than half the size of the White House, according to U.S. State Department data, and was constructed with the finest materials and craftsmanship of the time.

The United States abandoned it from 1961 to 1977 after the 1959 Cuban revolution overthrew a pro-American government and Washington severed ties with Fidel Castro, leaving the home to at first Albanian and later Swiss caretakers.

The coral limestone exterior and marble floors and columns are both imposing and inviting, said one man who lived there and likened it to the finest U.S. ambassadorial residences in London or Paris or Buenos Aires.

“This is a place that was built to impress,” said John Caulfield, who was America’s chief diplomat in Cuba from 2011 to 2014 and inhabited the upstairs two-bedroom, two-bath residential suite with a living room.

The upper level also has four other large bedrooms with private baths, among them the presidential suite.

Obama, Michelle Obama, their two daughters and the first lady’s mother will stay there Sunday and Monday nights during the first visit by a U.S. president to Cuba in 88 years.

The public and working areas are on the ground floor.

The State Department bought the land and built the residence as America was being drawn into World War Two and sought the profile of a nation on the rise.

“It’s really an example of soft power. You walk through that door and it impresses. It’s expensive, but not as expensive as an aircraft carrier,” Caulfield said.

The neighborhood, now known as Cubanacan, was called Country Club Park when it was built. The 5-acre (2-hectare) plot has a swimming pool and tennis court.

“Not bad for public housing,” Caulfield said.

The highest ranking official to previously stay there was Vice President Richard Nixon in 1955.

According to lore, it was built as a winter White House for President Franklin Roosevelt, who used a wheelchair.

While the State Department could not confirm that, the elevator, ramps and wide doorways made it wheelchair-friendly 50 years before the Americans With Disabilities Act required such features in government buildings.

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Tom Brown