I was five when we moved to paradise. Equipped with a couple of suitcases, my mother and I left our home in northern Virginia to embark on a new adventure in Puerto Rico — “La Isla del Encanto” (The Island of Enchantment), with its picturesque white sand beaches, aqua blue ocean water, exotic animals, tropical climate, and the only rainforest in the United States.
It may seem worlds away, but Puerto Rico has been an American territory for over fifty years. And when I think of my own childhood there, I immediately remember the places and experiences there that helped shape who I am today.
One area where the old and new comes together in Puerto Rico is through the grandiose architecture of Old San Juan. I remember Spanish colonial buildings sitting next to huge modern condos, which existed alongside tiny bodegas and panaderias, decorated with African-inspired artwork.
Old San Juan is the second-oldest European-founded city in the Americas. Many of its historic sites are steeped in religious traditions that date back hundreds of years, reminding visitors of the island’s diverse spiritual, cultural, and adventure-filled past.
My mother and I spent many weekends visiting the old city, including regular stops at the San Juan Cathedral. The majestic 16th century cathedral is among the rarest of medieval structures in the New World.
We would marvel at the architecture, light candles, and kneel to pray for our loved ones. Creepy as it may sound, we would never leave the cathedral without paying a visit to the wax-coated, mummified remains of San Pio (Saint Pius), a baby-faced first century Christian martyr, encased in a class tomb at the cathedral.
Puerto Rico’s first Governor and legendary Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon, also rests in a marble tomb in the cathedral. The Spanish conquistador who came to the New World in search of the Fountain of Youth was buried at his family parish, San José Church, for almost three centuries before being moved to the cathedral in 1909.
San José Church, or Iglesia de San José, was built on land donated by Don Juan Ponce de Leon, under the supervision of Dominican friars in 1532, making it the second-oldest church in the Western Hemisphere and certainly one of the oldest structures in the city. Yet the church has been closed for 13 years and is experiencing severe deterioration and structural damage problems. (This would explain why we haven’t been able to tour the church during our last few visits to the island.)
In June, I was thrilled to learn that this enduring religious attraction of my youth, San José Church, had been added to the National Trust’s 2013 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. And, like I was, you might be surprised to learn that this structure — built long before the Mayflower arrived in New England — is the first site in Puerto Rico to be named on the annual list.
The church has gone through extensive renovations over the past several years, and construction has been slow progressing. Patronato de Monumentos de San Juan, a nonprofit organization in charge of the restoration effort, is committed to doing authentic restoration, including the use of original materials and techniques, which will take longer but will ensure the long-term preservation of the structure.
A coalition of community organizations and individuals have been involved in the preservation effort as well, but additional funding is needed to restore this irreplaceable treasure. The church’s website prominently displays a Spanish-language public service announcement featuring Puerto Rican actor, Benicio del Toro, requesting community support.
I think that the true heart and soul of a person exists in the places representative of their past. Such places gave me perspective and taught me to embrace my ancestry and my heritage. Yet some of the places I remember from my childhood in Puerto Rico are not even around anymore. Others are in disrepair or have been traded in for modern structures and paved roads. That always saddens me. It’s as if a piece of my own DNA has been removed.
The 11 Most List reminds me that are many layers to our history and identity as Americans. I hope that bringing the need for restoration of rich cultural resources, like San José Church, to the public’s attention through the 11 Most List will spur other restoration projects on the island. In the meantime, those places will live on — in their full glory — in my memories and in my heart.
The 2013 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places (in alphabetical order):
Abyssinian Meeting House – Portland, Maine. The Meeting House was the spiritual center of life for generations of African Americans in Portland, but it needs an influx of funding to keep that story alive for generations to come.
Astrodome – Houston, Texas. As the world’s first domed indoor, air conditioned stadium, the 18-story multi-purpose Houston Astrodome was once dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” but now needs a viable reuse plan to avoid demolition.
Chinatown House – Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Once a general store and residence for a community of approximately fifty Chinese American laborers, the house is one of last remaining tangible connections to the history of the Chinese American community that helped build modern-day Rancho Cucamonga.
Gay Head Lighthouse – Aquinnah, Mass. The first lighthouse built on Martha’s Vineyard, Gay Head Lighthouse is in immediate danger of toppling over the edge of the Gay Head Cliffs, a consequence of a century of erosion and the direct impact of climate change.
Historic Rural Schoolhouses of Montana – Statewide. Montana boasts more historic one- and two-room schoolhouses still in use than any other state, but these schools are at risk as the state’s population shifts to urban centers
James River – James City County, Va. Jamestown, America’s first permanent English settlement, was founded along the banks of the James River in 1607. The river and landscape are threatened by a proposed transmission line project that would compromise the scenic integrity of this historic area.
Kake Cannery – Kake, Alaska. Kake Cannery played a key role in the development of the Alaskan salmon-canning industry during the first half of the 20th century, but immediate action is needed to stabilize the structural systems of the existing buildings.
Mountain View Black Officers’ Club – Fort Huachuca, Ariz. One of the most significant examples of a military service club in the United States built specifically for African-American officers, the Mountain View Black Officer’s Club faces demolition by the U.S. Army, which has blocked efforts to list the property in the National Register of Historic Places.
San Jose Church – Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Built in 1532, San Jose Church is one of the few remaining Spanish Gothic architecture structures in the Western Hemisphere. Empty for 13 years, it is threatened by deterioration and structural damage
Village of Mariemont – Cincinnati, Ohio. The Village of Mariemont has been an inspiration for a generation of planners, but it is now threatened by a proposed transportation project, which would permanently scar the careful designs that make this place so unique.
Worldport Terminal at JFK Airport – Jamaica, New York. The distinctive flying-saucer-shaped Worldport Terminal at New York’s JFK Airport has been a symbol of the Jet Age since it first opened in 1960, but now sits empty and unused, waiting for a creative reuse plan.
(Originally published, June 2013 on PreservationNation.org)