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Old San Juan borrows best of two worlds


During the long winter months, those of us who live in th colder climes feel a natural craving for sunshine and warmth. I'm among the fortunate Northerners who are able, most winters, to escape for a short period to some tropical isle. But my personality doesn't permit extended lazing at a beach resort. After a day or two of that, I'm ready to do some exploring.

While recently visiting Puerto Rico for the first time in many years, I found myself transported not only to a wonderfully warm and sunny place but to a different time as well. Old San Juan and other historic corners of the island have undergone a startling transformation as the result of some superb restoration work. Many turn-of-the-century homes have recaptured their original architectural charm, produced by a combination of Spanish and New World styles. Their restored interiors, too, can now be seen as distinguished examples of a distinctively Caribbean blend of Spanish Revival and art deco.

When Northerners close their eyes and try to conjure up typically tropical decor, they usually envision rattan furniture, white-painted walls and lots of banana leaf patterns. It's thus something of a revelation to tour a few of the historic homes of Puerto Rico, which achieve elegance and comfort while eschewing those design cliches.

This photograph, included in Jorge Rigau's book "Puerto Rico 1900" (published by Rizzoli), shows the interior of the Artiz Perichi House in San German. This impressive composition makes use of a transparent arabesque of wood fretwork to form separate spaces that flow visually into one another. Besides being a fine piece of decorative craftsmanship, such open screening has the functional advantage of allowing natural air circulation throughout the house.

Hard-surface flooring, in this case a combination of colorful ceramic tiles and stone, is a smart choice for a tropical setting. Most other kinds of floor covering wouldn't last very long in Puerto Rico's climate. Stone and tile also provide a pleasing decorative and textural contrast to the wooden fretwork. And painted stenciling produces yet another pattern to enliven an interior that might otherwise appear overly austere, owing to its plain white walls.

In keeping with the traditional Spanish motif, dark wooden furniture is accompanied by cotton and linen fabrics. Somewhat unusually, this interior has also been outfitted with wrought iron, even though metalwork is generally unable to withstand the corrosive effects of heat and humidity. It was installed here because wrought iron serves as such an evocative expression of the mix of Spanish Old World design and the more contemporary styles of the Caribbean.

This interior may be of immediate practical interest to those of you who live in areas of year-round warmth. For others, a setting that manages to be both innovative and traditional may offer some inspiration for how to avoid predictable design solutions.

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