An Architecture Lover’s Guide to San Juan’s Old Town

Interior of Cuartel de Ballajá
Interior of Cuartel de Ballajá | © Lee Cannon/ Flickr
Mariela Santos

Architectural wonders are aplenty for any enthusiasts in Old San Juan, the historic district of Puerto Rico’s capital. The impressive structures date back centuries and continue to provide character and form part of scenic views for anyone who visits. In fact, the architecture here is so picturesque that anyone could become an aficionado after seeing these impressive historic buildings.

Military defence structures

El Morro Castle

El Morro, whose official name is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, is among the most iconic structures in all of Puerto Rico. The castle’s architecture is not just beautiful aesthetically, it also served a defensive purpose for the nation’s capital. The castle’s origins date back to 1539 and according to the U.S. National Park Service, “During the late 16th and early 17th century the distinguished Italian military engineers, Bautista Antonelli and Juan Bautista Antonelli transformed El Morro from its original medieval tower shape to a thick-walled masonry stronghold, capable of fully resisting the impact of cannon balls.” In the 1700s, Irishman and chief engineer Tomas O’Daly was in charge of making changes to the castle, before additional updates were added for the Spanish-American War and the two World Wars. It’s a great attraction for architecture lovers of all ages.

Path leading to El Morro Castle

Also constructed to defend the capital from both land and sea, is Fort San Cristobal. The chief engineer being Tomas O’Daly and his assistant Juan Francisco Mestre, the U.S. National Park Service explains that the fort was built in the French tradition of “Vauban-style fortress” for a strategy called “defense in depth.” The fort features many tunnels, a plaza, a moat, casemates (bomb-proof rooms), artillery ramps, a dungeon, and cisterns for the collection of water. Several additions were also made to the structure during the Second World War.

Part of Fort San Cristobal

Cuartel de Ballajá

The Cuartel, or Ballajá Infantry Barracks Building, is a military structure built in Old San Juan when Puerto Rico was under Spanish-rule. Constructed between 1854 and 1864, the building functioned as housing for soldiers until 1898, when Puerto Rico came under United States-rule. Then the barracks were utilized by U.S. soldiers until 1939 and, before its restoration from 1990 to 1993, the building briefly served as a hospital. Notable features are its three floors that look out onto a large courtyard.

Art at Cuartel de Ballaja

Gothic Style

San Juan Cathedral

The San Juan Cathedral, la Catedral de San Juan Bautista, is a reasonable walk from many architectural attractions including El Morro Castle and Fort San Cristobal. The construction of the church goes all the way back to 1521, thanks to a San Juan bishop named Alonso Manso. Made with wooden supplies and a straw roof it was vulnerable to damage and, as Puertorico.com says, a hurricane destroyed the structure resulting in a complete reconstruction. It was one of several events that affected the church, including a looting ordered by the Earl of Cumberland in 1958, and another hurricane which tore off the roof in 1615. Its current design is a Gothic style based on the 1540 version of the church and heavy restorations in the early 1900s.

San Juan Cathedral

Neoclassical Revival Style

El Capitolio

The Capitol Building construction was heavily influenced by Luis Muñoz Rivera, a Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico in the early 1900s, and the structure was built between 1925 and 1929; with the dome only finished in 1961. According to the National Park Service, the architect behind the structure was Rafael Carmoega, with the interior design having been done my various people including Rafael Tufiño and Jorge Rechani.

San Juan Capitol Building
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