The Columbus Quincentennial in 1992 sparked a major refurbishing of the colonial architecture of Puerto Rico. The island's architectural heritage is Spanish, of course, as seen in the narrow, winding cobblestone streets and the pastel-colored, tile-roofed buildings with ornate balconies and heavy wooden doors that open onto inner courtyards in the style of Andalusia in southern Spain.
Current restoration and renewal projects focus on Old San Juan and the city of Ponce. It is estimated that there are at least 400 structures of historic value in Old San Juan, including some of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the New World. Old San Juan was Spain's major center of commerce and military power in the West Indies for nearly four centuries.
Spain ordered that the city be protected by sandstone walls and massive fortresses, since the island was the first port of call for galleons entering the West Indies and the last safe harbor for ships, laden with treasures, making the return trip to Cadíz or Seville. Because Old San Juan had no space for expansion, new buildings had to be erected to the east of the old town, in what is known today as the modern city of San Juan. Thus, most of the old structures have survived more or less since the 16th-century. The most notable of these include El Morro Fortress, the San Juan Cathedral, and the Dominican Convent. Casa Blanca, a mansion built for the island's first governor, Ponce de León, still stands.
On a walking tour of Old San Juan, you will see an architectural melange of buildings that range from the style popular during the Spanish Conquest to the neoclassical style of the 19th century. The most significant of all is El Morro Fortress, largest in the Caribbean, which has stood guard over San Juan Bay for more than four centuries. In 1973 it was declared a "World Heritage Site," putting it in the same class as Versalles, the Taj Mahal, and the Egyptian pyramids.
Other outstanding examples of Spanish colonial military architecture and engineering in San Juan include the old city walls and the nearby San Cristóbal fortress. La Fortaleza, dating from 1533, is another World Heritage Site. Built to protect Spanish settlers from attack by the cannibalistic Carib tribes, it was at first a small medieval-style fortress with two round towers. In time, it became the residence of the island's governors. Still in use today, it is the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico and the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the New World. Built around its 16th-century core is a 19th-century facade with neoclassical motifs and a richly furnished interior.
Those who restored La Fortaleza and other landmarks in Old San Juan tried whenever possible to use original materials such as native-grown ausubo (ironwood) beams, which had to be salvaged from elsewhere on the island. The Puerto Rican General Archives and the Archives of the Indies in Seville (Spain) were able to provide the original plans of many late 18th-century and 19th-century buildings; they were used in the restoration of many of the island's structures. The greatest challenge was to restore 16th-century buildings, for which there were no original plans. One example of this is San José Church, the only true Gothic building under the U.S. flag. The walls of this church had to be scraped to uncover the original 16th-century features. Buried under layers of concrete, the restores found one of the earliest murals painted in the Americas - the work of a friar whose identity will probably never be known.
The facade of San Juan Cathedral, added in the early 19th century, is baroque, but it shelters a vaulted tower and four rooms dating from 1540, which are rare examples of medieval architecture in the New World. In 1913 the body of Ponce de León was moved here and is now in a marble tomb near the cathedral's transept.
The Dominican Convent - another Old San Juan 16th-century structure- now houses the Institute of Culture. Friars began its construction in 1523; there are tall arcaded galleries set into its two stories, a large interior patio, and a chapel that now serves as a museum.
The waterfront area of San Juan, known as the "Paseo de La Princesa", is also being restored to its original 19th-century splendor as a broad esplanade graced with fountains and towering royal palms. The promenade sweeps from the cruise piers to "La Princesa", a restored 19th-century prison, now the headquarters of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. "La Princesa" sets a good example for future architectural restorations, with its huge mahogany doors, impressive arcades, polished floors, and elegant appointments.
A second architectural renaissance and renovation is taking place in Ponce. At the turn of the century, Ponce rivaled San Juan as an affluent business and cultural center. when the Ponce revitalization plan -arguably the most extensive ever undertaken in the West Indies- is completed, visitors will be able to stroll along gaslit streets lined with period structures, as old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages clop by Strollers will enjoy sidewalks edged with pink marble.
The commonwealth has allocated $440 million to restore a 66-block downtown area of 1,046 buildings ranging in style from old Spanish colonial to neoclassical, from "Ponce Créole" to art deco. Many of Ponce's central buildings were erected between the late 1890s and the 1930s, when the city was the hub of the island's rum, sugar cane and shipping industries and was known as La Perla del Sur, the "Pearl of the South." It was home to many artists, politicians, and poets.
With funds provided by the Spanish government, the Institute of Ibero-American Cooperation designated which structures were worthy of preservation. Many of the buildings radiate outward from the stately main square, Plaza Las Delicias (Plaza of Delights). Other streets with buildings of architectural interest include Cristina, Isabel, Luna, Reina, and Pabellones.
The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture restored the neoclassical Casa Armstrong. Poventud, a mansion with caryatid columns gracing its facade. Today, the restored building houses the Ponce Tourism Information Center, the regional office of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, and a museum. Another major 19th-century building, El Castillo, originally served as the Ponce Village Infantry Quarter. It later became the Ponce Jail, but is now the Ponce School of Fine Arts.
Yet another notable building, the Museum of Puerto Rican Music, was restored in 1990 by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. It pays tribute to the works of Puerto Rican musicians. The museum is housed in the old Museum of Art on Cristina Street, built in the 1850s as the home of a wealthy industrialist.
The institute is also responsible for restoring Casa Serrallés, the former home of the oldest rum-producing family on the island, the makers of Don Q rum. It also restored Casa Villaronga, the former home of Alfredo Wiechersm a famous Ponce architect. Casa Villaronga exemplifies the characteristic elegance and whimsy of Ponce architecture with its trellised roof garden, stucco garlands, colored glass, and Spanish tiles.
Overlooking Ponce from its perch on El Vigia Hill is one more recently restored landmark, the Castillo Serrallés, another home of the rum-producing Serrallés family. This is a multilevel Spanish-style hacienda, featuring an elegant open courtyard with fountains and a splendid carved wooden ceiling in the dining room.
Plaza del Mercado, the old marketplace, has been converted to an artisans' market, replete with typical foods, fruits, and flowers. Converted from an art deco movie theater, it probably draws more sightseers and consumers that any other complex in the old town.
At Plaza de Las Delicias, Ponce has revived its traditional horse-drawn carriage service. Four carriages offer free rides to visitors. Standing on the square is the boldly painted, century-old Parque de Bombas (Firehouse), which reopened as a museum after a $140,000 restoration.
Source: Porter, Darwin and Danforth Prince, Frommer's Comprehensive Travel Guide - Puerto Rico '95-'96, New York, New York, Macmillan Travel, 1992, 1994, pp. 22-25.