Guarding the Glories of San Juan

Preservationists are saving sites in and around Puerto Rico’s capital city

El Morro, a World Heritage site managed by the National Park Service, has protected San Juan Bay since the 16th century.

Credit: Cameron Davidson

The first thing I notice, after my eyes adjust to the half-light filtering through the stained-glass windows, is the ornate marble tomb. I've come to San Juan Cathedral on a rainy September morning with Anibal Sepulveda, a professor of planning at the University of Puerto Rico. Beneath the marble lies Ponce De León, the Spanish conquistador who colonized Puerto Rico in 1508 (five years before he discovered Florida, Sepulveda tells me with a smile). Sepulveda whisks me down the aisle to a stone spiral staircase in the oldest surviving part of the 16th-century cathedral. "This helix, it's like the DNA of the city," he says, as we ascend the dark passageway before emerging onto the roof.

Here I find my breathtaking introduction to Old San Juan: The city, the historic heart of Puerto Rico's capital, spreads out before us in a dramatic and colorful panorama. High above the narrow streets, with the roaring Atlantic Ocean in the distance, I see houses in all shades of muted pastels, huddled behind massive walls built by the Spaniards to defend their Caribbean colony. All of this architecture, I realize, arose nearly a century before the first English colonists landed in Jamestown and Plymouth, and it remains remarkably intact today. Its appearance Spanish, its soul Puerto Rican, Old San Juan draws hordes of tourists who arrive each week by cruise ships that dock in the city's harbor.

I've come here to find out how this historic city survived once-vocal calls for demolition, and to venture beyond its formidable walls. Although the struggle to save Old San Juan has largely been won, I quickly learn that elsewhere on this fiercely proud island, some battles are just beginning.

Old San Juan sits on a tiny spit of land resembling a whale's tail on Puerto Rico's northern coast, separated from the newer part of the city (and the rest of the island) by a small channel. It's a city made for walking, and I spend a good part of my stay wandering the narrow streets, the blue sheen of their cobblestones constantly changing, depending on the angle and intensity of the light. The beauty here largely derives from the city's intimate scale. Two-story houses predominate, the rhythm occasionally interrupted by larger showpieces such as the cathedral or nearby El Convento, a convent-turned-hotel built in 1646. (El Convento is a Historic Hotel of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)

The massive walls that line the coastline cradle the city and heighten its intimacy. At strategic points along the walls the Spanish built two forts, El Morro and San Cristóbal, to stand guard against invading navies launching attacks from the Atlantic. The forts remain today, weathered testaments to the city's importance in Spain's Caribbean empire.

English forces tried three times to capture San Juan. The Dutch set fire to the city in 1625 but couldn't take El Morro. Not until the Spanish-American War in 1898 did the United States, with Puerto Rican support, wrest control of San Juan—and the island—from the Spanish.

In 1947, after decades of U.S. military rule, Puerto Rico began electing its own governor. It was then that the Americans helped launch Operation Bootstrap, an ambitious plan to transform the island—long dependent on sugar and tobacco production—into an industrial powerhouse. The historic city faced imminent destruction. "San Juan was a slum area," recalls Ricardo Alegría, the first director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. "Cristo Street was a haven for prostitution. Property values were down. I was told that San Juan should be a little New York. That was the cry. To destroy everything and to rebuild."

The Changing Face of Old San Juan

Wander into the Plaza de Armas, a main square in Old San Juan, and you'll find no shortage of American chains—Starbucks, Howard Johnson, Burger King. In response, independent and trendy restaurants such as Dragonfly (Latin-Asian fusion) have sprouted on South Fortaleza Street, dubbed Sofo. And boutique hotels have started to multiply. But renovating historic buildings for new uses is not always easy in Old San Juan. Hotelier Raul Emilio Fournier says it took him eight years to buy a building for one of his recent projects. Almost 40 people had partial ownership, thanks to a convoluted chain of inheritance dating back generations. Fournier traveled to the Dominican Republic and Spain—even managed to track down an Argentinian cab driver—before he secured rights to the building and opened the eight-room  Casa Herencia hotel.  


Today Alegría, the man credited with saving old San Juan, lives in a faded pink house on San José Street. He is 87 years old, with a white mustache and an easy smile. We sit one evening in his open courtyard and he explains how he dismissed calls for demolition and helped the government establish tax credits for individuals who restored buildings. To set an example, he purchased and restored this house, instead of building a new one as he had originally planned.

Alegría recounts one of his many battles, fought in the late 1960s over the landmark building that now houses the General Archives of Puerto Rico. José Bosch, head of the Bacardi rum family, purchased the building (designed initially in the 1890s as a hospital) and wanted to tear it down to build a high-rise. But Alegría declared his opposition to the plan, prompting Bosch to storm into his office, livid. So Alegría floated an alternative proposal: What if the institute bought the building? Bosch asked how much.

 "I was not prepared," recalls Alegría. "The first thing that came to mind was $500,000."

Bosch threw a chair and yelled, "You are worse than Fidel," as perturbed by the low price as by the government's intrusion into his affairs.

"I'm not doing this for me," Alegría told him. "I'm doing this for my country." In the end, Bosch agreed to sell the building for $500,000.

Before I go, Alegría gives me a tour of his house, the walls decorated with paintings by the acclaimed Puerto Rican artist José Campeche, as well as a tile collection dating to the 16th century. Alegría says he has started donating his papers, books, and artifacts to museums and libraries, to ensure their preservation, and I ask how he wants to be remembered. He doesn't hesitate: "As the man who defended Puerto Rican heritage."

Sugar High

On a breezy, cloudless morning,  I navigate a dirt road about 35 miles west of San Juan that ends in front of a light blue, two-story plantation house. I've left the old city to explore a significant reminder of the island's bucolic past: the sugar plantation once owned by the Marquis de la Esperanza. In the 1870s, before urbanization and sprawl, about 30 percent of the island's arable land was planted with sugar cane. And the marquis' plantation, Hacienda la Esperanza, was among the island's largest and most profitable, with 2,212 acres and 152 slaves.

The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico purchased the site in 1975, saving it from development, and recently undertook an ambitious restoration—the first of any sugar plantation on the island. When I visit, workers are putting the finishing touches on the plantation house, but what really catches my eye is the steam-powered sugar mill behind it. An Industrial Age marvel built in 1861, the mill rises in sharp contrast to the lush landscape, its 19-foot main wheel the power for a gear system that once ground as much as 600 tons of sugar cane each harvest.

Workers have rebuilt and restored the mill, down to the original bolts, and they hope to set it in motion again early this year. "We want visitors to be able to listen to the mill's noise, feel its power, understand the history of man here," says Fernando Lloveras, the trust's executive director, as we stand atop the machine and admire the view. "We have to understand that there is a very delicate balance between man and his environment."

That balance seems especially critical at another trust project: the old aqueduct in San Juan's Río Piedras neighborhood, a 20-minute drive southeast from the old city. Before the aqueduct was completed in 1898, residents in Old San Juan drew their water from wells and cisterns. The aqueduct provided greater access to clean water, supplying two million gallons in 12 hours, enabling the city to expand beyond the fortified walls. Demand for water spiked during World War I, when American troops were stationed in the Puerto Rican capital, and the government purchased six massive purifying tanks to increase supply. The tanks, made of iron, survive surprisingly intact, lined up in a neat row like some sort of industrial art installation, all their piping and valves original.

On a humid afternoon, Alberto Del Toro, an architect helping with the restoration work here, shows me how a small stone dam channeled water from the Piedras River into two nearby basins spread across more than three acres of land. Today, the basins are filled not with water but with dirt. Workers have started to uncover the blue limestone walls that enclosed them and have also begun to restore outlying buildings, including the pump house that pushed the water to the distribution station.

I stand with Del Toro in the mud near the basins, bamboo trees rising around us, little frogs called coquí holding an animated discussion in the weeds. "Some pieces of green united with the river—that's what we have left of greenery in the city," says Del Toro, waving his arm around. "It's like a collar of emeralds. If we don't keep this for future generations, we are going to have lost everything."

The Orlandofication of San Juan

Just days before my arrival, Caribbean Business reported that $15 billion of development is planned or under way in San Juan. Puerto Rico's sluggish economy certainly needs a boost. Some construction is tied to tourism (the glass-lined lobby of the recently restored 1958 La Concha hotel in the Condado neighborhood oozes swank modernist cool). Other projects are meant to transform the island into a leading center for biotechnology research and development (the former San Juan State Penitentiary in the Río Piedras neighborhood will be converted into a research hub).

Development hasn't come without controversy, however, with some preservationists decrying the Orlandofication of parts of the city. As I drive over the bridge that leads into Old San Juan one afternoon, I spot a makeshift village of tents in front of a construction site, with signs calling for the Demolición of two nearly complete high-rise condo buildings. The towers loom over San Gerónimo, a fort instrumental in repelling the British invasion of 1797. Today, the fort, adjacent to the Caribe Hilton Hotel, needs significant renovations. And that's where the controversy starts.

I talk to a protestor with long brown hair who pulls out a cell phone and calls Ricardo de Soto with GuardaMar, a local environmental activist group. Not only were the high-rises built illegally on public land, de Soto tells me, they also curtailed access to San Gerónimo, preventing machinery from getting to the fort for restoration work. The final insult? Vibrations caused by construction may have damaged the historic site.

A provocateur named Albert de Jesús climbed atop a crane at the site in fall 2007 and halted construction for more than a week. His high-wire act ended with a Hollywood flourish, as camera crews captured him rappelling down the crane one night and escaping in a red kayak with police in close pursuit.

Developer Arturo Madero, who built the high-rises, says that de Jesús' stunt on the crane resulted in $30 million in construction delays. Other businessmen contend that the protestors are anarchists intent on destabilizing Puerto Rico's economy, a charge de Jesús has denied. Last July, the supreme court in Puerto Rico ruled that the two high-rises weren't built on land in the public domain. Nevertheless, the protestors have vowed to continue the fight until the towers are razed.

In the midst of this standoff, one lesson looms large. On a small island such as Puerto Rico, it's especially important for new construction to blend with historic buildings in a thoughtful way. "Everybody says that planning has been a disaster for decades," says José Luís Vega, the executive director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. "Everybody agrees on that much."

The funny thing is, the Spanish did a pretty good job of planning in the first place. I'm sitting one evening with Javier Bonnin Orozco in his apartment in Ponce, about 75 miles from San Juan on the island's southern coast. Over rum-and-cokes, Bonnin, an architect, tells me that the Spanish built towns with main squares surrounded by churches, banks, markets. "The centers connect everybody. They're the identity of the towns," he says.

In the mid-20th century, Puerto Ricans embraced the American obsession with the automobile, abandoning squares and city centers in favor of sprawling suburbs and gated communities. But in recent years, the Puerto Rican government has tried to inspire the revitalization of city centers, using a variety of tax credits and other incentives. 

Take the case of Ponce, Bonnin says. Separated from the government in San Juan by the lush Central Mountains, Ponce blossomed in the 19th century as the island's artistic capital. The architecture reflects the city's bohemian personality: Porches and verandas front the streets, conveying a spirit of openness and relaxation.

After the urban flight of the 1950s and '60s, Ponce appeared ready to boom again when native son Rafael Hernández Colón was elected Puerto Rico's governor in 1984. Hernández Colón earmarked funds for the restoration of Ponce's historic core—but then decided not to run for reelection in 1992. "There are some streets in the center that still don't have the sidewalks finished," Bonnin says. "The sidewalks were under construction in 1992, and they were stopped in 1993. It was like that: zero more money to Ponce."

Ponce has now constructed a megaport where goods can be transferred to vessels small enough to navigate the Panama Canal. The megaport, scheduled to open this year, and the recent governmental incentives for downtown development may finally spur Ponce's revival. Bonnin envisions a new wave of people restoring old houses in his city's historic center, preserving the essence of this significant part of Puerto Rican heritage. "We are closer than we have ever been," he says.

At the end of my trip, I'm drawn back to Old San Juan. I wake up early on my final morning for a walk around El Morro. The cruise ships haven't docked yet this morning, so I find myself alone, but for the runners circling a large grassy field in front of the fort. The sky is a clear blue; the Atlantic Ocean gleams in the distance. I can easily conjure images of Ponce de León first landing on Puerto Rico, or of workers building the aqueduct that permitted San Juan's expansion and led to a protracted period of sprawl and modernization.

So many layers of Puerto Rico's history survive, the medieval and the modern residing in such proximity, that it is no surprise that shaping the island's architectural future inspires controversy. As I head for my car and drive toward the cranes that rise over San Juan, I realize that this is a city embarked on a sometimes tumultuous journey into the future. One thing seems certain, though: It will never let go of its past.  

Read our guide to visiting the varied architecture of Puerto Rico

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