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Prairie School Architecture And Con Artists In The Caribbean

By J.A. del Rosario

October 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

I like con-artist movies. The Grifters, The Heist, The Sting, and even that goofy one with Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt, Heartbreakers. I also like Frank Lloyd Wright. A Wright house is like a Hemingway story; it is a collection of short, simple walls and terraces that create a complex narrative. A pretentious line you can quote at your next cocktail party, if you like.

But back to my point. Living in Puerto Rico I don't have access to Wright's works, but I have the next best thing. I have the work of one of Wright's biggest fans, and one of Puerto Rico's most respected architects and con artists: Antonin Nechodoma.

Nechodoma's works in Puerto Rico during the early 1900s are the foundation of local modern architecture. His style was defined by low horizontal lines and open indoor spaces that blended with the surrounding environment and allowed air circulation.

The only problem was that Nechodoma's style wasn't his at all, it was Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie style copied line by line, literally. The father of Puerto Rican architecture was a man who boasted being Frank Lloyd Wright's apprentice, when in fact he never met the man.

Predictably, Nechodoma's biography is sketchy. What is known is that he was born in Bohemia in 1877. He worked in Chicago as a contractor and later in an architecture firm. The rest is a murky web of rumours and truth. In 1905 Nechodoma came to Puerto Rico and decided to establish a practice here.

Being from Chicago, and having studied Wright's prairie designs, Nechodoma made the social rounds introducing himself as a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Nechodoma's admiration for Wright's work bordered on plagiarism. According to Nechodoma biographer, Thomas Marvel, the architect had the tendency to trace some of Wright's designs, and make very minute changes in the ornamentation before passing them off as his own.

Ironically, it was his shameless copying that now allows me to enjoy Nechodoma's local masterpiece: the Casa Roig Museum in Humacao -- the former home of the town's sugar baron.

Nechodoma designed the house at the beginning of the last century for Antonio Roig, a sugarcane plantation owner who operated the town's only sugar mill. Sugar was the vertebrae of the Puerto Rican economy in those days, and Roig's position made him the de facto feudal lord of the town.

Even to this day, the Roig name brings up awe from the older locals who either remember the family's power through the mill, or through the Roig Bank, a family owned financial institution that was sold off to the island's largest bank, Banco Popular, in the 1990s.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Casa Roig was abandoned. It was not until the late 1980's that the University of Puerto Rico's Humacao campus gained control of the house and began a long restoration process. Today the house serves as a museum open Wednesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M..

Casa Roig is perfect Nechodoma, or Wright; whichever way you want to look at it. There is a wide open entrance shaded by overhanging roofs, a theme that is repeated in the balconies. Inside, multiple levels separate rooms without the necessity of walls breaking air flow and eliminating the sensation of open space.

Casa Roig is a very modest house when you consider the wealth that Antonio had accumulated by the time he commissioned the home. The greatness of its design is not in the excess, but in the common sense. By layering different overhanging ceilings, Nechodoma created a constant dance of shade and light. As the sun shifts throughout the day, the shade moves from balcony to balcony.

Upstairs, I linger in one of the bedrooms looking out the window at the small patio that surrounds the house and the houses adjacent to it. Casa Roig sticks out like a sore thumb. A prairie school home in the middle of a dilapidated downtown area, where the nearest building that is not in dire need of a paint job is a local Walgreens.

Casa Roig Museum, with its antique photos of the house, the Roig family (and the town they ruled over) is a flashback to another era. The sugarcane fields have disappeared. By the 1970s foreign manufacturing companies were the main source of work. Sugarcane was not profitable anymore, cheap foreign labor made local production to expensive to export, and eventually too expensive for local consumption.

If Nechodoma were to arrive in Puerto Rico today, he would have problems getting a commission to design a dog house. All it would take is a couple of phone calls, and maybe an Internet search to find out who the guy really was. But in 1905, it was a different story. The rich locals probably loved Wright, so they settled for the next best thing.

Casa Roig Museum
66 Antonio López Street
Humacao, PR 00791

Tel: 787-852-8380

J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: :

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