By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Located in the walled city of Old San Juan, the Hotel El Convento is a former Carmelite convent dating back to 1651. The Monasterio del Señor San Jose was founded by Doña Ana Lanzos, a wealthy widow who donated her money and her magnificent residence with a large double-sloped tile roof. Three Carmelite nuns from Santo Domingo served as founders. The building was expanded between 1854 and 1861 after the original structure was demolished. Governor Fernando de Norzagaray helped raising the necessary funds and personally inspected the project daily. Certain elements stand out in the facade of the chapel, besides the entrance: the pair of Tuscan columns, the two towers and the latticed choir arch.
Vacated by the nuns in 1903 and left for ruin, it was nearly destroyed in the 1950s. It was saved by the Puerto Rican tourism office and millionaire Robert Woolworth who purchased the property in 1962 and converted it into a European-style luxury hotel. In 1995, a $15 million restoration returned the hotel to its original beauty by accentuating the Spanish features of the original convent.
The historic hotel occupies the top four floors, has a private entrance in the original courtyard where a 300-year-old Nispero fruit tree from Spain still stands. Rooms and luxury suites are individually decorated with Andalusian tile floors, mahogany beams, throw rugs and hacienda-style furniture. Each room has a view of Old San Juan or its bay. The first two floors feature restaurants, 10 guestrooms (introduced in 2003) and meeting rooms interconnected by a series of black-and-white tiled hallways.
The garden terrace, overlooking the Plaza de las Monjas and historic San Juan cathedral, offers a serene atmosphere for relaxing and enjoying evening cocktails. The flower-bedecked rooftop pool terrace, with its spectacular panoramic views of Old San Juan, has a splash pool, a Jacuzzi and sundeck. This small boutique hotel celebrates the old –as its address in historic San Juan indicates –while embracing all the comforts modern travelers expect. Guests have beach access to El Convento’s sister property. There are three restaurants, including a friendly tapas bar. Named the premier "Small Luxury Hotel" in Puerto Rico, El Convento is the oldest member of Historic Hotels of America, an official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is rated as a AAA Four Diamond property.
*excerpted and expanded from my book “Built To Last: 100+Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi”, AuthorHouse 2013.
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