When the Marquis de Cuevas and his wife Margaret Strong—the granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller—bought Villa el Bravo, a circa-1930 Palm Beach home designed by John Volk, they summarily ripped up the chipped Cuban tile floors in several rooms to prepare for Rudolf Nureyev’s visit, replacing the tile with white travertine marble to give the dancer a smooth surface on which to dance.
The mere mention of chipped or broken tiles makes some homeowners shy away from the material, but the Cuban tile floors in the other rooms of the same home, including the bathrooms, still look terrific even after seventy-five-plus years of wear and tear.
Cubans were introduced to decorative tiles in the early 1800s when European ships carried them to the Island. “Within twenty years, Cubans were copying the European designs and manufacturing decorative tiles,” explained Michael Connors, author of Cuban Elegance.
Cuban tile came to Florida incrementally. According to Rick Herpel, who owns Herpel Tile in Palm Beach, his grandfather William Ketchin was the first to manufacture them here. “He traveled to Cuba in the late 1800s to buy tobacco seed and returned with such an appreciation for Cuban tile that he started producing them in Ft. Lauderdale in the late 1920s,” he explained.
Herpel, who assists the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach with tile restoration, still manufactures the tile using the same process that his grandfather employed: pouring cement into a steel pan and vibrating it. “This gives our tiles, which have a swirl pattern that looks similar to marble, a smoother finish,” he said. “John Volk, Marion Smith Wyeth, Howard Major, and Kemp Caler used Ketchin tile in many of the residences they designed.”
Volk was indeed a fan of Cuban tile. “John went to Cuba with James Cromwell and brought back tiles for Florida manufacturers to use as guides,” said Volk’s wife, Lillian Jane. “He was always concerned about authenticity and he loved the flavor of what was then called Spanish architecture.”
Though architects fancied the tiles for several decades, their popularity broadened during the 1940s and ’50s when American tourists visiting Cuba brought them home. Like other Cuban immigrants, Heriberto Borroto saw a business opportunity. He opened Cuban Tropical Tile in Miami in the mid-1940s. Manuel Moreno, who was Borroto’s assistant for ten years, now owns the company.
Along with a swirl pattern and solid colors, Moreno manufactures patterned tiles. Varied colors of pigment are mixed with water and cement, and poured into metal molds. When the mold is lifted, a dry cement mixture is quickly packed into the mold and compressed by hydraulic machines at 2,500 PSI. Once compressed, a tile is lifted from the mold and left to dry for several hours, then submerged in water to cure. When cured, they are moved to racks to dry completely. “The hydraulic press has improved the strength of Cuban tile,” said Moreno. “We also seal the tiles now, which make them more durable.”
Coleen Ryan, who owns L’Antiquario Antique Inlaid Tile, imports handcrafted 18th-and 19th-century European tiles. “Durable is a relative term,” she remarked. “Cuban tiles are not generally as strong as clay tiles because they are made from cement and are cured rather than kiln-fired.” But interior designer Maria Theresa Concheso, with Miami Design Associates in Coral Gables, insisted, “If the tiles are manufactured well and installed properly, they will last forever.”
James Reimer loves the Cuban tile floors in his Ft. Lauderdale home, which was built by the Oscar Meyer family as a beach retreat in 1961. He searched for years to find someone to refurbish the floors, and was about to install granite over them at a cost of $50,000 when he found Moreno. “This is a lost art and few people know how to do it properly,” remarked the director of investments at Wachovia. “Manny made 20 replacement tiles that match mine exactly and the floor looks beautiful now at 10 percent the cost of the granite. Not only did I save money, the floors still reflect the style of the era in which the house was built.”
“Cuban tiles exude ambiance,” said Conchesco. “And they are so easy to maintain.” During a chat session on InfoTile.com, one participant shared his grandmother’s recipe for maintaining the sheen on her floors: one tablespoon of mineral spirits added to a bucket of water; mop it on. Another participant, who waxed poetically about his floors, refinishes them every ten years. They may not be for the faint-hearted, but those who enjoy living with Cuban tiles are quick to sing their praises.