Old San Juan Historic District-American Latino Heritage: A Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary

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San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the oldest continuously inhabited post-European contact city in United States territory and the second oldest in the entire Western Hemisphere. Since the Spanish founded it in 1519, San Juan has served as the capital city of Puerto Rico. Located in the western corner of the beautiful San Juan Islet, the Old San Juan Historic District is the historic core of the city. Many of the oldest post-contact buildings and structures in the United States are within its 74-block radius. San Juan evolved from a frontier community to become an important Spanish outpost and port until the United States annexed Puerto Rico in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War.

Old San Juan’s historic architecture reflects four centuries of development that shaped the historic urban landscape. Today, it is the nation’s most complete Spanish urban center with its Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. These styles of architecture create a sense of drama and authority with their beautifully-detailed ornamentation, arches, and domes.

Old San Juan’s impressive fortifications include La Fortaleza, the three forts of San Felipe del Morro, San Cristóbal and San Juan de la Cruz (El Cañuelo), and a large portion of the city wall, constructed between the 16th and 19th centuries to protect the city and the Bay of San Juan. The Spanish fortifications in San Juan are the oldest European construction in territory of the United States and one of the oldest in the Americas. The forts and city walls are fine examples of historic military architecture that reflect the power of the early Spanish Empire and the spread of European culture. The massive fortifications are part of the San Juan National Historic Site, which is administered by the National Park Service and featured separately in this itinerary. Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, Castillo de San Cristóbal, its circuit of defensive walls, and La Fortaleza also known as Palacio de Santa Catalina, are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Conquest Period (1525-1625)

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León founded San Juan in 1519. This new town replaced the settlement he had established in 1508 at Caparra, Puerto Rico, which was near the gold mines that made Puerto Rico valuable to the Spanish. Spanish ships stopped at San Juan on their journey between Spain and Hispaniola, but the colony struggled as gold became scarce. During this early period, the settlers built a number of significant buildings that still survive in Old San Juan. Founded between 1521 and1523, the historic Convento de los Dominicos (originally the Convento de Santo Tomás de Aquino) is on Calle del Santo Cristo de la Salud. On the same street, the Iglesia de San José dates from 1521. The church, an example of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, served the St. Thomas of Aquinas Convent that housed the Dominican friars, as well as the surrounding community.

On del Cristo Street, the capital’s first cathedral, La Catedral de San Juan Bautista, is still open daily for services. Started in 1542 and altered over the centuries, the historic cathedral is another example of Gothic and Renaissance Revival architecture.

The colonists included a public plaza used for open-air markets and social exchange, called Plaza de la Catedral, just outside the church. Plazas were common in Spanish cities in Europe at the time. Shortly thereafter, noting its small size and steep terrain, the community created another plaza, the Plaza de Armas, further inland at Calle de San Francisco to provide a more functional social center. Today, Puerto Ricans consider the Plaza de Armas the heart of Old San Juan.

Adjacent to La Catedral de San Juan Bautista and built on the site of Ponce de León’s own home by his son-in-law, Casa-Torre de Ponce de León dates from the 16th century and served as both a shelter and a fort for the family’s defense.Although Ponce de León never lived in Casa-Torre, generations of his descendents did. Sometime during the 18th century, residents nicknamed Casa-Torre the Casa Blanca, or White House, which referred to the thick coat of stucco that covered both the interior and exterior walls. Stuccoing was a common practice used to protect the delicate masonry limestone walls of many buildings. Today, the house is a museum where visitors can learn about the Ponce de León family and early colonial life. The museum is at 1 Calle de San Sebastian.

To protect the capital from attack, the colonists built forts and military defenses. These defenses form one of the most iconic images of Old San Juan today: a city ringed with stone. The stone fortification walls constructed over 250 years eventually met to unite two of the city’s largest forts, Castillo de San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal that are part of San Juan National Historic Site. The forts protected San Juan from sea and land-based attacks. Today, visitors can explore Castillo de San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal and enjoy the beautiful vistas from San Juan National Historic Site. The entrance is at 501 Calle de Norzagaray.

Growth during the 18th and 19th centuries

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Old San Juan entered an era of relative tranquility and sustained growth. New trends in architecture, including dramatic Baroque designs, crossed the Atlantic reaching San Juan by the 18th century infusing new architectural traditions into the city’s built environment. Some of San Juan’s most impressive extant buildings remain from this period – both imposing public architecture and 18th-century homes.

Two Baroque buildings, Palacio Episcopal and Palacio Rojo, occupy prominent locations within the urban landscape. Palacio Episcopal (corner of Calle del Santo Cristo de la Salud and Calle de San Sebastian) dates from 1733. Its main entrance has an elegant portal on Calle del Cristo de la Salud. Owned by the Catholic Church, the building is still used today as it was when it was built, as the Bishop of San Juan’s private residence. Constructed in 1792, the Palacio Rojo, or Red Palace, is also known as the Sala de Armas del Palacio de Santa Catalina. The two-story building housed auxiliary services for the defense of the city and served as living quarters for the Spanish post commanding officers.

The Modern Period (1812-1898) Many important historic public buildings in Old San Juan were built between 1812 and 1898. The Seminario Conciliar de San Ildefonso (Calle del Santo Cristo de la Salud; corner Calle del Sol; corner Escalinatas del Hospital), a religious seminary/education center, is one example. The Plaza del Mercado Municipal, the municipal market plaza on Calle de Norzagaray that now houses the Museo de Historia de la Ciudad de San Juan (Museum of the History of the City of San Juan) is another.

Originally constructed in the 16th century, the Spanish fort La Fortaleza, also known as the Palacio de Santa Catalina, at 63 Calle de la Fortaleza was an early defensive fortification for the city. It still has its two round towers and a crenellation-topped wall that connects them. A large Renaissance Revival palace wing with an impressive neo-Renaissance façade was added in the mid-19th century. Luxurious rooms in its interior contribute to its palatial appearance. Palacio de Santa Catalina has been the home of the governors or capitanes-generales since the 1500s and is the oldest executive mansion still in use today in the Western Hemisphere.

Significant and handsome domestic buildings in the district from this period display detailed ornamentation and classical-revival influence in the forms of Renaissance Revival, Arab Revival, and Second Empire styles of architecture.

Also worth seeing is the Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis. This cemetery, started in 1841, reflects both mixing of architectural styles and new ideas about society. Residents built it outside the city walls because they wanted to separate the dead from the living population. This represents an important transition in ideas about public health and hygiene. The cemetery is also an example of the diversity of architectural influences on San Juan. The cemetery has a Renaissance Revival chapel and dozens of funerary sculptures in Neo-Gothic and Victorian designs. The cemetery is still in use and can be explored to locate graves of Puerto Rico’s prominent residents.

Old San Juan’s wonderfully diverse architectural and historic treasures make the district quite distinct from any other place in the world. The abundance of historic buildings and sites, lively plazas, parks, promenades, gardens, museums, shops, tree-shaded cafés and restaurants make Old San Juan a fascinating destination for both local and international tourists. Visitors can hitch a ride on the free tourist trolley or stroll through downtown Old San Juan to enjoy its cobblestone streets, pastel-colored buildings, and rocky ocean-view bluffs. This itinerary can only scratch the surface of what is available to experience, learn about, and enjoy in Old San Juan. Please see the Plan Your Visit Section below and the Learn More page of this itinerary, for links to further information.

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