La Fortaleza, or the Santa Catalina Palace, was the first fortification built to protect the port and city of San Juan. The structure has been the residence of the governors of the island since 1544.
During the early years of Spanish colonization, there were no fortifications in Puerto Rico. The only structure built of stone and earth was Casa Blanca, built by the Ponce de León family, which served as an arsenal, warehouse and depository for government funds. The Spanish Crown authorized construction of a permanent fort in San Juan in 1529, but the battles with the indigenous people delayed construction until 1537. The fort, which would be called La Fortaleza, was built near the water on San Juan Bay.
By 1540, La Fortaleza consisted of an interior patio surrounded by four walls seven feet thick that could accommodate two hundred people. From the land side, it appeared to be a traditional house with a flat roof. The main door faced the settlement and was protected by a defensive semi-circle. The area that separated the house from the coast was enclosed with a wall that was six and a half feet tall, with an opening for cannons.
A tower built in Medieval style on one corner of the wall served as an observation post for the defenders. It was known as the Tribute Tower, because it was there that the governor swore allegiance to the Spanish Crown. Under the tower was a cell that was often used for storing important documents or munitions. Here, too, was stored the Trunk of Three Keys, which held the funds to finance the colony. Later, a second tower, called the Austral Tower, was built.
La Fortaleza never had cannons or a garrison, because the money available for weapons and soldiers was always very limited. There were only six men (two artillery men, two guards, one man to tend to the weapons and one caretaker), half a dozen eight-pound cannons, 20 harquebus guns, 20 crossbows and 40 lances.
La Fortaleza was always considered of little use militarily, because of its scarce resources and its location. Although the fortification had a view of the anchorage and controlled access to the city’s port, the lack of an optimal view of the entrance to the bay ruled out the possibility of using it as a defensive bastion for the islet. The fact that the fort was out of sight until after ships entered the bay gave the enemy the impression that the city had poor defenses.
During the attack by the Dutch in 1625, the invaders used La Fortaleza as their headquarters. Before abandoning the islet, they sacked and burned the town, also destroying La Fortaleza. Only the walls were left standing. Reconstruction began in 1640, and took into consideration that the building would be used as the residence for the governors. The former Santa Catalina chapel, which was originally located along the walls, was demolished and a new chapel was built inside the fort. Today, the Santa Catalina chapel is located in the Tribute Tower. It is believed that La Fortaleza adopted the name of Santa Catalina Palace at the time of this reconstruction.
During the 19th century, La Fortaleza underwent many expansions and improvements. A wing was built for the secretary of the government and the captain general. In 1846, Governor Rafael de Aristegui, also known as the Count of Mirasol, began a massive reconstruction, during which the structure adopted the appearance of a palace. The façade faced the town and was built in a neo-classical style. Many renovations were completed in the interior, such as repairing walls and recovering the floors with marble.
Although the fort has served as the residence of governors since its construction, it was not until a royal order issued on November 27, 1822, that La Fortaleza officially became the residence of the governors of Puerto Rico.
In the 20th century, under the U.S. government, Governor William D. Leahy ordered the reconstruction of the fort, replacing the old brick roof with one of reinforced concrete. Many governors have ordered reconstruction work, thereby leaving their marks on the structure. Of the original structure, all that remains are two Medieval style towers built in the 16th century.
In 1983, UNESCO declared La Fortaleza, or Santa Catalina Palace, a World Heritage Site.
Adapted by the PROE Editorial Group.
Original source: Los fuertes del Viejo San Juan, Sitio Histórico Nacional de San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2002. Publications Division of the National Parks Service.
Additional sources: Information papers from La Fortaleza, Oficina del Gobernador,
La Fortaleza, file from the catalog of Propiedades, Registro Nacional de Lugares Históricos, Oficina Estatal de Conservación Histórica, Oficina del Gobernador, 1995.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 08, 2014.
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