This article is a part of a series created by United Voices, a new AFAR immersion program that brings together local content creators and AFAR editors for workshops, reporting stories, and experiencing a destination together. We make our debut in Puerto Rico.
From the robin’s egg blue on the ceiling of the Ponce Cathedral to the crimson red and black stripes lining the iconic Parque de Bombas, Ponce is a feast for the eyes. It isn’t just the colors that make the city visually intriguing—it’s the abundance of unique designs. Buildings shaped like castle towers or carved gems are the norm here, in large part because of Ponce’s Creole architecture and its lasting influence.
The Creole architecture movement in Ponce existed for a short time—from 1910 to 1920—but has become emblematic of the city as a whole. In that decade, several well-known architects in Ponce like Alfredo Wiechers and Blas Silva Boucher created buildings inspired by Catalan modernism, a style of design popular in Barcelona thanks to the work of Antoni Gaudí.
“Creole stems from criollo, which means taking something that is traditionally Spanish but adding a local spice to it,” explains Melina Aguilar Colón, owner of Isla Caribe Tours.
The fantastical style of Ponce Creole architecture is intentional: Being a port city, Ponce was a popular landing spot for migrants from all over Europe throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Commissioning elaborate, one-of-a-kind houses was a way to show wealth and status. Aguilar Colón says Creole architecture became a way of leaving a legacy—to this day, it’s common for Creole buildings to still bear the initials of the family who once lived there.
While San Juan has 65 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, Ponce is a close second with 40 properties. However, Ponce is the only city in Puerto Rico that is included in the Ruta del Modernisme, a Spanish route that lists 78 cities around the world that have influence from the Catalan modernist architecture. According to Aguilar Colón, Ponce is one of only two spots on the route in the Caribbean; the other is Havana, Cuba.
Even Ponce’s urban planning was influenced by the Catalan style, with city blocks requiring a “chaflan,” characterized by rounded corners and curbs that expand the intersection and make it easier to turn. This improves the flow of traffic and helps reduce noise pollution—noticeably absent from the city center is the honking of car horns, replaced with the sounds of birds chirping, water flowing from the fountain in the main square, and the call of the ice cream vendor.
“When the design of the streets came along, the city created an ordinance where if you build on the corner, you have to build exactly to the shape of the corner. That’s why many buildings are cut off or curved,” notes Aguilar Colón.
Where to see Ponce Creole architecture
A prime example of Ponce Creole architecture is Casa Weichers-Villaronga. The bright pink house on the corner of Calle Reina and Calle Mendez Vigo resembles a wedding cake with a circular, decorative structure on the roof. Previously operated as a museum, the public building is owned by the Instituto de Cultura.
“Modernism has to do with catching attention through things that are beyond the ordinary. It’s very common in modernist architecture to see the rules of architecture breaking down, so instead of being a house with a square roof, it is a house with a crown,” says Aguilar Colón. “And that crown has animals sticking out of it.”
Unfortunately, there was an imposition of regulations in the 1970s that required owners of a historic house to maintain it instead of bulldozing and rebuilding. Coupled with complicated inheritance laws, the investment required to repair the properties often wasn’t worth the effort for homeowners. As a result, many properties were lost due to mysterious fires or have become abandoned and fallen into disrepair. The buildings that remain are a mix of private, city-owned, and island-owned properties.
Certain properties, however, have been restored and are available to visit or even stay overnight. Among them is Casa-Font Ubides, also known as Casa Monsanto. This place recently opened as an Airbnb and features majestic outdoor columns, wood plank ceilings, and decorative wrought iron designs on the balconies, doors, and porch. (Tours for nonguests can be arranged.)
Museo de la Música Puertoriqueña
Other buildings to add to the list include the Museo de la Música Puertoriqueña, previously owned by the Serralles family, the affluent makers of Don Q rum. The government now owns the yellow house with exterior crown molding and 7 acroteria, ornamental statues mounted along the roof. The building serves as an ode to Puerto Rican musicians and instruments.
Museu de la Historia de Ponce
The Museu de la Historia de Ponce, also known as Casa Salazar, is small but well curated and thoroughly covers Ponce’s history. In addition to the exhibits, there are some original stained-glass installations still in place. Built in 1880 and rebuilt in 1925, this building was made by the architect Blas Silva.
To learn more about Ponce Creole architecture, sign up for an architecture tour with Isla Caribe Tours. It runs a handful of times throughout the year, or anytime as a private tour for groups of eight or more.