Saving a place where bad things happened: The preservation fight over Puerto Rico's Oso Blanco prison
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Saving a place where bad things happened: The preservation fight over Puerto Rico's Oso Blanco prison

Walking around Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, it would be easy to think that Puerto Rico is a place where historic preservation is a value and practice upheld by default. Cited as an example of exceptional colonial-era architecture, much of Old San Juan has been preserved, including its churches, residential buildings, and its streets, as well as a large portion of the wall that enclosed the city during the colonial period.

But outside of Old San Juan, historic buildings are increasingly under threat, with politicians and real estate developers vying with preservationists for the right to take possession of land upon which those buildings sit. On an island that’s just 100 miles by approximately 35 miles, land that can be developed is one of the most precious of Puerto Rico’s limited commodities.

The case of Oso Blanco

1933 was the year of a much-anticipated inauguration of a large white building sitting atop a massive hill on the outskirts of metro San Juan. The building, a stunning example of Art Deco and Mediterranean Revival styles, was the masterpiece of Puerto Rican architect Francisco Roldán.

It was also a prison.

The Puerto Rico Insular Penitentiary, or Oso Blanco as it would later come to be known, was Puerto Rico’s first “modern” prison, replacing a much smaller building, La Princesa, built by the Spanish colonial government a century earlier in Old San Juan (today, ironically, that building is now one of the offices of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company). Besides fulfilling the need to house more inmates, the opening of Oso Blanco also represented a fairly radical shift in the way inmates were treated and the very notion of prison’s role in society.

The La Princesa prison, now an office for the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. Photo: Francisco Collazo

The original La Princesa prison, now an office of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. Photo: Francisco Collazo

“Odia al Delito y Compadece al Delincuente”

In addition to its notable architecture, unusual for a prison, Oso Blanco featured some innovative programs designed to rehabilitate inmates and encourage them to become productive members of society upon their release. The prison sat atop a large hill, approximately 100 acres in size, and inmates used 50 of those acres to grow and harvest their own food: cabbage, eggplant, beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, plantains, sugarcane and root vegetables, including yautía and yucca. The produce was used in the prison kitchen to feed the very people who planted and reaped it.

Inmates also harvested fibers that would allow them to make their own clothing and wood for building furniture. There were cabinet- and toy-making shops in the prison; the latter brought in as much as $20,000 one year. Oso Blanco had a psychiatric clinic, as well as educational and vocational services through which inmates could learn one of any number of skills and trades, among them, photography, plumbing, printing, weaving and haberdashery. There was even an “academy of music.” In a speech made at the 1933 inaugural ceremony, Attorney General Charles E. Winter praised Oso Blanco for its productive labors, noting that these efforts reduced burdens on the government.

Many of the programs instituted at Oso Blanco in the 1930s are standard in modern-day prisons, but at the time, Oso Blanco was considered a model institution, one that embodied the phrase inscribed over the door of the prison entrance: “Odia al Delito y Compadece el Delincuente” (“Hate the Crime and Pity the Delinquent”).

70 years later

By the turn of the century, however, Oso Blanco was far from a model prison. It was notorious for its violence, recounted in graphic detail in the 2009 documentary, “Oso Blanco.” With only 12 guards for more than 1,000 inmates, it wasn’t hard to understand how inmates could get away with murder — literally. In one of the most horrifying scenes in the documentary, a former inmate recalled how peers cut off the head of a fellow inmate and used it to play ball, in just one of the many atrocities that occurred within the Art Deco walls of Oso Blanco.

In addition to the wild, out-of-control atmosphere within the prison that prompted officials to consider what reforms were needed (including the possibility of shutting the prison entirely), there was the matter of structural integrity. Seventy years after it opened, Oso Blanco was suffering from the ravages of time. The government, estimating that the cost of repairs and retrofitting needed to bring Oso Blanco up to code would exceed the cost of simply building a new prison, ordered Oso Blanco to be closed permanently. In 2004, inmates were transferred elsewhere and the modern model prison was abandoned.

Historic heritage

For 10 years, Oso Blanco sat atop its promontory, a lone sentry from another age. It wasn’t clear what would happen with the prison. Then, suddenly, a debate flared up. The island, weathering a debt crisis so deep that it was being reported abroad, was having a fire sale. Developers had their eyes on Oso Blanco, not for its historic significance, but because of the land on which the prison sat.

A fierce debate ensued between politicians and business interests, on the one hand, and preservationists, on the other. The former argued that the prison should be demolished; it was too expensive to save. Preservationists, including a coalition of architects, contended that, expense aside, the building was a national treasure. If the land and building were to be developed, why couldn’t the building be turned into something that generated income and protected the building? Preservation advocates suggested reopening Oso Blanco as an Alcatraz-style tourist attraction, and for a while, there was general support for the idea of turning the building and property into “La Ciudad de las Ciencias” (“City of Sciences”), an incubator-type project for scientists.

Ultimately, though, the government came back to cost: preserving Oso Blanco — much less converting it into a functional building with a new purpose — was simply too expensive; Jorge Lázaro, the head engineer of a cost analysis study commissioned by the government, estimated that $20 million would be required just to address issues such as corrosion, repair of cement and termite remediation.

But preservationists thought they might still have an ace they hadn’t played yet. The prison had been inscribed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2003, a year before it was closed permanently. Didn’t its status as a historically significant property protect it from smash-and-grab developers?

Not necessarily, says Ross Bradford, senior associate general counsel at The National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The listing of a property on the national register is honorific in nature,” he explains, “and doesn’t trigger any sort of outright protection. [C]ertain federal laws provide mechanisms that require federal agencies to minimize or avoid impacts or harm to historic resources [but] [t]he real protection for historic resources occurs at the local level through zoning laws that can prevent the demotion of buildings or require owners to seek approval before making changes or alterations to historic buildings.”

“Who wants to save a place where bad things happened?”

The preservationists fought until the bitter end, but ultimately lost their battle; the demolition of Oso Blanco began late this spring. Soledad Gatambide-Arandes, Coordinator of Public Policy and Government Relations at Para la Naturaleza, says that despite their disappointment, preservationists weren’t surprised by the outcome.

“Puerto Rico doesn’t have many people working on preservation issues,” she explains. Oso Blanco had an added challenge. Despite its architectural significance, horrors occurred within its walls. It’s easy to make the case for saving a centuries-old church or a colonial era fort, but, says Gatambide-Arandes, it’s much harder to convince people to support the idea of saving a prison. “Who wants to save a place where bad things happened?” she asks rhetorically.

The answer: Not enough people to push back effectively against hard-core business interests. As more of Puerto Rico’s usable land is depleted, more of the island’s historic buildings are likely to face similar challenges.