Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Doors of Old San Juan

When I walk around a city I am always fascinated by the doors I see. To me doors are more than just entrances and exits. They represent the spirit of the house. Doors tell you if they home is rich or poor. They can tell you if the owner is attentive to detail. Doors are also secret keepers. Nobody knows what is behind them, but they invite you to try and enter to find out what is happening. Here are some of the doors I found walking around Old San Juan.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Río Piedras and The University of Puerto Rico

El Torre - University of Puerto Rico

 Lots of people talk about the difference between being a tourist and being a traveler. An important aspect is the desire to spend time exploring the places and ways in which local people live. In Puerto Rico I escaped from the more touristy Isla Verde and Old San Juan and took a tour of the municipality of Río Piedras, about ten miles southeast of Old San Juan. The tour was given by the Puerto Rico Historical Building Drawing Society, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of the architectural history of Puerto Rico (you can read my blog about them here). This was my second trip to Río Piedras. The Amazing Ms. D’s aunt had given my parents and me a tour of the area fifteen years ago and I wanted to see how things had changed.

The town of Río Piedras was founded in 1714. For most of its history Rio Piedras was the agricultural center for San Juan. It became the commercial center for the working people in the area who spent their lives growing the food and working to support Old San Juan. The Plaza Mercado de Río Piedras is still the largest public food market on the island. 

Plaza del Mercado de Río Piedras

When I first came the market, fifteen years ago, was in a beautiful old building. But that building suffered a large explosion and was rebuilt in 1999. Today it lacks the beauty of the Santurce market, but it is a huge, modern building housing the market. There are many fruit and meat vendors along with merchants selling t-shirts, watches and even a botanica.  There is a large food court with offering real criollo food. Alcapurias, frituras and lechon are all available at excellent prices.

My source for excellent Lechon

El Jibaro - providing food to the San Area for three centuries
 Unfortunately, the area around the market has suffered a downturn, very much in a way that is familiar throughout the United States. As more and more shopping malls have opened in the San Juan metropolitan area, shoppers and stores have moved out of the center of town. Today there are many empty store fronts, and what was a thriving business district for over 100 years is struggling.

Avenida de Diego now has many empty storefronts

Someone has figured out who they blame for what is hapening

You can change these things - Organize and Fight. Resist

Even Banco Popular has moved out of the center of Río Piedras
 Near the Mercado is the main plaza of Río Piedras. Here there are some examples of classic Puerto Rican architecture. The city’s cathedral is the Parrioquía Nuestra Señora del Pilar, built in 1714. Along the plaza you will also find La Casa de Cultura de Ruth Hernandez. Dating from the early 19th century, this is one of the oldest houses in Rio Piedras. Built originally as a store and rest stop along the main road from Ponce to San Juan, it now serves as a community center where the residents of Rio Piedras take classes in music, dance and the arts. It has been restored and now houses into classrooms, a dance studio and a performance space.

Parroquía Nuestra Señora del Pilar


Finally, I visited the flagship campus of the University of Puerto Rico. In 1901 the Escuela Normal Industrial, Puerto Rico’s first school of higher education, moved from the town of Fajardo to Rio Piedras. Founded a year earlier, its mission was to train teachers for the island. The Normal School consisted of two buildings and 20 students. One building was used to educate the instructors, the other was a school for children, where the students could put what they learned into practice. 

In 1903, Puerto Rico’s government passed legislation founding the University of Puerto Rico which incorporated the Normal School as its first division. In 1908 is was designated a “land-grant” college and it expanded greatly over the next twenty-five years. In 1935 the U.S. Congress included Puerto Rico in the financial spending of the New Deal and the University was given millions of New Deal dollars to build its campus. Over the next five years Rafael Carmoega and Francisco Gardón designed and oversaw the construction of the heart of UPR’s campus.

The jewels of the campus are the buildings built during this period. They were designed in the style of the architecture of Sevilla. They sit around a beautiful, tree lined Quadrangle that serves as a gathering place for students. The highlight is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Tower. Serving as the entrance to the campus, this 30 story tower is both an icon and a paean to education and the ideals of Pan-Americanism. On either side of the entrance are ceramic columns representing the ideals of education. Over its entrance are the crests of Harvard University in Cambridge MA and St. Mark’s University in Lima Peru. Inside the entrance is the “Bronze Circle.” The national shields of all of the countries of the Americas are inlaid into the floor in tribute to the idea of Pan-American education

El Torre

Escudos of St. Marks University (Left) and Harvard (right)

Circle of Bronze

The Quadrangle

The original library for the university

When I travel I look for ways to get beyond the typical tourist experiences. Often that means walking through neighborhoods on my own. I get to explore how people carry on their day to day lives. I am very happy that the Puerto Rican Historic Building Drawing Society gave me the opportunity to see into the lives and education of everyday Puerto Ricans.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Soles Truncos are beautiful and useful and found only in Puerto Rico

 The architecture and design of Old San Juan have many unique characteristics. Founded in 1523, the houses of Old San Juan are some of the oldest on the Americas. That is one of the reasons that I love walking around this neighborhood, I discover something new every time I explore its streets.

One unique design feature of the buildings in Old San Juan is the soles trunco. This is a decorative feature placed above doorways to allow air to circulate into and out of rooms and houses. Semi-circular in shape, soles truncos are comprised of individual pieces of carved wood that fit together forming a shape similar to a fan.

Its role in interior design is to allow the flow of air and help maintain a cooler temperature in houses. In the era before air conditioners houses stayed cool by using fans and natural air movement to bring cool air into rooms and send warm air out. Many buildings had walls that did not go up to the ceiling. Where that was not practical, for example over exterior doors, or in apartments, soles truncus were installed. In the United States many buildings used transoms – glass panels that could be opened or closed. In Puerto Rico they wanted that flow at all times, so they developed these decorative panels. Soles Truncos were also a guide to the wealth of the family who owned the house. The more round, as opposed to rectangular, and the more ornately carved, the richer the family.

Unfortunately, many soles truncus have been allowed to deteriorate, or have been removed. It was less expensive to replace them with other materials like cast iron, glass of solid wood. This has been especially true over exterior doors.

I learned all of this on a walking tour given by the Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawing Society (PRHBDS). The PRHBDS is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of historic architecture and design on the island of Puerto Rico. You can read my blog about this group here. One of the ways that the PRHBDS carries out its mission of education is by offering tours in Old San Juan that highlight its architecture and design features. Because they are a non-profit, the group has access to places that other tours can’t get to. For example, on this tour we entered an apartment building to look at the original soles truncus that were installed over a hundred years ago. We also were able to see the Presidential Suite at the Forteleza Suites hotel, which have been completely restored and are a beautiful polished wood.

By the end of the tour I was exhausted, but happy that I had received a master’s education about a design feature that is only seen on the island of Puerto Rico.