Continuing down Cristo street the next building on your right is the famous Hotel El Convento. Inaugurated in 1651 as the Monastery of our Lady Carmen of San José, the building served as a convent for 252 years, until it was closed by the Archbishop of San Juan on December 9, 1903. From then on the building remained vacant for ten years and was sold in 1913 for $151 to the Catholic Church.
During the next 46 years the building went from bad to worse, and served as a department store, a dance hall and even a fleabag hotel, that had no water, electricity or sanitary facilities. In 1957 city officials considered demolishing the structure to build a badly needed parking facility..
During that same year, the city of San Juan began an urban renewal program titled “Operation Bootstrap”, under the guidance of a then young and enterprising executive by the name of Ricardo Alegría. In 1959, the building was sold to Robert Frederic Woolworth, heir to the Woolworth fortune, for $250,000 to be transformed into a deluxe hotel that was instrumental in propelling business and tourism in the old city.
The Woolworth family spared no expense to transform the dilapidated building into the crown jewel of their hotel empire. On January 27, 1962 El Convento opened its doors and instantly became the most talked about hotel in the Caribbean. Rather than following the glitzy model of its Condado and Isla Verde counterparts, El Convento followed a more European upscale model, with exquisite dining, posh decoration and luxury in every detail. It’s no wonder that it became an instant success known among the well to do as the “home of the beautiful people”.
But luck was about to run out for El Convento as the Woolworth family decided to get out of the hotel business. In 1971, the hotel was returned as a “gift” to the government of Puerto Rico in lieu of taxes owed.
During the next 24 years the hotel remained in government hands and underwent several administrations with varying levels of success. In 1995 the hotel was sold to a group of San Juan executives, who immediately closed it for renovation.
In January, 1997 the hotel reopened its doors and immediately made the Conde Nast Traveler list of the 25 best hotels in the world. The building is listed as a national historic landmark and is the only hotel in Puerto Rico to belong to the Historic Hotels of America.