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THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURAL HERITAGE


IN VIEQUES ISLAND

By Jorge Ortiz Colom, R.A.


Preservation Architect/Institute of Puerto Rican Culture/Ponce, PR

VIEQUES'S BUILT URBAN AND RURAL HERITAGE represents a very important epoch in the
economic exchanges between Puerto Rico and neighboring islands. More than the other
Spanish colonies, Puerto Rico thanks to its strategic location was a cultural and economic
crossroads between the smaller French and English-ruled islands and the Spanish Caribbean
world.

This is reflected in the architectural and building influences of places and structures still
remaining in the “Isla Nena” soil. Some estates like Campaña (near the shooting field in
Barrio Puerto Diablo) and city houses like the Delerme Anduze House, one block from the
square, show great similarity with French Antillean vernacular, thus witnessing one of the
cultural ingredients of this island's colonization. Other houses, more similiar to the criollo
ones seen on Puerto Rico's Big Island, remind the observer that Vieques belongs to a larger
milieu.

Spain's power as a stabilizer of the unsettled conditions of early 19th century Vieques is
revealed in the soberly Neoclassical civic and institutional buildings it built such as the
lighthouses, the town hall and the Conde de Mirasol Fortress, solidly built out of technically
simple rubble masonry, just like many other utilitarian and civic structures of the Big Island.
The Fortress, for years seat of government, prison, and an abandoned ruine before the
Institute of Puerto Rican Culture saved it by making it a museum and center for outreach
and conservation of Vieques's history and culture.

The suitably military-solid


Fortress overlooks the port of
Isabel Segunda; the building
made out of rubble masonry and
“azotea” (near-flat brick) roofs
placed on bulletwood purlins,
opens up to the breezes with
wooden-board doors and
windows within brick-reinforced
openings. Though as such is is
typical mid-nineteenth century
Spanish institutional building, it
is of impressive quality. The
outside earth-filled walls that give
the place its “fortress” sobriquet,
are not unassailable castle walls, rather a means to mold the shape of the hill and prepare the
platform to raise the main building inside.
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The town, called “Isabel


Segunda” after the reigning
Spanish queen at the time, is
above all a collection of
diverse architectural
influences in a Caribbean
island harbor town, the
houses sporting wide
verandas and frames of native
woods; still proud survivors
of the modern anonymity that
surrounds them. Some streets
leading to the harbor are
wide, with the pretension of
being small boulevards; they are still venues for much commercial activity. The main square
is not just a place to linger: beneath it there are the remains of a large rainwater cistern that
was the town's major supply until more modern aqueducts were built. Facing the square you
may see the institutional-neoclassical schools built up in the early 20th century, but still
following traditional design elements, including wide pediments, facade symmetry and
classrooms on either side of their entryways.

Near the square still remain


some of the more important
residences of the town, a
few on high brick plinths
but most of them curiously
hardly elevated above the
street level and thus more
open to the bustle outside.
Hip roofs, more resistent to
hurricane winds, are
common and similar to
those seen in neighboring
islands: a frame inspired on
that of the boats that
navigated the interisland
passages. It's much like an
upturned boat hull
converted in a shelter for
landlubbers. The Nere Delerme house – a protected historic site – on Calle Benítez Guzmán
7 – another survivor of a modernized street – permits a peek to witness the spectacular build
of such roofs.
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The Delerme Anduze house in the very visible juncture of Muñoz Rivera and Antonio
Mellado Streets impresses with its imposing dormered roof (again, a Franco-Antillian trait)
and its veranda, now a gallery that opens into an interior commercial space. The veranda
overhangs mix large curled-at-the-end iron bars screwed to the walls and to wooden beams;
the ensemble han proven its
worth resisting many hurricanes.

These houses alternate with


simple commercial buildings in
brick or concrete, with many
doors opening to the street,
some of them roofed over with
hip roofs like the houses. In
Vieques's traditional buildings
there is hardly any ornamental
exuberance, they are as a rule
austere and they tend to delight
more by their excellent technical
quality in the use of wood and
other materials, as well as their
proportions. The also strike an effective dialogue with the windy, maritime climate of the
Antillean microislands, picking up the constant breezes, insulating from heat and directing
hot air upwards, beyond the reach of the users' comfort zone.

A now-vanished house in 5
Benítez Guzmán Street, with
clearly English inspiration and of
a moneyed family, had a
complex hip-roof geometry,
ventilating dormer, and the
living room was surfaced with a
material known as “lincrusta”,
essentially sawdust with linseed
oil and resin, molded in
ornamental patterns in hardened
plates. But a house that defies
time is the Smaine house in the
corner of Antonio Mellado and
Prudencio Quiñones streets.
This protected house has a high
base (used as a lower story), a perceived center-hall layout, the wooden main story sheathed
in pressed metal imitating brick, and an extensive ell extension – known in Puerto Rico as a
“martillo” (hammer) – and the Mellado street side has a curving side stair that passes next to
a cylindrical steel cisterns, common in the late 19th century. This house presents a half-
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hipped roof similar to those in the Virgin Islands, that allows for more efficient ventilation
of the roof space.

In the early 20th century, like other


Puerto Rican towns, there was adopted a
type of building with imported pine and
concrete, with less pitched, bungalow-
inspired hip roofs. At Isabel Segunda
there's for example the Jaime Puig house
in 65 de Infantería street – flanked by
three other house more or less its age
but still more faithful to older forms.
Buildings like the former “Casa
Amarilla” at the corner of Muñoz Rivera
and Duteil streets follow, in concrete,
the concept of the high-ceilinged shop with multiple openings to the street, at the same time
presenting an interesting use of simple Doric columns and the 45-degree chamfered corner,
celebrating it similar to what is seen in cities like Ponce.

Vieques's commercial and


agricultural wealth was derived from
the cultivation of cane, which
notwithstanding the lack of
permanent rivers and derived
irrigation problems, blanketed most
fields from Punta Arenas to Puerto
Diablo, establishing thus a rural
heritage of sugar estates over all of
the island's territory, where the
product was artisanally cultivated
and later exported to markets
outside the Caribbean. Vieques had
over a score of estates, with steam-
or oxen-driven mills, and the
warehouses of a few exist as ruins.
One of these estates of the Benitez family evolved into the large and “modern” Playa
Grande (Big Beach) sugarmill, only one of its kind in Vieques, exporter of most of the
island's sugar and which hosted a settlement next to the factory, which was a sort of small
town dedicated to the industrial workers of the sweet condiment.

José Ferreras Pagán, in his directory Biografía de las riquezas de Puerto Rico (“Biography of
Puerto Rico's Riches”) published in1902 (vol. 2, p. 87) indicates that this mill, formerly
owned by Matthias Hjardemaal, was sold in 1892 to Don José Benítez Guzmán, “being a
small factory that increased its capacity and elements until it became a steam-powered
muscovado mill.” Ferreras detailed the following components:
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“[a building] dedicated to the sugar factory and warehouse, residence for the director,
employee housing, house for the foreman, store, and single workers' quarters: 5 multitubular
boilers with their ovens that burn green bagasse, a Krajeuski (?) stalk cutter, 1 mill and its
second grinder with their engines, 4 eliminators, 6 defecators, 6 Fletcher centrifuges, 10
decanters, 1 triple effect [evaporator], a two-bags-per-batch vacuum pan, 1 Cortada still, one
electric generator [author's note: only five out of 32 non-American capital mills had this
then], 30 iron tanks..

Ferreras Pagán goes on describing the


mill::

“Its lands stretch for 4000 acres and


other 1500 of Mr. J. Benítez Díaz, of
which 3000 are suitable for cane
growing, and 1500 acres are [presently]
cultivated

“It produces some 15000 bags of first-


and second-harvest sugar. The former
Resolución estate in Barrio Punta
Arena is annexed to this important
factory.”

Despite its atrocious dismantling in 1941, Playa Grande still presents significant remains that
defy oblivion and abandonment.

The “biographer of riches” also describes the nearly vanished Santa María mill. This one had
belonged to the Leguillous and also to the Le Bruns. Modernized in 1896, it had::

“3 multitubular boilers with green-bagasse-fueled ovens, one mill and its engine, 4
defecators, 4 eliminators, 2 clarifiers, 4 filters, 1 vacuum pan, 4 centrifuges and other
accesory equipment: as well as iron tanks for syrup and molasses.

“Its equipment was built by the Fives-Lille company in France, and they can elaborate up to
220 bags in 12 hours.” (Ferreras, ibid. p. 88)

Ferreras Pagán describes its buildings::

“A beautiful masonry factory where all the equipment is installed along with a Deroy still,
the latter which stopped being used since the promulgation of the Hollander Bill [author's
note: a law that taxed alcohols exported to the U.S.A] as sales have declined: 1 one-story
house for the director's residence: 4 wooden houses for employees; a brick masonry
rainwater cisterns, another cisterns for storing water from a creek that flows south to north
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near the factory, drawn by a windmill-powered pump, this for the evaporators; one store,
and 11 workers' quarters.”

At that time Santa María controlled 2000 acres, slightly over half cultivated. It operated until
de 1920's henceforth Playa Grande was the sole grinder of Vieques cane.

It is now barely a remembrance though the form of the factory settlement still influences the
present one. Another mill, Arkadia, existed in the northwest, in the later-military zone, and
according to some archeological field studies, parts seem to remain. It also stopped in the
early 20th century.

Sugar estate ruins in Vieques


reflect the importance of that
episode of the island's social and
economic history. Some
warehouse walls can be found,
in some estates like Campaña in
the east there is a flair for their
founders' French tastes, this
according to those that have
documented the place, only
hundreds of feet from the
“death zone” of the former
Navy firing range. Other ruins
are more utilitarian and sober.
Some estate house have remained like the fascinating (unfortunately ruined) “Frenchman's
House” or Mourraille estate near Esperanza, formerly a very agreeable small hotel. This one
had a generous interior courtyard and very high ceilings with a center-hall plan, being the
former living room the hotel's foyer. With its hip roof, belvedere overlooking a splendid
vista of land and sea, concrete walls imitating undressed stone, and huge wraparound
veranda on top of a high base, it was one of Vieques's memorable spots. Of other estate
house some ruins remain, and the remembrances of those not entirely eliminated by Navy
bulldozers.

Near the entrance to Esperanza


harbor, there existed until their
destruction by Hurricane Hugo
in 1989 the enormous wall of
the Esperanza estate
warehouses. The cyclopean
masonry and simple
proportions of this utilitarian,
rectangular edifice, spoke of
solidity of these walls that
protected sugar during its
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purging and curing process. However, the passage of time and uncompatible modern repairs
weakened the building, setting the stage for its loss.

In the remains of the Pacience estate in Barrio Santa María are the remains of the tombs of
the first governor of Vieques, Théophile-Joseph-Jacques-Marie le Guillou, with massive
French inspired construction and a pyramidal top, a symbol of transcendence very favored
as an iconic form of European tombs. There are other vaulted tombs at its side. Some are
above earth – sarcophage type, also following French custom.

This interesting agrarian past rots away in oblivion amidst the scrub, but notwithstanding the
existence of directives to preserve heritage within the military installations, most estate ruins
in former military lands are fragments of walls or floors, lime and earth between leaves and
bushes – not to speak of the empty shell of the Puerto Ferro lighthouse, almost standing like
a ruins of a vanquished enemy awaiting their Carthage-style disappearance, not by force but
by age and weather. (The other lighthouse - Punta Mulas, near the town – was carefully
restored in collaboration between the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the Municipality,
and of late has been a museum though it is now closed.) Even so, the resistance of these
materials come from the earth have made these walls and footings faithful defenders of the
presence of the past facing the trauma of modern and destructive military “arts”
.
Even though there have been made
archaeological reconnaissances that
demonstrate that these ruins and
remains, historic and Pre-Columbian
alike, are a very important patrimony
that are a key part of the Caribbean
jigsaw puzzle, Puerto Rican
archaeologists had not been permitted
for a long time to dig and analyze
findings in military soil. This has left a
gap in early Puerto Rican history,
since it is known for years that
Vieques was a major bridge and
contact since the time of the first
human migrations in this region.
Puerto Ferro Man, a most significant anthropological find, remains, thus an interesting
phenomenon without (until, we hope, now) a context that explains him and his times..

Between 1978 and 1985 an American consultant group hired by the Navy made a historic
resource survey in Vieques naval lands. Not informed by the knowledge or experience of our
archaeologists and preservation architects, a collection of reports was made of these findings
located in hills and dales of Vieques. But the lack of communication between both groups
has hampered the construction of an useful interpretation of the remains. Our people had
been denied for years access to a vital part of its cultural heritage, and also to the prople's
right to know themselves through history and material culture.
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Now that many of these resources are accesible there is a need to revise the condition and
significance of these places since they can be venues for cultural tourism and kindred
activities, now blossoming throughout many Caribbean locations in spite of many
difficulties. The cultural landscapes of the long-time inaccesible areas evidence the
achievements and losses of Vieques society long subject to agricultural and later military
latifundia. They deserve to be conserved since they define the community's personality and
they may be reused for the enjoyment and recreation of present and future generations.

jo

July 10, 2001, Guayama


Revised August 2002
Second revision Dec. 2004
Illustrations March 2010
Translation by the author, Mar. 5, 2010, finished in Vieques

ILLUSTRATIONS (by the author except where indicated)

p. 1 Conde de Mirasol Fortress


p. 2 top Urban landscape, Mellado and Muñoz Rivera streets
bottom Vieques Public School, 1907
p. 3 top Delerme Anduze house, late 19th century, declared historic site
bottom Inside of demolished house in 3 Benitez Guzman Street
p. 4 top Smaine house in Mellado and P. Quiñones streets (photo not by author)
bottom “Yellow” House now a beach and tourist goods shop at the corner of Muñoz
Rivera and Victor Duteil streets
p. 5 Entrance to the Playa Grande mill ruins (source: www.panoramio.com)
p. 6 top Mourraille House (1914) also known as “Frenchman's House” when it was a
hotel. Photo taken 1979. Original architect: Francisco Valines Cofresí.
Nowadays a burnt-up ruin.
BottomWarehouse of Esperanza estate, now demolished. Photo taken 1979.
p.7 Puerto Ferro Lighthouse, ca. 1920 (US Coast Guard photo, photographer's name
not known).

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