La Fortaleza, San Juan, Puerto Rico | CruiseBe
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La Fortaleza

History and museums
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La Fortaleza (The Fortress) is the current official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. It was built between 1533 and 1540 to defend the harbor of San Juan. The structure is also known as Palacio de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina's Palace). It is the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the New World. It was listed by UNESCO in 1983 as part of the World Heritage Site "La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site".

During the 1640 reconstruction, the chapel of Santa Catalina, which originally existed outside of the walls, was demolished and was integrated to the walls of the structure, resulting in the alternate name Santa Catalina's Palace.

The structure

La Fortaleza was the first defensive fortification built for the city of San Juan, and the first of a series of military structures built to protect the city which included the Fort San Felipe del Morro and the Fort San Cristóbal. The construction was authorized by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor as a defense against attacks from Island Caribs and the European powers of the time. Initially, the structure consisted of four walls enclosing an interior patio with a circular tower known as the Homage Tower. From the top of the tower, the governor, following military tradition, would take oaths of fidelity at critical moments to the King and Queen of Spain. Later, a second tower named the Austral Tower was constructed.

At present, the complex consists of a few attached buildings with formal living quarters in the second floor, and private quarters in the third. It overlooks the high city walls that front the bay, and within the north perimeter of the house are sheltered gardens and a swimming pool.


Since the 16th century, La Fortaleza has acted as the residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico, making it the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Americas. On November 27, 1822, its traditional status as the executive mansion was made official. The fortress underwent a massive reconstruction in 1846 to change its military appearance into a palatial facade. La Fortaleza has been the residence of more than 170 governors of Puerto Rico and has hosted various dignitaries, including President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy who stayed in La Fortaleza in 1961. King Juan Carlos of Spain and Queen Juliana of the Netherlands are among several heads of state who have stayed in La Fortaleza. In June 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama visited the mansion during a brief trip to the island marking the first visit of an in-office US President to the Fortaleza as well as the Island on official business since Kennedy, 50 years previously to that date. King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain also visited La Fortaleza in 2016.

La Fortaleza has been captured twice by invaders:

  • 1598, George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, attacked San Juan.
  • 1625, General Boudewijn Hendrick (Balduino Enrico) of the Netherlands invaded the city and established himself at La Fortaleza. During the Dutch retreat, the fortress and the city were set ablaze.

According to tradition, in 1898, just before the United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish–American War, the last Spanish governor of the island, Ricardo De Ortega, struck a longcase clock in La Fortaleza with his sword, stopping the clock and marking the time at which Spain lost control over Puerto Rico.

On October 30, 1950, there was an attempt by a few nationalists to enter La Fortaleza in what is known as the San Juan Nationalist revolt, intending to attack then-governor Luis Muñoz Marín. The 5-minute shootout resulted in four Nationalists dead: Domingo Hiraldo Resto, Carlos Hiraldo Resto, Manuel Torres Medina and Raímundo Díaz Pacheco. Three of the guards of the building, among them Lorenzo Ramos, were seriously injured.

On October 9, 1960, La Fortaleza was designated a United States National Historic Landmark.

In 1983, La Fortaleza, along with the San Juan National Historic Site, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

On May 26, 2004, a man armed with a knife entered the mansion's mailroom located just outside the palace gates and took a receptionist hostage. The 2½ hour stand-off ended after Governor Sila María Calderón entered the building and listened as the hostage-taker read a letter.

In 2011, Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi wrote the dramatic novel United States of Banana, featuring climatic scenes of revolution at La Fortaleza.

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