New Conservation Effort Aims To Protect Papa's Papers Ernest Hemingway left papers and a private library of more than 9,000 books when he left Cuba. A Boston-based foundation is taking steps to save the artifacts from the hot, humid Caribbean weather.

New Conservation Effort Aims To Protect Papa's Papers

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While clearly there are still hurdles along the road to normalization, as we've heard, the new warmer ties are reaping rewards. One additional and curious benefactor is the legacy of Ernest Hemingway. The writer lived just outside of Havana for 20 years, and that home has long been a national museum. But years of hot, humid Caribbean weather has taken a toll on the author's thousands of papers and books. A Boston-based foundation is helping restore those weathered treasures. And who better to lead that effort than the original dean of home repairs, Bob Vila, of public television's "This Old House." He joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome.

BOB VILA: Thank you. It's great to be with you.

KAHN: Oh, it's great that you've come in. Thank you so much. I've watched many episodes back in the day of "This Old House," and I just assumed that you hailed from New England. But you have a very personal connection to Cuba. Tell us about that.

VILA: I'm American-born Cuban. My Havana-born parents emigrated during the latter part of World War II. And I was born in Miami, raised there and partially in Havana up until the revolution in '59.

KAHN: And you've been back there several times since then.

VILA: The project took me there. I really did not go to Havana or visit Cuba for over four decades, and my parents were staunch anti-Communists in, you know, in the '50s and the '60s, et cetera. I was convinced to go back to kind of reconnect with the culture that they came from as part of this project and also with the work of Catholic Charities (speaking Spanish). So it's been just a wonderful experience for me over the last dozen years to be able to participate in the restoration of Hemingway's house and collections, his legacy there. And, you know, Hemingway was very much a lover of all things Cuban.

KAHN: I got - last summer I actually was lucky enough to tour that Hemingway house, and it is amazing. It's beautiful. The grounds are beautiful, and what I liked the best was that you could look right into the rooms. You could see his library, his sitting room. It looked like he'd just walked out of the house.

VILA: Well, it's restored. I mean, the restoration, the new roof, the new windows, all of the basics of the house were - the restoration was completed a good five, six years ago. It's now into its first major maintenance phase. The work that continues is really about the conservation of the papers, the books. Hemingway's private library of over 9,000 books were all left there. The changes that President Obama has brought forth have allowed us to actually begin fundraising so that we can help with the work of creating a paper conservation laboratory as well as an archival storage facility where many of these literary treasures will find a safe home.

KAHN: Well, talk about some of those things that you want to preserve. Hemingway had such a storied stay in Cuba. And he finished "For Whom The Bell Tolls" there. He wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Old Man And The Sea," and so you've seen these archives and the treasures. Tell us what's the coolest thing that you've seen.

VILA: Well, the very first time I went I came as an expert on termite damage. And what happened was that the accessory building that Hemingway put up back in the '50s, which was a wooden building, was essentially a guest house/garage. And this is where the Cubans had been storing a great many items. And I needed to get in to see what the structure looked like and just poke around at it to see how bad the termite damage was. But they were very, very jealous about it. They didn't want me to go in there. And I finally convinced them. And so we opened these doors and turned on a spare light bulb that's in there. And I've always compared it to what it must've been like to find Tutankhamun's tomb. In the dim light I just saw a row of all his African hunting trophies, boxes upon boxes of books. And then I looked to the left. There's his typewriter. And he's even got his World War I ambulance driver uniform in there 'cause the guy never threw anything out.

KAHN: Hemingway left Cuba soon after the revolution. What became of his house?

VILA: He left the home to the Cuban people, not to the revolution, and he wanted it to become a museum. His widow eventually went and removed personal belongings. But generally speaking the - everything that you see there he meant to leave there so that it could become a center for learning, a center for understanding more about his literature and part of a cultural bridge between our United States culture and the Cuban culture.

KAHN: Bob Vila, good luck with your restoration process in Havana of Hemingway's house. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

VILA: The pleasure's mine.

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