At Play In The Archive
Today we will journey with the intrepid Lessiack family to various Caribbean ports, compliments of my Great-grandpa Leo Lessiack’s job with the Hamburg-American Line. He began working for the shipping line in 1912, and in 1929 his position was auditor. Here is his all-access pass.
I’m fortunate to have several decades’ worth of these passes and other work-related treasures in my archive, thanks to Great-grandpa Leo’s penchant for saving stuff.
In my last post (We’re Gonna Party Like It’s 1929) we saw Great-grandpa Leo at a fancy HAPAG company party, and we also saw Great-grandma Margaret and Grandpa Bob living it up on the SS Reliance as they journeyed to meet up with Leo. I don’t know why they were traveling separately, but that appears to be the case.
A Spielmann/Spellman relative who reads this blog observed that her father might be seated at Leo’s table in that company party photo from my last post, and that he was a staff member on Hamburg-American’s SS Resolute’s 1930 world cruise. I have so enjoyed discovering how hugely important ships and shipping were in both the work and social history of my family, right up through present day. We even bust out the Winkies every December, thanks to the noble Captain Buch.
Back to the journey. Many of these photos were loose (that is, not sorted or glued into an album) but my great-grandma Margaret left some helpful notes on the photos themselves. Make yourself a drink with a tiny umbrella in it, possibly rum-based in honor of the West Indies, and enjoy the vacation vicariously.
We begin with sailing day at a Hamburg-American Line pier in New York City, Feb. 23, 1929.
First stop: the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. You can still book a stay at this luxury hotel. It’s been around since 1919, and was listed on the US National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Next stop, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Here are a couple of shots of Grandpa Bob posing with some kids and their donkey in front of an “American Barber.” I wonder if he and Margaret (there is still no sign of Leo) were lodging in the furnished rooms being advertised.
Next stop: Martinique, where the Lessiacks visited Fort de France, including the famous statue of Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine, who grew up on Martinique. Note that she still has her head in this photo. The statue was later beheaded, and the head has been missing for more than 20 years. The reason, according to this helpful article:
“Ask around on your next visit to Martinique and you’re sure to get wildly varying opinions about the home grown Empress. Many harbor a strong sense of pride over the lofty station in life to which Josephine rose. At the same time, though, it’s one particular royal decree that she is said to have influenced greatly that engenders just as much (if not more) hate among local Martinicans.
That decision: the reinstatement of slavery.
France had originally abolished slavery in 1789, but soon after Napoleon and Josephine assumed their thrones in 1804, it was re-established. Many say it was Josephine that pushed for the change to benefit her family’s failing plantation interests back in Martinique”
Yeah, I’d say that’s a beheading-worthy offense. What a horrifying legacy.
Next, a brief foray to Barbados to visit the Government House. According to Wikipedia: “The Government House is the official residence and office of the Governor-General of Barbados. It was built in the colonial days and was the residence of the Governor of Barbados. It later continued in the role of official residence and office of the Governor-General following political independence from the United Kingdom in 1966.”
Next stop: Trinidad.
Next stop, Willemstad, Curacao. According to Wikipedia, “Willemstad is home to the Curaçao synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas. The city centre, with its unique architecture and harbor entry, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.” It does not appear that the Lessiacks visited the synagogue. If they did, they didn’t take any pictures.
Next stop, my old stomping grounds on the Atlantic coast of Panama. Here is Grandpa Bob having some fun with other kids (while wearing a funny hat) at the Hotel Washington in Cristobal Panama. Readers who are paying attention will remember that the Lessiacks also stayed at the Hotel Washington when they visited Panama in 1926. Click the link to see a photo of my unfortunate candy-striped prom dress taken at this very hotel 59 years later.
Next stop: Kingston Jamaica.
Next stop, Nassau. These photos are undated, but based on Nassau’s proximity to Cuba, which is coming up next, I decided to place them here.
Next and final stop (or at least where the photos stop): Cuba. At this point Great-grandpa Leo Lessiack starts appearing in the photos, so maybe he met up with the party in Cuba. I think he must also be the one taking the photos now because Margaret and Bob start appearing together more frequently.
First stop, Santiago and the site of the battle of San Juan Hill. According to Wikipedia,
“The Battle of San Juan Hill (1 July 1898), also known as the battle for the San Juan Heights, was a decisive battle of the Spanish–American War. The San Juan heights was a north-south running elevation about 2 kilometres (2,200 yd) east of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. The names San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill were given to the location by the Americans. This fight for the heights was the bloodiest and most famous battle of the war. It was also the location of the greatest victory for the Rough Riders, as claimed by the press and its new commander, Theodore Roosevelt, who was to eventually become first vice president and then president, and who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions in Cuba.”
These next photos were taken at Los Jardines de la Tropical just outside of Havana. This article from Atlas Obscura relates the history of this still extant treasure:
“Built in the late 1800s by the Herrera family, owners of La Tropical brewery, this Cuban pleasure garden is now a somewhat abandoned gem on the outskirts of Havana. Meant to mirror a lush Spanish estate, the Tropical Gardens, as the site is known in English, was built around 1912 and quickly became a hot spot for high society and the most popular orchestras of the time. In its prime, the grounds were scattered with waterfalls, gazeboes, and a small palace in the style of the Alhambra in Granada. There was also a huge ballroom capable of entertaining around 500 amorous couples.
As the popularity of the lush social space waned, the structures fell into disrepair and many of the extravagant flourishes throughout the garden became overgrown. The site was partially refurbished and a number of different ventures including nightclubs and restaurants tried to bring the gardens back into favor but none of them stuck.
Now the Los Jardines de la Tropical belongs to the Havana Metropolitan Parks organization and efforts are underway to preserve the verdant tropical history of the site. Frequent rock concerts and dance festivals are held on the grounds, so while the tuxedoes and finery may have disappeared, the parties rage on.”
And there the photographic record peters out. I hope you enjoyed the trip. Until next time, dear People.