Luna Street in San Juan in the late 19th century. Taken from the Album of Feliciano Alonso.
Founding of cities and towns
The European military, spiritual and cultural conquest of the Americas had its most concrete expression in the founding of cities. Conquest, to some degree, became synonymous with building villages and towns and controlling, transforming and renaming native cities, such as the vast Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), that astonished the conquistadores and scribes such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and that could be compared only with cities such as Constantinople (now Istanbul). Without the creation of Caparra (in what is now the municipality of Guaynabo) and its relocation to the islet of San Juan, without the villages of San Germán, Coamo and Arecibo, founded in the 16th and early 17th centuries, the process of colonization would have been improbable. When Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, Spain was not a consolidated nation as we know it today. The Iberian Peninsula was divided into kingdoms of no more than half a million square kilometers and fewer than seven million inhabitants. By comparison, the territory of what we know as Latin America today was about 19 million square kilometers and some regions, such as Mesoamerica, were inhabited by more than 20 million humans. The city was the front line, the heart of the conquest of the greatness of the Americas, or, as Uruguayan writer Ángel Rama wrote, the symbol and place where European civilization imposed itself on the universe they discovered.
Caparra, in 1508, was the first effort to settle this crucial space in the war, the cultural conquest and the economic colonization by Spain of Boriquén, the Taino name for Puerto Rico. It was founded on swampy land a few kilometers south of San Juan Bay. It turned out to be a failed dream and by the 1530s the settlement had been abandoned. All that’s left of Caparra are the foundation and the rough stone walls of what is believed to be the house of Juan Ponce de León, the “scout” of the Spanish occupation. Despite Ponce de León’s reluctance to move, the constant attacks by the natives against the settlement and the illnesses that affected the handful of inhabitants of the new village convinced the officials of the crown it was better to move to the islet of San Juan. It can be seen as the desires of traders overcoming those of the conquerors, because on the islet they benefited from facilities for loading and unloading cargo for trade. The scarcity of fresh water, among other obstacles, was not an impediment as the majority of the colonists wanted access to the port, as well as a site that was less vulnerable to epidemics and the attacks by the Tainos. It was also obvious that, located on the high point of the islet, the capital in San Juan could be defended more effectively from native insurrections and, eventually, pirates and corsairs.
Three villages added to the colonization project over this first century. San Germán was the second settlement in Puerto Rico, founded almost the same time as Caparra. It faced no less difficulty and trouble. A Taino insurrection destroyed the first settlement on the western part of the island. Its exact location is not even known. Other attempts were frustrated by attacks by pirates. San Germán was finally reestablished on the hills of Santa Marta, far from the sea, but in a protected site surrounded by fertile fields and bordered by the Guanajibo River. The settlement of Arecibo was consolidated around 1570, although the area had been inhabited earlier by Spanish who began to work the land when the gold mines gave out. Meanwhile, the settlement of Coamo took shape in the same time period and in 1579 was recognized as a town. Both Arecibo and Coamo were built on the remains of former Taino realms, with fertile land and sufficient supplies of fresh water for agriculture and livestock. The Island saw a handful of new settlements over the next century, but it wasn’t until the following 18th and 19th centuries that the large majority of towns were founded and took shape.
The reasons for the founding of dozens of towns in the following centuries were different than those for San Juan and San Germán. The conquest was an accomplished fact by the early 17th century. Farms, ranches and smuggling led to a slow but steady increase in the population, especially in the 18th century (Morales Carrión). The growing number of families and economic activity led to the desire to gather in towns in various areas, especially in the south and the west. The desire to settle was also supported by the governors and the military, who understood the usefulness of these ties for social organization and military control of the Island. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when the crown imposed policies to encourage trade based on sugar and coffee, the import of slaves and immigration of new residents – many of them from territories that had suffered in the wars of independence – the foundations of the infrastructure of civilization were already built. With this new landscape of small towns and a network of roads, the final century of Spanish rule experienced a rapid transformation from “idle” land to plantations and farms producing products for export, as well as for local markets.
Though the majority of the residents of Puerto Rico lived in rural areas until the 20th century, 19th century documents show constant calls to have a “town” of their own, with a parish, a cemetery, a city hall, a jail, a butcher shop and shops for other businesses, sometimes including craftsmen, and homes. These were the reasons the residents of Naranjito gave to the governor for their decision to establish a town on the banks of the Guadiana River: to create a common space to meet the needs “demanded by the social and Christian life” of hundreds of inhabitants scattered the countryside and have a meeting space to build a sense of community (Morales Muñoz, pp. 54-55). The residents who identified themselves as “farmers” counted on the creation of an urban center with a plaza, church and city hall as a way to meet their “spiritual” needs and help them fulfill their desires for “wealth and prosperity.” Trade and a public order independent of the often arbitrary actions of the powerful large landowners were associated with urban centers and a new word in the early 19th century: progress.
The architectural forms of the colonial cities
The process of conquest was probably chaotic, more than we imagine today, and so too must have been the efforts to establish the first villages and cities. Poor decisions and haste frustrated more than one effort to found a town and often the colonists had to move the site, as occurred in Havana and Santiago in Cuba, Santo Domingo on Hispaniola, or San Germán and Caparra in Puerto Rico. Early in the conquest, however, the crown issued laws promoting orderly settlements based on long-standing customs in Spain, as well as urban ideals of the European Renaissance. Historian José Luis Romero notes that despite the obvious differences, the towns and cities of Latin America created in the 16th through 18th centuries have similarities, if not identical conceptual origins. Their urban structures and architecture follow more or less the same decrees, and therefore have similar characteristics that give them an unmistakable spatial identity (Romero, p. 44). Each “colonial” or “traditional” center is an urban landscape based on the ideas of civilization that the conquest imposed, though each site adjusted them based on the human and natural setting.
The rules for organizing city life in Puerto Rico and the rest of Latin America were gathered in the “Compilation of Laws of the Indies,” published in 1680. Planner and historian Aníbal Sepúlveda points out that these laws were both idealistic and simple in their interpretation and application (Sepúlveda, 2004). Among the most important decrees was one that required all the streets to be laid out in straight lines, whenever possible, something the topography did not always allow. This rule on the construction of streets also required that streets had to form intersections with right angles. The result was a regular layout that, seen from the air, looks like a grid or a chessboard. The dimensions of the street, meanwhile, were established by the climate: wide in cold areas, to ensure sunshine, and narrow in hot areas, to create shade on one side. Other norms proposed that lots on which the new settlers would build their homes should be uniform in size and be filled starting from the center and moving toward the periphery, to ensure an orderly physical growth. The conquistadors, their descendants and the wealthiest residents got the lots in the center of the city. This explains why the biggest and most showy homes in colonial times were often in front of the main plaza or very nearby.
All of the towns and cities of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America that were born during the Spanish colonial had one element in common: the “plaza de armas.” The Laws of the Indies required at least one plaza as a public space in each settlement. They also required that it be set in the center if the settlement was in a landlocked location or facing the sea and immediately accessible from the ports if it was located on the coast. To make the public space appropriate for religious, public or business celebrations, it was required to be rectangular, not square. The shape also facilitated a “display of people on horseback or on foot,” which was nothing other than a gathering of soldiers and residents for defense of the site. In other words, these “displays” were a ritual of presenting arms and the reports of the activities reveal a lot about the urban population. That is how the plazas, like the largest one in Old San Juan, often came to be called “plaza de armas.”
The urban order of the Spanish colonial era, ruled by these simple laws, can be seen in the centers of towns such as Río Piedras, Guayama, Ponce, San Germán, Coamo and Mayagüez, among others. There is almost no town or city in Puerto Rico that does not have at least one main plaza and all of them are rectangular. The main streets run in more or less straight lines and intersect at right angles, or nearly so. The result is a city of square or rectangular blocks that are similar in length and width, except where the topography does not allow. The urban layout of Guayama, officially recognized as a town in the early 18th century, shows the best representation of the colonial ideals. Its two central streets are arranged north to south and east to west, forming a perfect cross with a large plaza in their intersection. The lots along these streets are the largest and are almost invariably rectangular in shape. The remaining are smaller, almost square, and surprisingly uniform.
In the large majority of urban centers, the Catholic Church was built on the main square. Most of the time, the façade faced one of the sides of the plaza and its plot was big enough to allow growth of its naves and chapels without adjoining any other building in the immediate area. The churches built in Puerto Rico before the 20th century are freestanding, meaning they can be viewed from all four sides. This symbolized the political and social hierarchical importance of the religious institutions. They kept records of births, weddings and deaths, organized the calendar based on the festivals, watched over social behavior and played roles in the communities. Even when this rule was broken, as occurred in Ponce, San Juan and Coamo, their respective cathedrals occupied a privileged site within the network of streets.
The cathedral of San Juan was begun in the 1530s and was built on an elevated site with its façade ending Caleta Street, which connected directly to the first port of the city. Outside the gate that allowed passage through the thick walls that defended the city was the first port, before the port on the south side was built with more space and greater capacity. In this sense, the church was visible as soon as you entered the gate. In its first years of existence, explains historian María de los Ángeles Castro, it was a modest structure, laid out in the form of a Latin cross. Only the high altar, the semicircular apse and some chapels on the side were built of stone. It is not uncommon to find letters from the bishops of the Island to the military governors complaining about the military monopoly over the quarries in the 16th and 17th centuries. They also complained about the lack of skilled labor to complete construction.
The majority of colonial churches in Latin America were transformed time and again over the course of centuries. That is why the interiors and exteriors of these buildings contain architectural elements that contrast among themselves. The oldest parts of the San Juan Cathedral were built in the 16th century with oval, ribbed arches typical of Gothic style. The rest of the building has neoclassical vaulted ceilings and cornices that run the length of the central nave and optical illusions that recall European baroque decorations. In other words, its architecture shows the phases of its construction and the aesthetic ideals that changed with time and were meant to emphasize the sacredness of the site.
The Holy Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the city of Ponce occupied the center of what has historically served as the main plaza of the city. Its early appearance is impossible to know because it has been reconstructed several times, with the last one following the serious damage caused to the structure by the earthquake that hit the southwest in 1918. Still, its location, its scale and the richness of its interior and exterior aesthetics make it an icon not only of the religion, but also of the city. The San Blás de Illescas Church in Coamo, meanwhile, is not only older, but also is much closer to its original appearance. Construction began in the middle 17th century and was finished in the late 18th century. Like the cathedral in Ponce, it was built in the center of the main plaza, but on an artificial platform that raised it significantly above ground level. Remember that in Roman society the sacredness and hierarchy of temples was indicated by building them on a raised platform reached by stairs. The church in Coamo is built with a simple barrel vault and a cupola above the altar, with austere decoration in the façade. However, the effort invested in creating the pedestal must have been enormous, as well as building the pyramidal steeple above the entrance, and to achieve the curvature of the cornices and raise the pinnacles that complete the buttresses that support the walls of the narrow lateral naves. In other words, it was a monumental work in a late 18th century town that only consisted of four or five streets, and it left no doubt about the position religion occupied in an agrarian society of sharp social contrasts between landowners, farmers, laborers and slaves.
Meanwhile, city halls were also built with their façade facing the plaza. Though smaller in scale than the churches, they symbolized civil authority in the colonial society. Many of the early city halls were modest structures, often made of wood. The first one in San Juan, for example, was a simple structure of thick walls in front of the Monjas Plaza on the corner across from the Cathedral. The city halls, however, were transformed like the churches, as the population and wealth of an area grew. In the 18th century, the one in San Juan was moved to Plaza de Armas. It was remodeled in the middle of the 19th century to add towers to the two sides of its façade, an arch that serves as a public anteroom and a spacious upper balcony. The city halls of Arecibo and Mayagüez, like many others, acquired similar palatial characteristics during this period, financed by the increase in municipal income generated by trade and the production of export goods. Although the architecture of the municipal buildings never became as important as that of the churches, those who built them did try to represent, through decoration and size, the importance of the work done there by mayors and officials: among other things, deciding on distribution of idle land, public works, imposition of taxes or issuing government orders that regulated both construction and daily life.
Three other elements among the many that formed the architectural identity of the old colonial urban centers are worth noting. They have to do with edicts that regulated the construction of homes to create public order. First, owners were required to have the front of the house facing a public space with the other rooms toward the back. It was also required that the front of the house be aligned with the other structures on the street. Even today, in colonial towns and cities, it’s notable that the oldest structures are all in alignment with the sidewalks and form a wall of continuous facades. In other words, the houses are not set back from the street and do not have patios in front, nor do they protrude from the line of the sidewalks.
In the view of the city of San Juan that can be seen to one side in the portrait that José Campeche made of Governor Miguel Antonio de Ustáriz in the late 18th century, this image of uniformity is obvious. In this open window, Campeche shows the houses aligned with the street, the regularity and symmetry of the balconies, the common height of the parapets, the continuity of the cornices and even the rhythmic repetition of the of the decorative touches of the roofs. The image of the street in the painting idealizes, undoubtedly, the harmony of public space created by architecture. Maybe the governor himself demanded it from the artist, as a way of showing forever the beneficent image of colonial authority, which also emphasizes the use of pastel colors in the houses. The window, however, is one of the most important images we have for understanding the forms of a city and daily life before the 19th century.
Central courtyards are another element present in the old cities. In dense areas, with structures abutting the street and shared walls with adjoining houses, the interior courtyard served as an anteroom and a mediating space between the exterior and the private interior of the residences. Only later, in the 19th century, did the raised balconies made of steel become popular in residences, defined by their wrought iron railings and their slender columns that supported the overhang of the roof and aligned with the public space. In some of these, such as the Cautiño family home in Guayama, the balcony served as a stage from which the owners showed their social rank. Spaces in the colonial urban centers came to be more than just the result of the plan to create continuous facades or balconies along the length of the street or along the sidewalks opposite the plazas. They also constituted a symbol of the relationships between the social classes in the colony.
Finally, when population growth demanded that living spaces become smaller, as occurred in San Juan in the 19th century, the footprint of houses began filling entire urban lots, with the side and back walls butting up against the neighboring houses. Sometimes, density led to building houses even in
old service passageways that existed between houses, creating some of the narrowest homes ever seen. Houses with shared walls needed another distinctive element: the interior patio. This interior space, more practical than romantic, allowed light to enter and helped ventilate the private spaces. In cities such as San Juan, it was in the patios where the cisterns were located underground to store rain water that was fed to the cistern from the roof. The interior patio was used for a variety of uses, such as washing clothes, washing dishes and even having parties that could ruin the night for other residents.
As we’ve seen, the European desire for conquest came along with a feverish campaign of construction. The conquistadors and colonists laid out urban grids in the form of the old camps of the Roman army. In the end, the colonization was a military effort. At first, the colonists built with local woods, using palm trunks and fronds, as the Tainos did. They used not only the local native labor but also their own knowledge to build chapels, churches, municipal buildings, foundries, barracks and private homes that no longer exist because of the nature of the materials or because they were frequently demolished to be rebuilt in stone. The new settlers soon introduced nails and bricks, thick adobe wall made with mud and brick fragments, took advantage of limestone and perfected concrete made from the sand that was abundant on the coasts. They learned to cut blocks of “coquina,” a rock created by sedimentation of the remains of coral and marine shells, from which they also obtained a good lime for stucco by removing the salt, burning it and molding it.
Over the course of centuries, cities began paving streets with river stones, building aqueducts, creating public spaces and building stone bridges. Military engineers, meanwhile, showed impressive skills in building fortifications with brick, limestone, adobe and clay, a mix they called “mampostería.” The first and mostly useless fortifications, the Fortaleza de San Juan or the Espigón Fort, popularly called the Devil’s Guardhouse, were replaced first by massive castle walls such as San Felipe del Morro and later by a complex system of fortifications. The elements that make up the fortifications, such as ravelins, batteries, walls, moats, and covered walkways worked as a whole, with each part supporting the others. The effort left a monumental landscape on the islet of San Juan, comparable in scale to that of cities such as Cartagena de Indias and Havana.
Little of the architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries survived the passage of time. The majority of the colonial structures that we know and are still standing are from the 19th century, with the exception of the forts, which were begun in the 1540s and continued growing and being improved until the 19th century. The replacement of light materials with stone and adobe in civil architecture occurred slowly but continuously. Buildings such as Casa Blanca in Old San Juan show a combination of technologies and materials that allow us to get an idea of the transformation in architecture in those first three hundred years of Spanish rule. The house was ordered built in 1521 by Juan Ponce de León, although he never lived in it, and is a true palimpsest. From a simple defensive structure of no more than twenty by twenty feet, it was expanded by Spanish and U.S. military authorities. First it was a fortified house, then became used for barracks and workshops, and in the 20th century became a residence for officials. Today it is in the process of restoration and the demolition of elements added in modern concrete and is a museum to life during the first century of Spanish occupation. Casa Blanca has walls of adobe in some sections, brick in others, and rooms created with stone or mampostería.
Over the centuries, the same local woods were used to build the plantation houses with their broad, wrap-around balconies, urban houses, country shacks and huts. In the urban houses of the late 19th century that are still standing, the combination of wood and basic materials can be seen, a practice that was frequently described in the few documents that offer detailed descriptions of the domestic architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries. It is common to find structures with sections of mampostería, such as the balcony or footers, and sometimes some rooms, such as the kitchen, in consideration of fire. There were also many houses with a first floor of masonry and a second floor of wood, roofed with two or three gables, with beams of the same material, and, if they did not have roof tiles of clay, with tiles made of palm to complete the roof.
Sheets of corrugated metal gradually replaced wood shingles for the roof. Since the late 19th century, local wood fell out of use. It was replaced by imported pine. Native species of trees provided wood that was very resistant to inclement weather but were scarce by the end of the 19th century because of construction with them and the demand for firewood for the steam ships and sugar mills. Deforestation and indiscriminate use of these trees almost led to their extinction and structures became more fragile and replaceable. The native huts did not entirely disappear, though only the poorest used those materials and type of construction at the beginning of the 20th century. They were discouraged by colonial officials for supposedly being vulnerable to storms and the passage of time, so they were ever more modest in comparison to those that existed before the conquest. They were also condemned by the modern governments of the 20th century, which wanted construction in cement because of earthquakes and hurricanes. Since the 1940s, steel and reinforced concrete have become the dominant materials, putting an end to centuries-old practices of architecture in mampostería, adobe, wood and thatch.
Castro, María de los Ángeles. ‘’Arquitectura en San Juan de Puerto Rico’’. Río Piedras: Editorial Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1980.
Lejeune, Jean François. “Cruelty and Utopia: Cities and Landscapes of Latin America”. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005.
Morales Carrión, Arturo. “Puerto Rico and the Non Hispanic Caribbean: A Study in the Decline of Spanish Exclusivism“. San Juan: Unversity of Puerto Rico, 1971.
Morales Muñoz, Generoso. “Fundación del pueblo de Guadiana (Naranjito)”. San Juan: Imprenta Venezuela, 1948.
Rama, Ángel. “La ciudad letrada”. Montevideo: Arca, 1998.
Romero, José Luis. “Latinoamérica, las ciudades y las ideas”, 5ta ed. México: Siglo XXI, 2001.
Sepúlveda Rivera, Aníbal. “Puerto Rico urbano: atlas histórico de la ciudad puertorriqueña”, volumen I. San Juan: Carimar, 2004.
Author: Dr. Jorge Lizardi Pollock, February 24, 2021
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, February 26, 2021