One of my favorite activities in San Juan is to take a tour sponsored by the Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawing Society. PRHBDS is an organization dedicated to recording and maintain the architectural and design history of the island. As part of their mission, they lead tours to highlight that patrimony. On a recent trip to the island I had the opportunity to take a tour that showed off the history of using “hydraulic tiles” in the houses of Old San Juan.
Hydraulic Tiles, also known as cement or encaustic tiles, were developed in Catalonia in the 1850’s. The process represented a new way to produce durable floor tiles at affordable prices. Hydraulic tiles are made of two layers of cement, a base layer topped with a layer that has received coloring to produce vibrant and long-lasting patterns. What made them significantly less expensive that previous tiles is that are easy to mass produce. They do not need to be fired in a kiln. They are poured into molds, where they can set and harden at room temperature. Because they are made of cement, rather then ceramic, they maintain their color and structure for a long time.
Hydraulic tiles became one of the main types of flooring that people chose for their houses and businesses during the last half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. There are still many buildings in Old San Juan that have their original tiles, and we had the opportunity to visit some of them. Our first stop was at the store Ecléctika, next to Plaza Colón. We were able to use the tiles on the floor to explore the history of the building, especially its several expansions. As we walked from the front of the store to the back, each section had a different style of tiles. They had different patterns that came from specific time periods, so we could tell when there were additions to original building.
Our second stop was Da’ House Hotel on Calle San Francisco. The second-floor lobby of this converted apartment building has tiles that were put in place in individual rooms of the original structure. By just looking at the floor, you can see where the walls and doors used to be.
Continuing on to Pirilo, a pizza restaurant on Calle Forteleza, we walked upstairs to its main dining room. This large, open space was created by tearing out the 3rd floor of the building. This operation gave the owners a plethora of tiles that they could use in their new dining room.
These were just a few of the stops that we made. Each place offered new examples of these beautiful tiles, along with some stops to see other, less long-lasting tiles in use. This tour is just one example of the behind the scenes visits that PRHBDS offers. So, if you are headed to San Juan, check out their Facebook page for their tour schedule. I do have to warn you, most of their tours are in Spanish, although their guides often speak English and can answer questions.