Rise and fall: the building, commonly known as “La Madama”, that once housed the manufacture of H. Upmann’s world-famous cigars was lost after the Hupmann family went bankrupt.
Hermann and August Hupmann,immigrants from the German city of Bremen, arrived on Cuba in 1843. As Germans, they attracted some attention, since at that time most of the island’s fortune-seekers had come from Spain. In 1844, the brothers started a small cigar factory and founded their own bank in Havana.
Good businessmen, the brothers quickly became wealthy, and soon their cigars had become known for their outstanding quality and distinctive taste.
The label also profited from the massive upswing in the international popularity of cigars. Consumption was at an all-time high during the 19th century, and demand from Europe, America and Asia was enormous.
Sometime in the 1880s, Hermann and August began constructing an stately building on what was then known as Avenida Carlos III (today Avenida Salvador Allende).
It’s a wide, comfortable street that was likely one of Havana’s poshest at the time, and leads from the Capitol, where it is still known as Avenida de Bolívar (earlier Avenida Reina), directly west. In 1891, the factory became operational, occupying 1,000 square meters (over 10,000 square feet).
Several hundred workers could be employed at any given time, an extraordinary capacity at that time. As seen from historic photographs, the building’s façade was imposing. Sixteen square columns composed the building’s frontage, with side exteriors only slightly smaller. Wrought-iron balconies adorned the building’s upper level.
They called it “La Madama”
The manufacture was commonly known as “La Madama.” But today it’s unclear whether the workers had given the factory the name themselves; there is no evidence that it was ever officially registered with this name. We don’t know how the workers came up with the name, either.
Perhaps it signifies the respect that torcedores had for their work or employers. In fact, the Hupmann brothers were unique in the industry. Even after many decades in the Caribbean, the family never quite forgot its German heritage. The factory workers must have noticed this as well. For example, the Hupmanns eschewed the tradition of bringing in lecturers to read aloud to the torcedores while they worked, instead treating their employees to the music of Richard Wagner and Beethoven, the family’s favorite composers. Often there were small concerts. The torcedores, however, accustomed to Caribbean rhythms, remained unenthusiastic about the sound of German classical music.
Rise and Fall
At some point, H. Upmann cigars were so sought-after that La Madama’s production could no longer keep up with demand. The factory was producing other labels in addition to H. Upmann, including La Limpia Bandera, Benjamin Franklin, Figaro, Genesta, La Lola, La Flor de Manrigo, Adelina Patti and many others. So the brothers began to rent additional small workshops.
When, in 1905, these no longer were sufficient, they built a second, equally large factory in Calabazar, on Havana’s outskirts. By this point, over 1,200 people worked for the Hupmann family, now led by Herman Hupmann’s sons Herman, Albert, and Carl Julius. Twenty-five million cigars were produced annually, and business was booming! Long-term success seemed certain.
No one could have known what was in store for the cigar dynasty. The deadly shot that killed Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 would be the Hupmann family’s downfall.
Even though they lived on what felt like the other side of the world, this momentous occurrence determined the family’s fate. Germany lost the war, and people of German heritage – and their businesses – felt the ramifications immediately. The Hupmann family’s businesses landed on a so-called “black list of enterprises with German owners and German interests.” German businesses were deliberately boycotted.
No one wanted to buy H. Upmann cigars anymore! Finally, in 1922, after the family had tried everything it could to keep the business afloat, it was forced to sell the brand and the factory for a mere ten percent of its worth, ending the family’s cigar history in Cuba. It is unknown how long the La Madama remained in operation following the sale.
Searching Havana for Clues
La Madama no longer exists. It’s difficult to ascertain Number 159’s exact location, even using old city maps. Avenida Salvador Allende is a very long street, today with house numbers up to four digits.
As the story goes, the factory was located at the intersection of Avenida Salvador Allende and Calle Belascoain.
However, this is improbable, as no part of the intersection matches the surviving photographs of the city streets and their sidewalks. Interestingly, only three streets down, at the corner of Calle Oquendo, there is a building – or, rather, the remains of a building – that fit the description.
Number 617 Avenida Salvador Allende could quite possibly be the remains of the La Madama manufacture. Looking at old photos, certain similarities are immediately obvious.
The columns’ shape is the same. So, too, is the design of the balcony, continuous in the front and individuated on the side. Finally, the position of the two trees – even though they are considerably larger – is also correct.
The windows on the upper story have the right shape and size, and the balcony’s wrought-iron pattern is identical to that in the old photograph.
Only four columns, about a quarter of the original building, remain standing. Unfortunately, no trace remains of the building’s history today; a third story has been added. But such architectural alterations are not unusual in Havana.
A False Neighbor?
One fact, however, contradicts this theory. The house next door, to the left of the remaining building, has a gable that is adorned with a date: 1904. But what does it mean? If this building had actually been built in 1904, La Madama would have only been in existence for about 10 years. This is highly improbable. The Hupmann family’s problems relating to their German heritage only came up after the first World War, around 1914. We know of no other difficulties.
Only the right part of the building remains today: 16 columns once adorned the manufacture’s façade.
Further complicating matters, it’s indeed possible that the neighboring building was not built in 1904. It’s a well-known fact that Havana’s numbered gables do not always refer to the year of their construction. This particular gable does seem as though it had been designed in a certain way, and the date only added later. But one can speculate all day long. Perhaps, one day, it will finally be possible to clear up the whole matter. But even if the factory no longer stands, at least one thing has withstood the test of time: the name H. Upmann.
The Hupmann family lost much, but not everything. Although the family’s own bank was financially ruined, the family’s descendants belonged to Cuba’s elite up until the Revolution.
August and Hermann Hupmann
Hupmann (later Upmann) brothers
Avenida Carlos III, No.159
(today Avenida Salvador Allende)
Just a few minutes’ taxi ride from the Capitol
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2013. Read more