The lower stretch of Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan, which ends at Tapia Theater and Plaza Colón, is best known today for its restaurants and clubs but, centuries ago, it was synonymous with genteel living on the outskirts of town. The neighborhood was then called San Francisco and the plaza was called Santiago, as was the adjoining gate that, when open, led to Puerta de Tierra and inland.
The heart of the city was on the north end of the islet and La Fortaleza, the San Juan Cathedral, Casa Blanca, and the San Juan Gate were the axis of activity. It was considered chic to live a stroll away from the cathedral—the closer the better.
By the 19th century, however, the city had spread out and the gentry built their homes and businesses all along the narrow streets in the fortress city. By 1894, San Juan literally burst through the walls. The Spanish Crown allowed the demolition of the San Justo Gate, which created freer access to the port area and, by 1897, the Santiago Gate was destroyed and the portion of the walls that lead from Fort San Cristóbal to the bay were torn down so traffic could flow more easily to the shops.
The typical home housed a business or stables on the ground floor and living space above. The Casa de la Familia Puertorriqueña del Siglo XIX and the Museo de la Farmacia at 319 Fortaleza St. is a perfect example. The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture opened this historic building as a museum in 2001 and it has become a favorite stop along the museum trail. The house was built in the mid-1800s and was owned at one time by Fernando Geigel, a mayor of the city. It was declared a historic monument in the late 1950s and its restoration began in the 1960s. The museum has opened and reopened in different forms, but always with the idea of offering a glimpse of the life and lifestyle of yesteryear’s successful sanjuaneros.
What will you see? In the small first level—the house hugs a hillside and is made up of a series of ascending levels—is the Botica, a reproduction of an early pharmacy. There is scant signage, but the objects are authentic and the visitor is left to marvel at how medication has (and has not) changed over the years.
It is interesting to know that the first pharmacy in Puerto Rico and possibly the first one in the New World was opened in Old San Juan in 1512 by Hernando de Torres, a Sevillian who arrived on the Santa Cruz with a trunk filled with 90 different medications.
On the second level is an interior patio (and clean public restrooms) from which you can admire or photograph the interesting architecture, which is rather more 18th century in spirit and form. A stairway leads to a family chapel and on to a long gallery that opens to the patio. Each of the rooms is furnished with authentic antiques donated to the museum, many of them made using Puerto Rican mahogany.
There are period accessories, from pianos to hat racks, paintings to grandfather clocks, and from dishes to pots and pans. There is a large living room that opens to Fortaleza Street and a series of bedrooms, dining rooms, and a kitchen that open to the Callejón. The small rooms stacked between the levels of the house—which served as sewing rooms and offices—are interesting details.
The museum duo, Casa de la Familia Puertorriqueña del Siglo XIX and Museo de la Farmacia, is at 319 Fortaleza St. in Old San Juan. It is open Tuesday to Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to noon and from 1:00 p.m. to 4:20 p.m. There is no charge for admission. For information, call 787-723-1762.