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San Jose Summary

Closed to the public for almost a decade due to structural problems, the 16th century Iglesia San José in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was placed on the World Monuments Watch list of 100 Most Endangered Sites in 2004. The church is the oldest surviving masterpiece of Spanish colonial church architecture in Puerto Rico and one of the earliest extant examples of Gothic architecture in the New World began in 1523. Within its walls is the 17th century Capilla del Nuestra Virgen de Rosario, containing the most extensive and possibly earliest murals in Puerto Rico which were once in a serious state of deterioration. Outside, the chapel is distinguished by an ornate sculpted Baroque dome of the same period. In order to preserve the chapel as a legacy of Spanish Caribbean culture and as a place of continued use and veneration, the ACL and its partners embarked on a comprehensive conservation program including documentation, analysis, and emergency stabilization of the plaster, paintings and exterior ornamental dome.

Through funding from the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and in collaboration with the New School of Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico (UPR), the National Park Service (NPS), Pantel del Cueto Associates, and Robert Silman Associates, ACL has participated in a multi-phase conservation program for the church and chapel to investigate and treat the most serious problems threatening the building and its murals.


From May to June 2004 an examination and graphic survey was conducted to record the materials, methods and condition of the interior of the Rosario Chapel includind its dome.  As part of the documentation process the chapel was photographed and digitally montaged. Measured CAD drawings were developed from these rectified images in order to document and digitize the information recorded from the walls and the ceiling. The condition survey was then prepared using a glossary developed to establish a descriptive terminology of the conditions and building / painting campaigns. This glossary corresponds to the on-site survey and its digitized format.  Painting campaigns were also identified in situ and dated through the use of archival documentation and historical photographs that described the church and it’s interior.  The condition survey of the mural paintings led to the development of an emergency conservation / stabilization treatment for the areas at immanent risk of collapse.  
rosario plan                                     
Site plan of the Rosario Chapel in context of Iglesia San Jose
 Click on the image to see more details on the spaces within the church.

The scope of work for the treatement included the emergency stabilization of the mural paintings in the Rosario Chapel using a system of hydraulic lime injection grouting of the detached areas of the murals. Treatments were begun in the most severe areas of detachment which were primarily located around areas of major loss.
A view of the ceiling in the Rosario Chapel shows the severe condition of the historic ceiling paint

An exterior view of the main sanctuary from the roof looking out to the Caribbean Sea. This shows the condition of the building while it remained closed for more than a decade
Contextual shot of the Iglesia San Jose


The 2008 phase of work was a continuation of a 2006 investigation of the decorative painting campaigns in the Rosario Chapel completed by Cynthia Silva. In addition, treatment methods for the removal of limewash and subsequent cleaning and consolidation of the original painted finishes were researched, tested, and implemented. The work was completed during four separate site visits between March and June 2008. Lab testing and analysis were conducted at the Architectural Conservation Laboratory (ACL) at the University of Pennsylvania.

Repair coatings on the roof of the dome conceals original construction of lime and brick dust hydraulic stucco on brick
The high level of significance of the Rosario Chapel murals warranted a comprehensive strategy for their conservation and interpretation, and thus, required a collaborative process involving all stakeholders. The Rosario Chapel tells a rich story of the island through Spanish colonialism and Afro-Caribbean influences and their subsequent transformation and adaptation to create a Puerto Rican island culture. The study and stabilization of the mural paintings of the Capilla de la Virgen del Rosario offers important insight into the chapel’s evolution and a number of recommendations for its future conservation and interpretation.
An example of the decorative imagery that was visible beneath the contemporary layers of lower paint
TUMA Funding