Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings
Ownership and Administration. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Significance. La Fortaleza (The Fortress) was the first true fortification in San Juan, established in 152l. The Spanish built it between 1533 and 1540 for protection against raids by Carib Indians and by English and French freebooters. Because of its comparatively poor location, however, it soon occupied a position of only secondary importance in the defenses of San Juan. Nevertheless, at the end of the 16th century the Earl of Cumberland, who led a successful English attack on the city, described it as "a strong castle, built of stone, square, and commonly called the King's Palace . . . and where we found a great stock of ammunition." In 1625, a Dutch force under Gen. Bowdoin Hendrick captured La Fortaleza, along with the rest of the town. However, the major defensive position, El Morro, succeeded in holding out; and, when the invaders retreated, they burned everything they could, including a large part of La Fortaleza. Since reconstruction of the fortress on a larger scale, which occurred soon after, it has been used chiefly as the residence of the Governors of Puerto Rico, as well as offices of the Treasurer and Intendant.
Present Appearance. One of the oldest structures in the New World, La Fortaleza is a fine example of Spanish colonial architectural style. It has tiled roofs; galleries, staircases, and doorways liberally decorated with wrought iron; sunlit patios; and graceful arches. Originally it was a simple, two-towered fortress. By 1580, additional rooms had been erected; they were arranged to form a patio and to serve more as a residence for the military commandant and officers than as a fortification. The reconstruction in the first half of the 17th century involved a considerable enlargement of the fortress. In 1846, the Spanish thoroughly renovated La Fortaleza and altered some of the interior decorations. In 1939, the U.S. Army also thoroughly rehabilitated the structure. Many historical features were lost during these renovations, but the basic identity of the structure is intact, including elements traceable to its original construction more than 400 years ago. 
NHL Designation: 10/09/60
Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005