Lo Mejor: The Best, Created in Paradise
During its time, cigar manufacture El Eden was one of the world’s most important. We have founder and owner Calixto Lopez to thank for his method of
growing perfect wrapper leaves through the principle of tabaco tapado.
Calixto Lopez’ El Eden is the closest cigar manufacture to the Estacion Central de la Ciudad Habana, Havana’s main train station, just a stone’s throw away on the Calle Agramonte (formerly Zulueta) No. 48/50, between the Calle Gloria and the Calle Misión. It’s easiest to find by taking a taxi straight to the train station. With the station behind you and looking toward the Calle Agramonte, you can’t miss the large building on the left-hand corner. Heading down the Calle Agramonte fur-ther toward the city, you arrive first at the La Meridiana factory (on the left-hand side), two blocks farther to José Gener’s factory, La Escepción. Distances between manufacturers are only a few minutes each; the stretch from El Eden to Capitolio only takes fifteen minutes.
At first, Calixto Lopez was not operating solo. The foundations for the company Calixto Lopez & Cia. and newly-erected factory were laid by Francisco Grande Bances, a prominent financier who, among several other businesses, also ran cigar production in a small chinchal; the brands Lo Mejor (quite modestly: “the best”) and El Eden already exis-ted under his name. Wishing to expand and in need of a business partner with expert knowledge of tobacco, Bances came upon Calixto Lopez. (This must have been around 1878, but several books report the introduction of the joint brand as early as 1868.) The first El Eden, built on the same location but not comparable to the later building, began to produce cigars. The collaboration was intended to last for many years, but ended due to undis-closed reasons before the new factory was dedicated. For this reason, the wrought-iron cage above the entryway does not bear the initials of both men and their company Bances y Lopez, but simply CL, for Calixto Lopez.
Like the other cigar palaces, El Eden was completed in the golden age of the Habano; more precisely, in 1888. A wrought-iron cage over the wooden entrance still remains a reminder of those days. The new El Eden factory was, al-though not the first, one of the city’s most important. The building alone, with its 3,000 square-meter footprint – a whole city block – is stunning. It boasts three stories: a lower level with ten impressive round arches; a second level on which each window is outfitted with a three-paneled glass door; and a third level with extremely high doors. With so much glass the building’s interior must have been flooded with light. His-toric photographs even show rooftop superstructures, revealing that even these were once splendedly arranged.
The palace-like manufacture is reminiscent of previous buildings La Meridiana and La Escepción, which revolutionized the architecture in Havana and convincingly demonstrated the importance of cigar production at that time. One has to remember that, in prior decades, cigar production was carried out behind closed doors. Small workshops called chinchales were often housed in humble apartments and operated by a handful of rollers. The notion that people were suddenly leaving these backdoor operations for grand palaces must have seemed nearly inconceivable at that time. If one hadn’t known that they were factory buildings, one would have believed that they housed a crowned head.
Nearly 1,000 factory workers produced brands like El Eden, Lo Mejor, La Flor de Calixto Lopez and others; sometimes more than 10 million pieces left the house annually. The quickest way to get the necessary amounts of tobacco to the factory was by train. Hence the short path made from the train station to the manufacturer.
Rooted in Tobacco
Originally of Spanish descent, Calixto Lopez’ family had cultivated a distinctive tobacco tradition and enjoyed an excellent reputation in the cigar world. Brothers Manuel and Ramon Lopez for many years owned the Punch brand –which still exists today – along with the Belinda.
Along with the manufacture, Calixto Lopez owned a string of good tobacco plantations in the Vuelta Abajo. He maintained them not just on paper, but also in practice, having at his disposal enormous experience in tobacco cultivation. Calixto Lopez came across the idea of using cloths to cover his tobacco plants, thereby producing higher-quality wrapper leaves. Today this method is called tabaco tapado: as the tobacco plants no longer are directly under the direct, intensive sun exposure, the leaves to develop a finer, more even structure, and quality skyrockets. Heat trapped underneath the cloths encourages and increases the leaves’ growth, from which even large-format cigars can be produced.
One Finger Always on the Pulse of the Time
Calixto Lopez held the political and economic situation in Cuba under his watchful gaze. His cigars were celebrated in Europe, especially in Great Britain and in Spain, and enjoyed great popularity in the United States. As a result, the company’s orientation to the US market was always important. By the beginning of the 20th century Lopez had opened an office in Manhattan in order to better observe the market and to maintain direct control of it.
In 1907 Lopez relocated the production of the Calixto Lopez and Los Reyes de España brands to Tampa, Florida. After many long and hard years, the Cuban civil war was finally over, and Calixto Lopez was one of the few able to sustain his independence from British and American investors. Most likely, the American continent seemed a better place to which to remove at least part of his production in order to escape the insecurities that were plaguing Cuba. Another huge deciding factor was the substantially lower customs tax on the import of raw tobacco rather than ready-made goods like cigars.
In 1911 Calixto Lopez died and his brother Manuel and son Calixto took over the business. They continued to produce cigars and cigarettes in the factories, keeping cigars at the majority of production. This changed around 1925 when the manufacture and rights to the brands were transferred to José Maria Diaz and his brother. Cigarettes under the brand names Eden and Calixto Lopez were already being produced at the El Eden factory, a lucrative business that more than paid for itself. After the takeover, the Diaz brothers concentrated on cigarette production. Up until the 1950s the factory was well-known for producing cigarettes, especially the popular Eden brand.
Defying the Times
After the victory of the revolution in Cuba, the Calixto Lopez manufacture was turned over to the state. Thus, cigarettes and matches are still being produced to this day in the El Eden factory. A tour of the production rooms is not permitted, but we succeeded in seeing part of the storage rooms and photographing them: one gets the feeling that the place looks just as it did 100 years ago. The warehouse rooms bear witness also to the efficiency of past production; a peek into the artfully-molded stairwell calls to mind the building’s earlier splendor.
The light yellow exterior paint of the building is nearly completely peeled off, bleached out or wa-shed away. Despite these clear signs of weathering, the building is still impressive, thanks to its noble size, the high circular arches at the ground floor and the many wrought-iron balconies in the first and second stories. Many windows have almost no panes left, and most have been replaced in the last decades by pieces of wood and cardboard. In Cuba, material is altogether hard to come by, and with the hurricanes that ravage Havana every fall, the life expectancy of glass is not particularly high.
Viewed with a vivid imagination and an appreciation for Lopez’ contributions to the tobacco indus-try, El Eden, the blissful garden in the middle of Havana, is definitely worth a visit.