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The Architecture of Power:
From the Neoclassical to Modernism in the Architecture of Puerto Rico, 1900-1950
Enrique Vivoni-Farage


Architecture reveals not only the aesthetic and formal preferences of an architect/client, but also the aspirations, power struggles and material culture of a society. The built environment becomes a text whose every word reveals a nation's vicissitudes. In other words, a building may be said to be a work of architectural art, then insofar as it serves as a visual metaphor, declaring in its own form something (though never everything) about the size, permanence, strength, protectiveness, and organizational structure of the institution it stands for (but does not necessarily house). 1

In twentieth century Puerto Rico, the architectural discourse is not indifferent to the institutions that shaped its society. Architecture thus serves as a vehicle to understand the unique situation that arises when a society is nurtured by two distinct and strong cultural influences: the Spanish and the American. To analyze this situation, the following hypothesis is considered: Immediately after the Spanish American War of 1898, the Neoclassical style in architecture gave continuity to a form of government that shifted from Spanish to American colonial rule. At the same time, and as a manner of mitigation, the Americans imported the Spanish Revivals to Puerto Rico to signify cultural dominance, particularly the California Mission Revival and the Spanish Renaissance Revival. The new colonial government assumed that the use of Spanish inspired architecture would aid in the Americanization process. For Puerto Ricans these revivals of Renaissance and Baroque Spanish architecture, which Spain rarely employed in Puerto Rico, was as foreign as the English language. Nevertheless, after several decades of Americanization, these Spanish Revivals, and a third variation, the Moorish Revival, became signifiers of "Puerto Ricanness." They dominated the architectural profession and the style in which public buildings were designed on the Island for three decades. But the immediate years before the Second World War, with the militarization and industrialization of the Island, caused the demise of the Spanish Revivals. Intentionally, the government accepted the Modern Movement as the architectural discourse needed to modernize and set Puerto Rico and the Puerto Ricans within the standards of the industrialized nations.

The Neoclassical style:
a continuity of colonial rule from Spain to America
Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony for four centuries. For Spain, Puerto Rico served primarily as a military stronghold that resulted in the construction of an impressive fortified city. Martial priorities failed to promote the development of a representative government, universities, an organized school system, or extensive agricultural or urban development.

Mercantilism and centralized authority prevailed under the Spanish regime. The San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid approved the designs for all public buildings built in the colonies. The Academy preferred a sober Neoclassical style. In the mid-eighteenth century, this style symbolized enlightenment and represented a newly acquired architectural clarity and simplicity. But the Academy continued to prescribe the Neoclassical style well after its popularity in Spain faded. Historian María de los Angeles Castro states that the rational simplicity of the Neoclassical style was a means of colonial dominance. The architectural elements served as a metaphor between the rhythmic and proportioned part of the building and the regulations of everyday life imposed in the colonial society. 2

The decline of the Spanish Empire in America brought the emergence of monumental Neoclassical architecture to Puerto Rico. By 1850, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the only remaining Spanish colonies in America. Spain invested large sums of money in military and public buildings. In San Juan, the elegant Governor's palace, La Fortaleza, was remodeled in 1842 and during the next four decades, the Treasury Building (Real Intendencia, 1852) , the Ballaja Barracks (1857), the Insane Asylum (1860), the Provincial Hospital (1876) and the Municipal Theater (1878) were built in the Neoclassical style.

As a result of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States. The American troops in Puerto Rico promised freedom and a better, more civilized way of life. Puerto Ricans responded to this promise with optimism and anticipation until the American authorities tried to "Americanize" the Island. To accomplish this, Americans had to obliterate the existing cultural system through the establishment of new sociopolitical criteria. It included changing the official government language to English, the separation of Church and State, the substitution of the Island's prevailing legal system with American Law, and the establishment of local government institutions modeled after American civism. To Puerto Ricans, it was soon evident that their lifestyle, beliefs and traditions were threatened with irreversible change.

Architecture in Puerto Rico was both exposed to a broader assortment of stylistic influences as a result of the war. A number of the architectural revivals popular in United States proliferated on the Island. The juxtaposition of two cultures created an effervescent architectural milieu. In it, the existing Neoclassical Spanish architecture was in sharp contrast with the new architectural vocabularies imported from the States. Two years after the war ended, the prominent American architectural critic, Montgomery Schuyler, commented on the contrast between American-born architecture and Old World colonial architecture. He warned American architects of a very difficult task before them in the newly acquired possessions: buildings found in San Juan de Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines "set us a standard to which we shall find it troublesome to 'live up'."3

After 1900, the new civilian government in Puerto Rico generated many new building types that required new architecture. These types included an array of buildings needed to house the new government programs. In the American agenda were public school buildings, sanitariums, universities, city halls, municipal hospitals and many other public buildings. American businesses also introduced a domestic architecture that adapted living conditions to the tropical nature of the Puerto Rican landscape. They transplanted the southern plantation cottage to the company towns that sprung up around the sugar mills. 4

To generate the many designs needed to reconstruct Puerto Rico according to American standards, architects from the United States came to aid Puerto Rican professionals. The public school system provided promising and architecturally-inclined Puerto Ricans with scholarships to study in schools of architecture in the United States. Furthermore, other Puerto Rican students were encouraged to study architecture through American-based correspondence courses. As a result of American teaching, architectural revivals proliferated the Island. Among them was the American Neoclassical tradition. The official architecture implemented by the new colonial power in Puerto Rico was again the Neoclassical style.

But the colonial connotations that this style had for the Puerto Ricans is evidenced in a controversy that arose in 1907 over the design of the Capitol Building. An international architectural design competition was held and an all-American jury selected to determine the first three prizes from more than 135 entries. The Capitol Commission, composed of local and American politicians, challenged their recommendations. Puerto Rican politicians argued that the design to be selected should be in the style of the French Renaissance, which for them represented modernity through the use of old world classicism. 5 As published in La Correspondencia newspaper, the style broke away from "the sullen limitations of the ancient art and allows for freedom, where fantasy finds a broader field, where taste and needs of the present and even the dreams of the future have their reflection in a harmonious ensemble." 6 Even though public opinion favored this style, the jury insisted on selecting a Neoclassical style capitol building. Finally, a compromise was reached and Frank Perkins from New York won the first prize. He submitted a design in a stark Neoclassical style that evoked the Roman Pantheon in the design of its dome and the Greek Parthenon in its portico. 7 Even though Perkins received a substantial first prize of $5,000, this design for the Capitol was never built.

The Spanish Revival and the significance of the "last frontier":
an attempt to mitigate the Americanization process
Both Spanish and American colonial powers utilized Neoclassical architecture as an instrument of propaganda. In the same manner that the style served in times of Spain to signify an oppressive police order, the American government used it to signify the insertion of Puerto Ricans into the American way of life.

While Neoclassical architecture gave permanence to colonial status, American architects introduced the Spanish Revivals. As the decades passed, the Spanish Revivals became ingrained within the Puerto Rican identity. Its study therefore holds important cultural and political implications for Puerto Rico, since both the predominant political power (the Americans) and the rising Puerto Rican separatist groups thought of the Spanish Revivals as representative of their ideals. The former saw it as an effective way to create a model to sustain and justify cultural coexistence, and the latter, as the axis of their cultural identity and "Puerto Ricanness." In both instances, Puerto Ricans tried to selectively retrieve their Spanish heritage, amidst feelings of nostalgia and retrospective idealizations of past times.

By the turn of the last century, Puerto Rico had become the southernmost extension of the American Empire. It "belonged to the United States but it is not the United States, nor part of the United States." 8 The Island became a trading post, where American expansionism would have a captive market, a great colony "governing itself, flying our flag and trading with us..." 9 It is no wonder that one of the Spanish Revivals used for the new institutions in Puerto Rico came from American past experiences with the continental frontiers. The Americanization of Puerto Ricans began not only with the utilization of the Neoclassical styles, but also with the styles of the Spanish-Americans: the California Mission Revival.

The Mission Revival prevailed during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Its forms were used by the Protestant institutions, schools, private business and in the design of houses. Even though Americans associated the style with Spain, Puerto Ricans did not.

Protestant churches, a new and foreign institution in a Catholic Puerto Rico, were frequently designed in this style. Antonin Nechodoma, a resident architect from Chicago, first used the Mission Revival in his design for the Ponce Methodist Church in 1907 and in the design of a YMCA building for the town of Fajardo (c. 1910). He referred to the Mission Revival as the "Spanish American style" and argued that it "evolved from the rather primitive forms of the original quasi-Spanish buildings of this section..." 10

The public school system, which was transplanted from the mainland, served as the main vehicle for Americanization. In 1908, concrete schoolhouses were designed in the Mission Revival style. Many of these designs were done outside Puerto Rico by the firm of Clarke, Howe and Homer of Rhode Island, including the José Julián Acosta School in Old San Juan. 11

The effects of indoctrination:
The Spanish Revivals as signifiers of "Puerto Ricanness"
In the late 1910's and throughout the 1920's, the first Puerto Rican graduates from State-side schools of architecture arrived. These architects were trained in the use of the revival styles and "educated in the ways of the North." As a result, both public and private architecture delivered two additional Spanish Revivals: the Spanish Renaissance Revival and a Moorish Revival. Both became the styles of the political and cultural elites: the new Capitol Building, as well as the designs of the University of Puerto Rico, the Ateneo de Puerto Rico building, the El Mundo Newspaper Building and the State Prison, are among many of the prominent structures designed in these Revivals.

In 1921, President Harding appointed his friend and supporter Emmett Montgomery Reily as Governor of Puerto Rico. Governor Reily was never quite at home in the tropics and insisted on bringing "Americanism" to the Island. In a draft for his inaugural speech, he asserted that he would rule justly over the people of Puerto Rico, a phrase that Harding himself wisely corrected. Even though this editing resulted in a less patronizing message, one month after the speech, Reily wrote to Harding saying that he had received a "number of letters threatening his life..."12 In this tense atmosphere, Reily substituted most of the Puerto Ricans in high government positions with "carpetbaggers" from his home state of Kansas.13 Ironically, under his governorship the Spanish Renaissance Revival became the official style of public architecture. How can we explain this rejection of things Puerto Rican and at the same time the adoption of Spanish inspired architecture?

An answer may stem from American foreign policies towards Latin America. The Spanish Renaissance Revival was popularized in the United States after the Spanish American War. Even though it developed in California and Florida during the last decades of the nineteenth century, it wasn't until the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo (1901) that the style received national prominence.14 The buildings designed in the Spanish Renaissance Revival signaled to the Latin American countries that the United States had ended its expansionist movement towards the south and that it had only friendly intentions towards Mexico, Central and South America. The use of the Spanish Renaissance Revival as propaganda was so successful that an article appeared in the newspaper The Nation, stating that "the architectural style of the Spanish Renaissance atoned for America's commercial neglect of Latin America: 'Today, our repentance assumes the form of architectural beauty in Buffalo.'"15

Two subsequent fairs, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco (1915) and the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego (1915-1916) consolidated the Spanish Renaissance Revival in American architecture. Organized to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, these two fairs utilized the style in a manner very different from the Buffalo affair. The United States no longer needed the Good Neighbor policy, so these fairs celebrated a Darwin-like conquest of the southern race by the northern race. A contemporary description by the organizers of the San Diego Fair explained this:

And the weaker was absorbed by the stronger; but with the passing of the weaker they left a legacy of their art and culture, which the survivor has gladly possessed to beautify and decorate their own. They left us their tradition, their romance... we have made of this romance the background of our own history...16

For the organizers of these fairs and to the millions who attended them, the Spanish Renaissance Revival became part of their own inheritance. With its adoption as a national architectural style, America had again conquered and assimilated Spain.

For Governor Reily, Spanish-inspired architecture would have been the most effective and non-violent avenue to bring "Americanism" to the Puerto Ricans. The Island became a non-incorporated territory of the United States, and was now part of a Spanish-American heritage, the same as California, the Southwest and Florida. It was no longer necessary for the American government to force upon the Puerto Ricans a radically different culture. There was no need to eliminate the Spanish from the existing Puerto Rican culture in order to impose the American way of life.

A second design for the Capitol Building reflected this situation. In 1920, Adrian Finlayson, State Architect, argued that the original Perkins design, a brick and wood building, was not structurally safe and proposed that the Division of Public Buildings produce a new one in reinforced concrete. The new design was a Spanish Renaissance Revival structure, "suited to Puerto Rico." In a 1921 Architectural Record article, Sylvester Baxter commented on this design:

Mr. Finlayson's admirable design, dignified, beautiful... speaks for itself... A welcome departure from the conventional dome so much associated with our capitol buildings in the United States... The dome, moreover, in countries whose antecedents are Spanish, is commonly more associated with ecclesiastical than with secular architecture...17

Soon other important public buildings followed, including the Central High School (1921), and the School of Tropical Medicine (1924), the State Psychiatric Hospital (1924), the Janer Building at the University of Puerto Rico (1925) and the Customs Building in San Juan, designed by Albert Nichols in 1929 in the style of the University of Salamanca.

The first Puerto Rican architects educated in American schools of architecture started their practice on the Island during these years. Among these, Pedro de Castro (1894-1936)(Syracuse, 1918) preferred the Spanish Revival as his architectural vocabulary. He worked briefly at the Division of Public Buildings and, along with Finlayson and Francisco Roldán;, designed the project for the second Capitol Building. When he left his government position to establish his own design/build firm in 1921, he popularized the Spanish Revivals through private commissions. He was so prolific in his designs for residences that in 1927, he is reported to have designed over 112 houses. His clients were the rich and powerful, such as the sugar barons J. E. Serrallés and Jacobo Cabassa, and professionals, such as Puerto Rico's historian Adolfo de Hostos and physician-psychiatrist Mario Juliá.

Francisco Roldán was also deeply committed to the use of the Spanish Revivals in Puerto Rico. In 1923, his career was considered "careful, wise and on the rise." He "scrupulously studied the ancient and modern procedures [referring to styles], combining both and by adapting them to better serve a modern aesthetic idea, has given us a historical sensation."18 His designs, mostly for institutions associated with a resistance to American dominance, show a distinct preference for the Moorish Revival. Examples of his work in Puerto Rico are few but important: the design for the Athenaeum (1923), center of Puerto Rican pro-independence ideologists, the El Mundo Newspaper Building in Old San Juan (1923), the Maternity Pavilion (1925) at the Auxilio Mutuo Hospital and the enormous State Penitentiary, his last known work in Puerto Rico in 1926.

Two major events, the Depression and the Spanish Civil War, deeply influenced 1930's architecture. The Island was immersed in economic crises and political turmoil. Federal government funds trickled down in smaller quantities than promised through programs like the Puerto Rico Emergency Relief Administration (PRERA). These funds were insufficient to feed and house the Puerto Ricans. Nationalism was on the rise and a number of demonstrations organized by the followers of Nationalist Party president Pedro Albizu Campos made the local and Federal authorities nervous. It wasn't until 1935, that Federal funds began to pour into Puerto Rico through a Federal agency: the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA). That same year four young Nationalist Party members were killed in a collision with the Island's police force.19

The Island was militarized to suppress the Nationalist uprising. To convey an illusion of prosperity, the PRRA financed an enormous amount of public works.20 In 1935, the PRRA organized its University Building Division to design and build the Río Piedras Campus which had struggled for funding since the development of its master plan in 1924. The campus, designed in a Spanish Renaissance Revival, set the standard for monumental architecture in Puerto Rico. The first building to be designed and constructed was the Library, followed by a Home Economics School, a Teachers College, the Administration Building with its giraldesque tower and finally the Auditorium with an impressive capacity of 2,000. A final touch placed the clock and carillon on the tower in 1939. Meanwhile, this campus served as a safe haven to Spaniards who fled from the Spanish Civil War. Intellectuals like Pedro Salinas and Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez found a captive audience within the confines of the new Río Piedras Campus. This monumental ensemble seems to synthesize the Puerto Rican situation of the 30's: while intellectuals pursued a deeper understanding of the Island's Spanish roots, classes in all public schools and at the University were taught exclusively in English.

Hispanophilia and the need to relate to Spain were products of these events. Spanish Revivals became so popular in private commissions and government work, that they practically signified "Puerto Ricanness." The wealthy class, which preferred a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired "ultramodern" style for their houses during the late teens and 20's, adopted in the 30's, the Spanish-inspired revivals as its style.21 The rising middle class also saw fit to live in Spanish detailed tract housing and apartment buildings, such as the new suburbs of Ocean Park developed in 1937, and houses on Loiza Street in Santurce. Most of these designs for suburbia were status symbols. According to George Holliday in 1939, the growth of suburbia had a Spanish aura that hid the thriftiness of its construction and ill-lit, poorly ventilated rooms not suited to life in the tropics.22

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