Get Thee To This Nunnery

El Convento, the newest luxury hotel in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is in a 346-year-old building that once housed a convent. A place of prayer and retreat authorized by King Philip IV of Spain in 1646, it was the first Carmelite convent in the New World. Spanish soldiers garrisoned in San Juan worked years to build the three-foot-thick walls that surround the balconied courtyard and the chapel with a 50-foot domed ceiling.

A Spanish noblewoman, Doña Ana de Lansós y Menédez de Valdés, inherited a fortune after the death of her husband in a 1625 Dutch attack on San Juan. It was she who petitioned King Philip for the convent, and her money and property funded it. When the new convent, the Monastery of Our Lady Carmen of San José, opened in 1651, Doña Ana was the first to enter the cloister and became its mother superior. The convent lasted for 252 years; in that time it survived a fire in 1760 and English bombardment in 1797. In 1853 part of the chapel roof collapsed and required five years of repair. The sisters had to leave their home in 1903 when the archbishop declared the building too expensive to keep up.

The convent's next half century was "colorful," to put it nicely. It became a retail store, a dance hall, then a flop house with no sanitation facilities or electricity. Next--indignity upon indignity--its courtyard became a parking lot for garbage trucks. The building was slated to be bulldozed in 1959 to make room for a parking garage. Then--can you hear the cavalry bugles?--it was saved.

San Juan began to take a new look at its deteriorating architectural treasures in the old walled city, and Ricardo Allegria, then-director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, approached Robert F. Woolworth of the department store family with the idea of turning the convent into a luxury hotel. Intrigued, Woolworth bought the property from the church for $250,000. He added three stories and converted the sisters' Spartan cells into 100 hotel rooms. When El Convento opened in January 1962, the San Juan Star's banner headline read: "Old ruin becomes grand hotel." People loved the place, but it lost money. In 1971 it was given to the Government of Puerto Rico in lieu of taxes.

To save jobs, the government kept the hotel open through years of multiple management companies and several redecorations (some of them unfortunate), and by 1995 the place was pretty much a wreck. Then--here comes the cavalry again--four Puerto Rican businessmen with a grand plan stepped in with $2.5 million to buy the property.

The transformation they started is nearly total. The 100 rooms of the first El Convento now number only 57. The first two floors around the courtyard house shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants with seating inside and outside. A covering installed over part of the courtyard during the hotel's first incarnation has been removed to once again let in air and light.

The hotel is on the top three levels. Tile floors have emerged from under the carpeting that hid them, and hand-crafted furniture from Spain fits the restored ambiance of the 346-year-old building. Up-to-the-minute gizmos such as multi-line phones with data ports are in each room along with TVs and VCRs, plus the comforts of robes and refrigerators, plus irons, ironing boards and hair dryers. Hotel guests can enjoy complimentary breakfast on an outdoor garden terrace set aside exclusively for them. There's also a swimming pool and Jacuzzi, indoor fitness center, massage facilities, a casino, and a music room and library with spectacular views overlooking San Juan harbor and the colonial architecture of Old San Juan.

The casino came in for some controversy recently. The mother superior of the current Carmelite convent some ten miles from Old San Juan sent a letter in May 1996 to the governor, protesting the casino and saying that recently rediscovered records indicate 118 nuns are buried in the convent. No remains were found when the "Woolworth" El Convento dug up the courtyard for a swimming pool, though some sisters testified that when a glass elevator was installed in the latest renovation, workmen discovered empty crypts. After heated hearings, vigils, many newspaper stories and talk show discussions, the casino was licensed in November and opened in December. There the matter stands.

Perhaps the sisters will become reconciled to El Convento's casino when they realize that at least their former convent still stands, its sacred use memorialized in the hotel's name, in an old city that has come to revere its Spanish colonial past. Across the street is the San Juan cathedral; built in 1521, it's the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. Next to it is the little Park of the Nuns, the second-oldest plaza. A short walk takes you to the city's great walls, El Morro fort, the oldest continuously used governor's mansion in the New World, the former home of explorer Juan Ponce de León's family and a number of museums on narrow streets paved with blue cobblestones carried as ballast in Spanish galleons. It could be--and has been--much, much worse.

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