Cuban patriot Jose Marti loved the San Carlos Institute so much he called it "La Casa Cuba" -- the Cuban House.
It was here in 1892 that Marti welded Key West's fragmented Cuban exile community into the Cuban Revolutionary Party, the movement that led to the establishment of a free Cuba in 1902.
For years before and after Marti visited here, the Institute operated as a heritage center aimed at preserving Cuban culture. Its students were taught the history, customs and traditions of both Cuba and the United States, and classes were held in both Spanish and English. It was one of the country's first bilingual schools.
Today this handsome building on Duval Street, restored in 1992, once again is a cultural beacon for Cubans.
"It is a mecca for Cubans. They come here from all over the world," said Rafael A. Penalver Jr., a Miami attorney who is president of the institute.
Spanish and Cuban history classes have resumed at the institute and English classes are to begin in September.
But the institute is much more than a classroom. Within its walls also are an art gallery, a theater and a museum, and it offers guided tours and film presentations in both English and Spanish.
Several museum rooms tell the story of Marti and of the Cuban Revolution, with explanations in both Spanish and English. On display are drawings of the rebellion from Harper's Weekly as well as photographs. A video tells the story of Cubans who achieved success in Florida. A huge painting of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, father of the revolution, greets visitors in the high- ceilinged lobby.
The 400-seat theater is used not only for lectures and gatherings but also for stage productions. Recent ones have included Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, staged by the Opera Miniatures of Key West. Its next opera presentation will be Caballero Rusticana.
The institute also has become the permanent site for the annual Key West Literary Seminar, held every January, one of Key West's most prestigious events.
The library contains the complete writings of Jose Marti and an extensive collection of Cuban consular documents -- a valuable resource for researchers. Visitors are welcome to browse through the stacks.
The building itself, with its imposing facade and lovely interior, is a standout on Duval Street. It was built in 1924 after the original structure was damaged in the hurricane of 1919. Cuban architect Francisco Centurion designed the two-story building in the Cuban baroque style of the period.
Particularly attractive are the mosaic tiles used as wainscoting above the white marble staircase, the high ceilings, the wrought-iron balustrades and the Cubantile floors.
After Cuba won its freedom in 1902, a unique educational arrangement was made for the institute: The Republic of Cuba paid the salary of the Spanish teacher, the state of Florida paid for the English teacher.
One of those who taught at the institute under that arrangement was Dr. Benildes Ramond Sanchez. "I came in 1937. We occupied all the upstairs and had the consul of Cuba downstairs." Ramond Sanchez taught at the institute for 25 years, high school students in the daytime, adults at night. Though she retired years ago, she still volunteers at the center.
Cold War casualty
When the United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, the dual teaching arrangement at the institute ended. The school struggled on, but with the building suffering deterioration, the school closed in 1973.
The vacant building attracted vagrants, further denigrating the building. When in 1981 a portion of the facade collapsed, injuring a passing tourist, many called for its demolition.
In 1984, an attempt was made to convert it into a commercial theater. Members of the Cuban community of Key West and Miami opposed this, and a volunteer group headed by Penalver mounted a campaign to preserve and restore the institute as a heritage center. Penalver succeeded in having the commercial lease rescinded, paving the way for restoration. State grants and private contributions funded the renovation.
Penalver is president of the institute, but his role was challenged in a lawsuit that was finally resolved by an appeals court earlier this year, when a Cuban group in Key West lost its bid to take over and operate the facility. Day tours of Cuban historic sites in Key West, including the institute, depart from Miami every other Saturday, according to Penalver. Cost is $30. For information, call Penalver's office at (305) 579-9000. Institute information: San Carlos Institute, (305) 294-3887.
JAY CLARKE / The Herald
STATELY FACADE: San Carlos Institute, on Duval Street in Key West, flies both the American and Cuban flags.
JAY CLARKE / The Herald
LONG-TIME TEACHER: Dr. Benildes Ramond Sanchez, who taught at the institute for 25 years beginning in 1937, still helps out there as a volunteer.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.