Ponce shows a different way of being a city, even though it shares broad historical processes and urban and architectural responses with San Juan and other urban centers. The differences between Ponce and San Juan revolve around the levels of Spanish and local island influence. For Ponce residents, San Juan was a medieval site, a cobblestone city, hard and graceless. Ponce, according to Ángel Quintero Rivera, can be described as the center of an alternative project for the island. This can be seen in its architecture, shown in overwhelming residences and emblematic commercial buildings, in its negotiations between tradition and modernization, in the interaction between its architecture and its way of being a city.

Sugar production affected Ponce’s socio-cultural fabric and the way the city was organized. Slavery and rigid stratification shaped Ponce. But its cosmopolitan nature was accentuated by its ties to world trade. Bohemian glass, German pianos and French silk were unloaded at the Ponce port and contributed to its social strength. However, despite the fact that immigrants dominated the landholdings during the 19th century, the old local ruling class retained an important economic and social sway in the city.

In Puerto Rico, the second half of the 19th century was distinguished by an intense process of renewed Spanish influence in which the recently arrived Spaniards brought significant tension to the makeup of the Ponce elite because of their strategic control of credit and their political and cultural loyalty. Despite that, Ponce did not become a more Spanish city. The intricate network of marriages among locals, immigrants and Spaniards strengthened an elite that made Ponce residents more local than Spanish. The elites defended, preserved and grew their material wealth. They also sought to establish and preserve their prestige through cultural and social climbing. Achieving this required strengthening family and commercial alliances, the rise of institutions and the construction of residences of monumental designs that showed they belonged to the group, pointing out differences from others and identifying the elite with the city.

Three days after the arrival of U.S. forces in 1898, the city of Ponce, the main export port on the island, was declared an open city and a deep anti-Spanish sentiment was unleashed. With the new regime, a series of symbolic appropriations and negotiations that were very heterogeneous in nature took place and architecture played a notable role in that. Public buildings — schools, hospitals, civic associations — built the iconography of a domestic, missionary modernization encouraged by official agencies and by the new entities aimed at “civilizing” the island.

Through an intentional process, Puerto Rico was opened again to the cultivation of sugar cane, which was favored after 1901 by the free entry of the product to the U.S. market. The class of sugar mill owners and landowners in Ponce adapted to the new situation and moved in the sugar society alongside the U.S. franchises. The south became the center of most sugar activity because it was the site of the most powerful U.S. corporations: the South Porto Rico Sugar Company and the Aguirre Sugar Syndicate. The haughty nature of these corporations significantly transformed the fate of Ponce and its elites.The boom in sugar prices, especially during World War I and during the 1920s, helped the Ponce sugar industrialists and the professional sectors to prosper, leading to a new round of constructions. These constructions demonstrated their preeminent place in the city and an openness to modernizing urban and architectural trends. Many of these families welcomed the idea of settling outside the city, in wide open country spaces, which meant significant changes from the architectural options and the lifestyles of the majority of the Ponce elite.

In the 1930s, the island sank into the deep crisis that had systematic repercussions in political and cultural proposals, in the social fabric, and eventually, in the colonial model. This was the period of the construction of the Cabassa House and the Serrallés Castle. In general, from an architectural point of view, it was a hybrid period in which Spanish historicism flourished but also other more functional and sober styles also gained ground. In Ponce, this new round of construction complicated the architectural inventory by offering the first examples of populist architecture in a city that insisted on an upper-class style. They were signs of new times.

A review of Ponce’s architecture is a step into a world dense with meanings. The city, as told by its architecture, is not just the city it may appear to be in a specialized book or a museum exhibit. It is the city of all Puerto Ricans, Ponce natives or not.

Author: Silvia Álvarez Curbelo
Published: March 28, 2016.

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