Hotel El Convento

Coordinates: 18°27′58″N 66°7′7″W / 18.46611°N 66.11861°W / 18.46611; -66.11861

A former Carmelite convent with over 360 years of history transformed into a luxury Hotel preserving the historic character of Spanish colonial architecture. Located in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Rated a 4 Diamond property by the American Automobile Association. Hotel El Convento is the only Small Luxury Hotel in Puerto Rico. Member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World and Oldest Member of Historic Hotels of America.


In 1646, over 360 years ago, King Phillip IV of Spain granted a petition from a Spanish noblewoman to establish a Carmelite convent in San Juan, her birthplace. She was a granddaughter of Don Diego Menendez de Valdez, a Captain general of the Spanish army and governor of Puerto Rico from 1582 to 1593.

Doña Ana de Lansos y Menendez de Valdez, widow of Captain Pedro de Villate Escovedo, inherited a vast fortune on her young husband’s death in 1625 in an attack by the Dutch who, with the French and British, were constant enemies of Spanish power in the Americas. Childless, Doña Ana resided on a two house property across from the cathedral that she had provided for a war hospital and religious school which were later destroyed in the war-torn island.

There was no convent in Puerto Rico. To enter a cloister, a lady had to travel to Havana or Santo Domingo, or all the way to Europe. Young ladies’ prospects of marriage were reduced with every new battle in the wars of the Indies. To pay for the convent construction and maintenance, Doña Ana donated her home and its adjoining land, a rectangular plot and sold all her possessions.

The soldiers of Colonial Spain garrisoned in the Old City erected the three-story convent designed by an army engineer. The walls (sun-baked clay brick) were three-foot thick to withstand Indians, European enemies, hurricanes and tropical heat. Doors and grilles over slotted windows were mahogany and ausubo (ironwood), a dark wood from the West Indies that increases it's strength with age.

The building’s characteristic Spanish features were an enormous open interior courtyard framed by tiered balconies and arched corridors. Nuns’ cells were tiny rooms with single beds and straw mattresses. The spacious chapel had a domed ceiling.

Inaugurated in 1651

In July 1651, the Monastery of Our Lady Carmen of San Jose was inaugurated, better known as the Carmelite Convent. Doña Ana was the first to enter the cloister and became the mother superior. With her were her sister Antonia and four protégés.

On Cristo Street, the convent was (and still is) adjacent to the Plaza of the Nuns, the city’s second oldest park. Across the street is San Juan Cathedral, built in 1521 of clay, one-story with a thatched roof, destroyed by a hurricane and rebuilt starting in 1540. The Western Hemisphere’s oldest cathedral, it is one of the few examples of medieval architecture remaining in the New World.

A Convent for 252 Years

The first Carmelite Convent in the Americas housed nuns for 252 years. On December 9, 1903, the Archbishop of San Juan decided further repairs were too costly and the 9 remaining nuns and 2 novices moved a few days before Christmas.

Vacant for a decade, the church purchased the abandoned building from the Carmelite nuns in 1913 for $151. They rented it first as a retail store, then a dance hall. For the next 40 years it was a flophouse without running water, sanitary facilities or electricity, just as in the 1600’s. In 1953, the ruins became a parking lot for garbage trucks.

In 1957, they had mercifully slated the building for bulldozing to build a badly needed downtown parking garage when an urban renewal program had begun in Old San Juan. Entitled Operation Bootstrap, this program was headed by Ricardo Alegria from the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture.

Resurrected as a Hotel

In 1959, under Operation Bootstrap, Robert Frederick Woolworth, heir to the Woolworth fortune, purchased the convent property from the Archdiocese of San Juan for $250,000 and transformed it into a deluxe hotel named El Convento. It would spur the development of business, tourism and employment in Old San Juan.

It took three years to convert the decayed structure to a hotel. Two floors were added to the original convent’s three stories, creating 100 rooms, including 10 suites.

The interior designer accompanied by a photographer and Woolworth, journeyed everywhere in Spain to find furniture for the hotel. When he could not get authentic pieces from Spain’s Golden Age he commissioned reproductions of enormous chandeliers, wrought-iron fixtures and decorative tiles. All wood objects, furniture, louvered doors and overhead beams were handcrafted of walnut or mahogany. Lampshades were made with goatskins. Bedspreads and rugs were woven in Granada by gypsies.

No expense was spared, and it showed. The halls and galleries were filled with antiques: tapestries, paintings, shields, swords and carved chests. High-back chairs and settees were upholstered in satins and velvets. Guest rooms had canopied beds with elaborate headboards, beamed ceilings and window shutters.

Plumbing, wiring, an elevator and air-conditioning were installed. Arched corridors that once led to nuns’ cells now opened to eight different styles of guestrooms on the five floors.

The rectangular interior courtyard was so spacious that it had a dining room at one end and at the other, a swimming pool.

Opened January 27, 1962

El Convento celebrated its official inaugural on January 27, 1962. The Woolnor Corporation, a private company of the Woolworth’s, managed it. The hotel did not have a casino when it opened, but decided to open one in 1963. El Convento was an immediate success, a European-style luxury hotel starkly different from the new glitzy hotels that lined the neighboring fashionable Condado strip in San Juan. El Convento was a throwback to the era when hotels were destinations, in themselves. It was a self-contained, intimate resort offering fine dining, deluxe accommodations and international entertainment. Overnight it became the trendy place in the Caribbean for what were known as the “beautiful people.”

The rich and famous flocked to El Convento: Hollywood stars of course, among them, Rita Hayworth, Robert Montgomery and George Hamilton. Other celebrities to visit were Lynda Bird Johnson, Ethel Merman, singer Johnny Desmond, and concert pianist Claudio Arrau. Pablo Casals could be heard playing his cello in the courtyard. People from around the world came and loved it.

The convent chapel was transformed into the Ponce de Leon Room, a truly elegant dining room, strictly black-tie with Old World Spanish décor, windows with stained glass coats-of-arms and a small dance floor. A Flamenco troupe entertained here six nights a week. In the adjoining Club Convento, there was dancing nightly to two big bands.

The Lamplighters Lounge, the town’s only cabaret, originated satirical revues. The late Raul Julia got his start here.

Providing shade in the open patio was a giant centurian nispero fruit tree from Spain. A variety of bats feed on fruit instead of insects and it was their nocturnal habit to fly in rounds from under the arches and cloister corridors, circling the tree to eat the fruit which is similar to crab apples.

A Gift to the Government

By the end of 1970, the Woolworth family decided the hotel business was unprofitable and terminated the casino license. In 1971, they officially presented the hotel as a gift to the government in lieu of back taxes. The hotel was then government operated but it decided that professional management was preferable. No casino was in operation during this time.

A contract was awarded to CIGA, the Italian company associated with grand hotels such as the Gritti Palace in Venice. However, there followed a succession of operators all with different strategies to keep the hotel afloat. The Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company retained a Mexican hotel chain to manage the property. The starting date was January 1, 1982 for Provincial de Hoteles, which had ties with Stouffer Hotels and a European chain to service reservations. The Mexican group changed the name from El Convento Hotel to Gran Hotel El Convento. They also acquire a casino license but never operated it because the hotel would close in six months for renovations.

Puerto Rico’s government invested $1.4 million to modernize the hotel, the first renovations in the 20 years since it first opened and they proved so extensive that the hotel was shut for 10 months, from July 1982 to mid-April 1983. The facelift included weatherproofing half the courtyard to shield guests when it rained by placing a plastic canopy over the bar and dining area. Five years later, in 1986, the hotel was renovated again. Through the years, wallboard was nailed over arches and concrete slathered over the original brick walls. Since red carpeting was considered trendy it was glued over the handmade tile floors. In its final years, the Gran Hotel El Convento had become a shabby old hotel on a historic site with remnants of past refinements that evoked considerable nostalgia.

The New El Convento

Puerto Rico’s government had made a serious effort to get out of owning hotels. The first sold was the most famous, Gran Hotel El Convento, to a group of San Juan business executives. It closed in December 1995 for redesign and a different concept that combines the old with the new.

The first two floors are now designed to feature open-air restaurants and cafes, meeting and banquet rooms. The hotel, which now occupies the top four floors – part of the second floor has been converted to new guest rooms has a private entrance and keyed elevator. The integrity and beauty of the original structure is intact and completely restored. Its cost exceeds $15 million or about $275,000 per room.

The hotel has returned to its original name, Hotel El Convento. It opened in January 1997, 35 years after the original El Convento Hotel and was immediately chosen by CONDE NAST TRAVELER as one of the 23 best new hotels of the world. The reopening of the hotel marked the 346th anniversary of the convent site, a national historic landmark.

In recent years, the readers of both CONDE NAST TRAVELER and TRAVEL & LEISURE again voted El Convento one of the world’s best places to stay. In 2002, the hotel was featured in the May issue of Architectural Digest, which showcased the “celestial spirit” of this luxury landmark.

Hotel El Convento is a proud member of the Historic Hotels of America and of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the only hotel to hold these distinctions in Puerto Rico.

After being opened for one year, AAA awarded Hotel El Convento Four Diamonds, a distinction it holds today.

The hotel is designated “official guest house” of the government of Puerto Rico for visiting heads of state and dignitaries.

Hotel El Convento is for travelers who enjoy luxury lodgings with fine quality and European services in a truly Old World environment that is under the American flag.

Building Activity

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