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SAN JOSE CHURCH
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, United States
The San José Church, originally known as the Iglesia de Santo Tomás de Aquino, is considered by many scholars to be one of the finest and oldest examples of Gothic-influenced religious architecture built by the Spanish in the New World.
Dominican friars built the church, beginning in 1532, as a temple to the adjoining sanctuary building within Puerto Rico’s walled city of San Juan. The church was designed as a longitudinal temple with side chapels and was located on the highest point of the Isleta of San Juan on a site donated by Juan Ponce de León.
In 1858, the church passed from the Dominican friars to the Jesuit Order and was renamed the Church of San Juan. Under this new leadership, the church was transformed. The interior design, decoration, and furnishings changed significantly to reflect the fashionable neoclassical style. In 1887, the church was again transferred, this time to the Vicentian Fathers (Padres Paules), who redecorated the interior of the church for the third time in the building’s history.
By the mid-20th century, political, technological, and economic factors had taken a toll on the historic church, and its survival was in question.
HOW WE HELPED
The San José Church was featured on the 2004 Watch. WMF funded a restoration effort beginning with the immediate stabilization and conservation of the church’s historic mural paintings. Later, we supported the complete architectural documentation of the site and continued urgent work to control environmental factors that affected the integrity of the church.
The restoration projects for the San José Church were carried out with a clear plan and schedule. WMF was specifically invested in ensuring the project was being conducted by expert conservation professionals who would diligently carry out the tasks and repairs that were needed in the most efficient manner possible. The restoration of the San Juan Church, known as the Capilla del Rosario project, was undertaken in several stages: emergency issues, secondary issues, and, finally, conservation management.
WHY IT MATTERS
Historians cite the San José Church as the oldest surviving significant work of architecture in Puerto Rico and one of the earliest extant examples of Gothic-influenced architecture in the New World.
San José Church’s architectural merits include its unprecedented monumental scale within the colonial walled city and the designs of its sanctuary and transept vaults. The engineering of the ribbed vault was a phenomenal accomplishment rarely seen outside mainland Europe.
The interior of the church featured early frescos depicting maritime references pertinent to Spanish explorers during their first forays in the Americas. The main chapel included early mural paintings in its cupola. The church holds historic significance as well, once housing the remains of Juan Ponce de León as well as those of other historic national figures.