The complex of buildings that makes up the old Navy Arsenal is located in the La Puntilla section of Old San Juan, on land that was once a mangrove swamp. The structure was built in 1800 to store weapons and munitions, as well as serving as a workshop for building and repairing Spanish Navy ships.
In 1792, the War Council agreed to trust the naval defense of San Juan and the Windward Islands to a small fleet of approximately forty boats with very shallow drafts, known as the fine fleet because these ships could enter the canals and slip through the mangrove swamps of San Juan bay. Their principal mission was to obstruct the passage of enemy troops that tried to invade the islet of San Juan through the San Antonio canal or the Condado lagoon. The arsenal was built to serve as a permanent station for the fine fleet and other navy ships.
The structure was originally built of wood and palm fronds, but because of its usefulness and strategic value, it was replaced with a more permanent building. The construction of the masonry building was done in 1800. However, over the years, more and more structures of diverse architectural styles were added until the arsenal became a complex that was used for a wide variety of purposes. In 1825, a shed, a guard headquarters, a pier and a cistern were built, and the main façade was repaired.
The arsenal’s most representative works were built in the middle of the 19th century. By 1845, it had additional annexes such as warehouses, construction shops, housing for employees, barracks for troops, kitchens, and sheds for storing tools. The main façade faces north. Its entrance arch is marked by two pairs of Tuscan-style columns that support a frieze that shows the signs of the zodiac. Above the cornice are three pedestals topped by a royal coat of arms.
In 1854, the chapel of the Carmelite nuns was built with the same architectural style as the façade. It has two vestry rooms and the front portico, which faces the bay, has four Tuscan-style columns. It has a vaulted ceiling of bricks. Other structures have also been incorporated over the years.
After the change in sovereignty in 1898, the arsenal was the last site held by Spanish troops, who used it as a headquarters during the process of repatriation. Once this process was complete, the structure was handed over to the government of the United States, which in turn gave the local government permission to use it for governmental offices. Today, the former Navy Arsenal belongs to the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, which has its offices in the complex, along with governmental administrative offices and exhibition rooms.
De Hostos, Adolfo. Historia de San Juan: ciudad murada, Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1966; Zeno, F. M., Historia de la capital de Puerto Rico, Tomo II, Oficina de Actividades Culturales, San Juan, P.R., 1959.
Castro, María de los Angeles, Arquitectura de San Juan de Puerto Rico (siglo XIX), Editorial Universitaria, 1980.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 13, 2010.
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