from sketch to space, part two

This post is part of a series where I intend to provide additional information while attempting to illustrate the process of restoring San José Church in Old San Juan. Please refer to Part One in a previous post.

Present Time

The current restoration efforts at San José began in 2005 and Jorge Rigau, FAIA – Arquitectos PSC has been fully involved since 2013 a year after the Patronato de Monumentos de San Juan was established as a not-for-profit private organization to oversee and secure funds for the works.


San José was occupied for almost five centuries by three religious orders; Dominicans, Jesuits, and Vincentians. The church was originally named Santo Tomás de Aquino (Saint Aquinas) by the Dominican Order, who built it as part of their convent. The structure as we see it today was the product of a series of interventions that spanned almost three centuries, up to the mid-1800s until the Dominican Order was expelled and the Spanish government seizes control of the convent.

Later in the 1860s, the Jesuits took over the church and eventually renamed it as San José. During their stay, but most probably in preparation for their arrival, major interventions were performed. However, the character of these works was primarily aesthetic. One can only imagine that, in comparison to other Jesuit churches, the modest finishes under the Dominican period were too austere for their taste.

Therefore, the clay floor (there are only written accounts of its existence) was replaced with an Italian marble. Also, an exuberant gothic altarpiece or retablo was installed in its main page; and all interiors were plastered, while its main vaults were ornately painted blue and decorated with stars in allusion of a cielo aperto. We know about the existence by black & white photographs of the early 20th century, as well as traces of the blue paint and brass nails that presumably held the stars were still visible in the vaults. Surprisingly, after all these efforts, the Jesuits did not stay long at Sa José. Shortly by the early 1930s the Vincentian Fathers had already made changes to the church and stayed until its closure in the late 1990s.

The intervention

During the process of completion of San José, multiple building materials and methods were used. For example, stone masonry construction was employed during the original sections of the church. Therefore, apse, and transept, as well as part of the main and lateral naves were built with traditional medieval stone masonry construction. (See sketch below) For the rest of the structure rubble masonry walls were employed.

At some point — possibly during the Jesuit period — the northwest arch of the main nave opening towards the lateral nave was enlarged in what seems like an attempt to provide uniformity with the other arches at both sides of the space. However, while all other arches were made either in stone or brick masonry this one was reinforced with concrete, all hidden behind cement plaster.

We cannot say exactly when the concrete reinforcement had been applied, but by the time we encountered, the structure had been failing due to corrosion and spalling. It was our recommendation to carefully remove the concrete and instead provide a more compatible reinforcement to the unstable rubble masonry opening. Sketch illustrating the new brick masonry arch to be erected in lieu of the incompatible reinforced concrete intervention. Explanatory sketch (with on site clarification jots) to illustrate the laying of bricks and how to (and not to) cut the bricks to articulate the arch’s corners. The articulation was a way to emulate — without copying — the profile of the medieval stone voussoirs of the existing arches.

The next two photographs illustrate the process of erection of the new arch and the last image portraits the finalized brick reinforcement.

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