January 07, 2012


THE hotel's shaded courtyard, a far cry from the vows of poverty of its original inhabitants
SAN JUAN'S Hotel El Convento: from historic convent to flophouse to majestic boutique hotel
david ellis
In this first of a two-part feature, David Ellis discovers a boutique hotel in Puerto Rico with a history as rich as any tale Hollywood could conceive out of the Caribbean; and next week he continues its remarkable journey from convent to flophouse to an extraordinary boutique hotel...)  
ITS anyone's guess what the good ladies who founded the Carmelite Convent in San Juan in Puerto Rico a-near 360 years ago, would make of their old one-time digs today.
Gone are the tiny celibate cells in which they spent long and solitary days in prayer or meditation, gone are the thin straw palliasses on which they fitfully sought sleep through steamy Caribbean nights, and gone are mealtimes of  porridge or gruel or root vegetable stews in keeping with their vows of poverty.
In their place are spacious rooms with 21st century luxuries amid centuries-old antiques and heirlooms, queen-size beds in which guests indulge in the deepest of the Land of Nod, and from the kitchens now come breakfasts of Eggs Benedict, banana and walnut pancakes topped with maple syrup, mountainous Yogurt Parfaits topped with crunchy almonds, walnuts and fresh sweet strawberries…
And for lunch Empanadillas (turnovers with Spanish sausage, cheese, meat or lobster,) Gambas al Ajillo (sautéed shrimp in garlic sauce,) Veal Cutlets Viennese style, Pechuga de Pollo al Ajillo (chicken breast with garlic and white wine sauce served with uniquely prepared local plantain bananas…)
Or amongst a score of dinner options, the Caribbean's highly popular Puerto Rico Mofongo: fried green plantains seasoned with garlic, olive oil and pork crackling, all mashed and filled with chicken, steak or shrimp. Or for more simple pleasures, multitude tapas or a half-pound (226gm) Classic Burger with the lot.
And in what was once a private room of the Mother Superior, nightly pre-dinner wine and cheese tastings for guests fortunate enough to stay here, with reds and whites splashed with gusto into voluminous crystal glasses … for an hour or so, for free, with great slabs of cheeses and dried fruits to go with it.
The old Carmelite Convent, as we quickly learned on a recent visit, has undergone somewhat of a transformation from its religious heyday: it's now one of the world's finest small hotels, with a history as captivating as any tale out of the Caribbean.
San Juan itself was established by the Spanish in 1521 as a stop-over between homeland and America. They built a garrison against their French, Dutch and English enemies, and with constant wars with all this lot, the number of widows on the island was considerable.
So one, Dona Ana de Lansos y Menendez de Valdez asked the King of Spain to build a convent for widows and single ladies wishing to serve the church.
When he agreed, and with her own personal wealth, Dona Ana donated her home opposite the San Juan Cathedral as a site for the Convent.
Spanish soldiers were assigned to build it, and strongly enough to withstand assaults by local Indians, Spain's European enemies, hurricanes, and the tropical heat: its sun-baked clay-brick walls were made a metre thick.
In 1651 Dona Ana, her sister Antonia and four protégés were the first to enter the Convent, with Dona Ana as Mother Superior; the Convent served its role well for 252 years until in 1903 it was decided that maintenance was now too costly, and with only nine nuns and two novices in residence, it was closed.
The building lay empty for a decade and was eventually sold for a mere US$151 by the Carmelite Order to the local Catholic Diocese, which rented it out as a retail store, then a dance hall, and for 40 years as a flophouse for the homeless.
Worse, in 1953 it became a storage yard for garbage trucks until it was decided to demolish it to make way for a public parking station.           
Enter Robert Frederic Woolworth – heir to the Woolworth fortune – who was so aghast at the prospect of the historic old Convent's fate, that he bought it from the church for $250,000, engaged a team of architects and builders and turned it into a boutique hotel he would call The El Convento.
NEXT WEEK: Creating a unique hotel with dedication, a "no expense spared" philosophy – and a band of gypsies. 

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