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Discover El Convento Hotel, which is a former Carmelite convent dating back to 1646 in the walled city of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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El Convento Hotel, a member of Historic Hotels of America since 1999, dates back to 1646.


Located in the historic walled city of Old San Juan, El Convento Hotel was originally built over 350 years ago as a Roman Catholic convent. The structure was specifically constructed during the mid-17th century at the behest of Doña Ana Lanzós, a wealthy widow who had donated the land upon her own death. Nevertheless, work did not fully commence for some time thereafter, since the fortifications around the city had taken primacy over all the local building materials. Construction finally began several years later in 1646, however, following a successful petition to King Phillip IV of Spain. The convent subsequently took weeks to complete, with laborers toiling for hours in the humid tropical air. But what they managed to achieve was nothing short of spectacular, as the beautiful new monastery stood as a brilliant example of the island’s colonial architectural aesthetics. Debuting as the “Monasterio del Señor San José de la Orden de nuestra Señora del Carmen” in 1651, the new gorgeous convent became the home for a sect of Carmelite nuns. Indeed, three nuns were transported directly to the structure from the neighboring island of Hispaniola. The convent went on to be one of the major religious facilities in the Caribbean, often providing support to the Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista. (Interestingly, the Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista is regarded today as the second most historic cathedral in the Americas.)

After operating for the better part of three centuries, the convent eventually closed for good in 1903. (James Herbert Blank—the Bishop of Puerto Rico—had decided that the building’s upkeep was too expensive to maintain.) The facility then faced an uncertain future as it sat dormant for the next five decades. Thankfully, salvation for the building ultimately arrived during the 1950s, when Robert Woolworth purchased the entire site. He invested heavily into its complete rehabilitation, ultimately transforming the erstwhile convent into a stunning boutique hotel. Now known as “El Convento Hotel,” it soon emerged as one of the most popular vacation getaways in all of San Juan. In fact, numerous celebrities—including Rita Heyworth and Truman Capote—were among the first patrons to step inside! Then in 1995, a $15 million restoration rejuvenated the structure’s architectural integrity. It mainly focused on revitalizing the Spanish-designed features of the original convent, such as the detailing throughout the building’s façade. El Convento Hotel has since remained one of San Juan’s most exclusive vacation getaways. Contemporary guests not only love its luxurious services—they also adore its unique historical features. (For instance, patrons always flock to the original courtyard, where a 300-year-old Spanish Nispero fruit tree still stands.) A member of Historic Hotels of America since 1999, El Convento Hotel is truly an amazing place to experience.

  • About the Location +

    San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of the most historic metropolises in the Americas. Founded over five centuries ago, it has played an important role in the history of the so-called “New World.” Its first inhabitants arrived in 1508 under Juan Ponce de León—a conquistador now mainly remembered for his ill-fated explorations to find the “Fountain of Youth” in Florida. Calling the settlement “Caparra,” he specifically chose a nearly landlocked harbor along Puerto Rico’s northern coast to serve as its location. But Spanish colonial officials later relocated the settlement to an inlet a few miles to the east and rechristened it as the “Ciudad de Puerto Rico.” Juan Ponce de León also continued to call the community home, having served as the island’s governor shortly before the town’s relocation. Juan Ponce de León and his family lived inside a beautiful estate known among the locals as “Casa Blanca.” San Juan’s location quickly made it one of Spain’s most important seaports in the Caribbean, with its wharves ferrying all kinds of goods and people across the Atlantic. The city even became a major marshaling point for Spanish incursions into mainland North and South America. San Juan gradually assumed great political significance in Spain’s global empire, as well. The city specifically served as the Catholic Church’s first headquarters on the other side of the Atlantic, as well as at the seat for one of its bishops. Unfortunately, this newfound prosperity attracted the attention of Europe’s other major superpowers, who attempted to conquer San Juan and the rest of Puerto Rico over the next 300 years. Those nations legalized pirating against the naval traffic heading into San Juan, which culminated in numerous raids on the city itself. Some of the most famous assaults transpired under famous buccaneers like Francis Drake and George Clifford. Spain’s rivals also tried to directly capture the city with their own navies on several occasions, too. Indeed, the Dutch and the British sent fleets against San Juan in both the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively.

    To deter those aggressive threats, the Spanish constructed many forts across San Juan. The most noteworthy of those defenses were a fortified castles known as “La Fortaleza” and “San Felipe del Morro.” Yet, the most imposing citadel was the mighty “San Cristóbal.” The largest Spanish fort in the Western Hemisphere, it made San Juan one of the most heavily protected cities throughout the entire world. Nevertheless, San Juan’s status as an influential colonial city gradually decline as other places like Mexico City and Lima grew in stature. San Juan thus remained relatively isolated from the greater politics of the Spanish Empire by the 19th century, especially the patriotic movements that swept through nearly all the neighboring colonies. In fact, Puerto Rico was a bastion for the many loyalists that had fled from the Spanish American Wars of Independence. Puerto Rico as a whole remained part of Spain’s diminishing empire in the wake of the conflicts, becoming one of its last oversees colonial territories. Spain’s sovereignty over the entire island finally came to an end during the Spanish-American War of 1898. San Juan itself did not experience any significant fighting, although the guns at San Cristóbal did briefly engage with a flotilla of United States Navy ships anchored just off the coast. Now a territorial capital within the United States, San Juan gradually evolved into a modern metropolis. While early economic growth was slow, numerous industries soon emerged throughout the city toward the latter half of the 20th century. San Juan also maintained its local political importance, too, as it remained Puerto Rico’s capital after it obtained self-governance in 1952. Today, San Juan is among the most popular tourist destinations throughout the Caribbean. Cultural heritage travelers in particular have enjoyed visiting modern-day San Juan, due to the many historical landmarks that reside in the city. In fact, much of San Juna’s historic core—known as “Viejo San Juan” or “Old San Juan”—is even identified as both a U.S. National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

  • About the Architecture +

    Originally an ancient convent, El Convento Hotel still displays the same Spanish colonial architectural aesthetics that first defined it years ago. Also known today as “Spanish Eclectic,” Spanish colonial architecture dates back centuries and is one of the most prolific design aesthetics seen throughout the Americas today. The form itself emerged when the first generations of Spanish colonists began arriving from Europe at the start of the 16th century. Seeking to establish similar settlements to the ones found in their native Spain, the pioneers began to essentially recreate European cities across Mexico. Many of the earliest settlers crafted buildings that combined elements of architectural motifs popular in Spain at the time, including Renaissance, Moorish, and Byzantine forms. Over time, though, those beautiful and extravagant styles were complemented by other, newer forms, such as Neoclassical and Baroque architecture. The amalgamation of all those unique styles eventually produced structures that were incredibly decorative and ornate. But despite the variety in their appearance, they mostly shared the same general layout and qualities. For instance, the buildings typically featured a central courtyard, as well as thick stucco walls that could endure diverse climate of both North and South America. Among the other recognizable features that they possessed included heavy carved doors, spiraled columns, and gabled red-tile roofs, as well. This new stunning architectural form soon defined the landscape of countless Spanish cities in the “New World,” such as Mexico City, Lima, and of course, San Juan. Many of those buildings still survive to this day, too, with some even preserved as recognized UNESCO World Heritage Sites

  • Famous Historic Guests +

    Rita Hayworth, actress remembered for her roles in films like Gilda, Cover Girl, and The Lady from Shanghai.

    Pablo Casals, remembered today as one of the preeminent cellists of the 20th century.

    Truman Capote, novelist known for such works like In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

    Gloria Vanderbilt, renowned artist, author, and fashion designer known for her work popularizing designer blue jeans.

Image of Historian Stanley Turkel, Historic Hotels of America Image of Stanley Turkel's Book Built To Last: 100 Year Old Hotels East of the Mississippi, Historic Hotels of America.

Guest Historian Series

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Nobody Asked Me, But... No. 166;

Hotel History: El Convento Hotel (1646), San Juan, Puerto Rico*

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 1646. 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 torn down. Governor Fernando de Norzagaray helped raising the necessary funds and personally inspected the work 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 destination 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.

This 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 new 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 plunge pool and a Jacuzzi. This small boutique hotel celebrates the old—as its address in historic Old San Juan indicates—while embracing all the comforts modern travelers expect. Guests have beach access to El Convento’s sister location. 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 holiday destination.

*excerpted from his book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi


About Stanley Turkel, CMHS

Stanley Turkel is a recognized consultant in the hotel industry. He operates his hotel consulting practice serving as an expert witness in hotel-related cases and providing asset management an and hotel franchising consultation. Prior to forming his hotel consulting firm, Turkel was the Product Line Manager for worldwide Hotel/Motel Operations at the International Telephone & Telegraph Co. overseeing the Sheraton Corporation of America. Before joining IT&T, he was the Resident Manager of the Americana Hotel (1842 Rooms), General Manager of the Drake Hotel (680 Rooms) and General Manager of the Summit Hotel (762 Rooms), all in New York City. He serves as a Friend of the Tisch Center and lectures at the NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. He is certified as a Master Hotel Supplier Emeritus by the Educational Institute of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. He served for eleven years as Chairman of the Board of the Trustees of the City Club of New York and is now the Honorary Chairman.

Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. More than 275 articles on various hotel subjects have been posted in hotel magazines and on the Hotel-Online, Blue MauMau, Hotel News Resource and eTurboNews websites. Two of his hotel books have been promoted, distributed and sold by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry and Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi). A third hotel book (Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York) was called "passionate and informative" by the New York Times. Executive Vice President of Historic Hotels of America, Lawrence Horwitz, has even praised one book, Great American Hoteliers Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry:

  • “If you have ever been in a hotel, as a guest, attended a conference, enjoyed a romantic dinner, celebrated a special occasion, or worked as a hotelier in the front or back of the house, Great American Hoteliers, Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry is a must read book. This book is recommended for any business person, entrepreneur, student, or aspiring hotelier. This book is an excellent history book with insights into seventeen of the great innovators and visionaries of the hotel industry and their inspirational stories.”

Turkel was designated as the “2014 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America,” the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History.

Works published by Stanley Turkel include:

Most of these books can be ordered from AuthorHouse—(except Heroes of the American Reconstruction, which can be ordered from McFarland)—by visiting, or by clicking on the book’s title.