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Capilla del Cristo at 250
Americas / November-December 2003

By Larry Luxner

One of Old San Juan's most enduring religious attractions could soon be getting a facelift.

The Capilla del Cristo, which marks its 250th birthday this year, is located at the end of cobblestoned Cristo Street [Calle del Cristo], overlooking San Juan harbor.

It's now the focus of an unusual collaborative project sponsored partly by the New School of Architecture at Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico (UPPR), the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation of the University of Pennsylvania, and the Hermandad del Santo Cristo de la Salud.

"The Capilla hasn't been fully restored or conserved for many years, so it's suffering from termites, water infiltration, falling plaster — everything and anything," said Beatríz del Cueto, director of UPPR's Architectural Conservation Laboratory.

"They've done just patch-up work for the past 100 years, and the building is in need of considerable intervention," she told Américas. "What it'll be, we don't know yet. A million things can be done to it, including repainting some of the original decorations."

Initial construction of the chapel began in 1753 by the Spanish government, which then ruled Puerto Rico. At the time, there was nothing at the end of Cristo Street except a low wall. One day, according to legend, a horseman racing down the street lost control of his steed. Someone in the crowd of spectators shouted "Santo Cristo de Salud, salvalo" (Holy Christ, save him) and the horse leapt over the wall to his death, but the horseman was miraculously saved.

The Capilla was built on the site of the supposed miracle.

"First it was just a niche on the wall, then it grew as money became available," del Cueto said. "Religious people collected money, and then in the late 18th century the portico and sacristy were added."

By the 1920s, Old San Juan's infamous traffic jams had already begun, and cars were passing within the portals of the holy chapel. The municipality actually ordered the Capilla del Cristo to be demolished to alleviate traffic congestion — but the order was protested and eventually blocked by the Damas Civicas, a ladies' civic group.

In the 1940s, the bishop of San Juan granted the Hermandad de Santo Cristo permanent custody of the chapel, an arrangement that continues until today.

Del Cueto has worked on other projects including the Cabezas de San Juan nature preserve in northeastern Puerto Rico, and the Old San Juan headquarters of the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico.

But this project is different, she said, because of the religious significance of the little structure, which is open to the public on Tuesdays and during Holy Week.

In order to aid the Hermandad in its preservation effort, Del Cueto said she turned to the John Paul Getty Trust for financial assistance. Last year, Getty awarded UPPR a $50,000 grant — marking the first time the Los Angeles-based foundation has ever given money to a project in Puerto Rico.

Help is also being provided by the Archdiocese of San Juan, the Puerto Rico Historic Conservation Office, the municipality of San Juan and the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña.

Del Cueto said the intent of the current project is to "offer advanced architectural students first-hand experience in the methodology of building conservation through a formal, focused field project."

The collaborative effort, which involves around 20 fourth- and fifth-year architectural students, consists of three distinct stages. Phase I covers building and site investigation, documentation and recording of existing conditions in the form of digital photo-montages and drawings. Phase II includes the analysis and performance of the building fabric, and lab analysis of samples extracted in the field. Phase III deals with "intervention strategies for architectural conservation through technical specifications which will result from lab analysis and site testing for compatibility."

Agamemnon Gus Pantel, along with Del Cueto and the dean of UPPR's New School of Architecture, Jorge Rigau, directs the Capilla del Cristo project with two architecture professors from the University of Pennsylvania, Frank G. Matero and John Hinchman. He says that "through the years, little things have been done to the Capilla to change its character," but that those changes have inadvertently damaged the structure.

Current options, Pantel noted, range from "letting it gracefully decay through time" to "making it look like it was when it was originally built" 250 years ago.

"Basically, what we are doing is creating a conservation plan for the Capilla. That will have all the elements to be able then to implement whatever recommendations need to be resolved," said Pantel. "That may include a combination of stabilization, reconstruction, or steps in between to make sure the Capilla's existence is ensured for future generations."

For more information on the Capilla del Cristo project, please contact UPPR's Architectural Conservation Laboratory at (787) 792-2456 or send an e-mail to bdelcueto@pupr.edu.

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