The former Puerto Rico Casino, built in the early 20th century, was the social center for the incipient island elite. The structure is one of the best examples of the beaux arts architectural style favored by Puerto Rican architects of the era.
There were several social clubs in San Juan in that era. Some, such as the Union Club in Miramar and other country clubs in the Condado were frequented by United States residents based on the island. Others, such as the Spanish Casino and the Casa de España were owned by Spanish citizens living on the island. However, the new Puerto Rican bourgeoisie lacked a place of its own for holding activities, so in 1910, a group of citizens formed the Puerto Rico Casino Association and asked San Juan Mayor Francisco del Valle Atiles to assign a lot of land for founding a Puerto Rican social club.
The Legislature provided a lot located on Ponce de León Avenue (today Constitución Avenue) facing Plaza Colón, where the Santiago Gate, also called the Puerta de Tierra, had been located in the old city walls. This land was located in a prominent site as it not only sat at the entrance to the walled city, but also was surrounded by other cultural and administrative buildings.
Construction of the casino began in 1913. The original design was created by the architectural firm Del Valle Zeno Hermanos, which had a budget of about $80,000. The contract had to be annulled, however, due to a lack of funds. In 1914, after obtaining a loan for $24,000, the board of directors contracted the engineering firm Jiménez y Benítez to finish the project. After a second loan, for $50,000, was obtained, sculptor José Albrizzio was hired to redesign the interior and he replaced some of the most costly finishing touches with less expensive ones. Finally, the building was inaugurated on June 24, 1917, during the San Juan Festival.
The structure displayed beaux arts influences, a style taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris between 1885 and 1920. This trend combines classical and renaissance elements, creating an image of luxury and splendor. The preference among Puerto Ricans for this style represented a reaction to United States architecture inspired in Spanish-influenced California.
The rectangular structure has three balconies. The main façade faces Ponce de León Avenue and includes a vehicular entrance. Both the exterior and interior of the building are inspired by its use. The building is divided into two levels. The first, more sober in character, has striated walls and small windows. The second level was adorned with Corinthian columns, portholes, garlands, console tables and French windows, above which were cartouches, tablets, panels or coats of arms that served as ornamentation. The composition was completed with a wooden cupola covered with copper that gives an appearance of elasticity. The cupola is surrounded by five balconies, three of which serve as porticos.
A central staircase provides access to various salons decorated with mirrors and reliefs, and the walls are painted to simulate marble. The ballroom has a candelabra located at a height of twelve feet. Many parties and social activities took place at the casino, including debutant balls and carnival balls.
In 1943, the casino passed to the ownership of the United States Army, which used it as the social club for the United Services Organization (USO), an official military organization. After World War II, the government of Puerto Rico acquired the building and used it for the Free School of Music, the first musical school on the island.
From 1955 to 1970, the building housed the first headquarters of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. In 1980, a restoration of the casino was done, taking into consideration the original plans. Since 1982, the former Puerto Rico Casino has housed the Government Receptions Center and it is named for the last president of the casino association, Dr. Manuel Pavía Fernández.
Adapted by the PROE Editorial Group
Original source: Catalog of Properties, National Registry of Historic Sites, State Office of Historic Conservation, Office of the Governor, 1995.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 08, 2014.
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