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Orlando Sentinel

Project Should Allow Old Walls To Keep Guarding San Juan

By Iván Román, | Sentinel Staff Writer

July 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Their enemies had failed, but the Spanish were still worried about the two attacks on San Juan by the English empire at the end of the 16th century.

Because Spanish soldiers had been tipped off, Sir Francis Drake couldn't even enter San Juan in 1595. He succumbed years later to the same fever that killed many of his soldiers on that failed campaign.

Although troops headed by the Earl of Cumberland invaded in 1598, disease and hunger soon made them leave. They took the bell and organ from the church in mass looting on their way out.

It was the Dutch's violence in 1625 that forced the Spanish into action, building walls up to seven stories high partly surrounding Old San Juan.

It's an architectural legacy islanders still enjoy four centuries later.

"The walls are unique in the Americas," said Thelma Valenzuela, cultural patrimony director for the Department of Transportation and Public Works. "Only in Cartagena [Colombia] and Havana do they have walls of this type, and they are not are expansive as ours."

Having recently gained independence from Spain, the Dutch accused the Spanish of blocking access to Portuguese salt mines, a move that threatened to kill their fishing industry.

When the Dutch began mining salt in the north of South America, they seized the opportunity to steal Spanish gold being transported from Mexico and Peru. The Dutch chose strategically placed San Juan as a base for their exploits.

In 1625, they brought eight ships and hundreds of men into San Juan Bay. Dutch soldiers burned buildings to draw out Spanish soldiers holed up in Fort San Felipe del Morro. After five frustrating weeks, the Dutch left.

There was so much destruction, Spain's King Phillip IV approved the plan: The city would be surrounded with massive steep walls of sandstone and masonry with binding agents of sand and clay.

It took a century to do it, and several rebuilding projects since have taken decades. Thanks to those walls, San Juan was free of attacks for two centuries.

Now the local transportation department wants to return the favor and protect the walls from the elements and neglect.

About 1,600 feet of the oldest remaining part of the walls -- built between 1630 and 1635 on the city's south side -- have not been cleaned or touched in 15 years.

Local officials won't just pull the weeds coming out of the cracks, remove the concrete mistakenly put on the walls and restore the layers of ground brick and chunks of sandstone.

Using clues still there, officials will analyze the phases of construction, hidden compartments and patterns that reflect how the Spanish kept strengthening defenses of this military outpost during their reign.

They'll get technical help from the National Park Service, which manages the forts and the rest of the walls, which are 12 to 22 feet thick and 22 to 70 feet high.

The transportation department just began to figure out how broad the project should be and how long and how much money it will take. By next May, officials should have some answers, but it could take experts 10 years to study and fix each square inch.

Because all the walls around San Juan and several colonial buildings -- such as La Fortaleza, the governor's home and offices, the oldest executive mansion in the hemisphere -- were declared World Heritage sites by the United Nations, government officials think money for the project won't be a problem.

They don't expect too many complaints about spending local money either.

"We have a responsibility to take this legacy left to us and give it to future generations in better shape than we received it," said Jose Izquierdo, secretary of the Department of Transportation and Public Works. "In your home, you also have to maintain things. This is home to all of us, and we have to do it."

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