Castillo de San Felipe del Morro is one of several forts that were built by the Spanish to defend the natural harbor of San Juan, Puerto Rico beginning in 1539. The other forts are: San Cristobal, which guards the land access to the rear (east) of San Felipe on the peninsula where they are located; la Fortaleza which guards the shore of the port; and el Cañuelo which is in the harbor and provides crossfire for San Felipe if an enemy makes it through the mouth of the harbor. King Carlos V of Spain ordered their construction to firmly establish the Spanish control of the island.
This issue’s limited edition print by Ladd P. Ehlinger is of the main entrance from the land side, where one crosses over a dry moat on a bridge to the entry. Last edition was of the fort in Quebec City, and we may also do our own Fort Pike in a future edition as we are designing repairs there to correct Hurricane Katrina damage for the State of Louisiana, its owner.
A “morro” means promontory or headland, and in this case, it was exactly what the builders of the fort needed: a high location from which they would be shooting down on the enemy. In 1589, the engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli designed and laid out the fortifications that we see today. The fort was extensively remodeled in 1765 by Alejandro O’Reilly and Royal Engineer Tomas O’Daly. The defenses were constantly being upgraded in response to advances in military technology and in response to the performance of the defenses during the wars they participated in.
In 1589, Sir Francis Drake unsuccessfully attacked El Morro by sea. Drake gave up after El Morro gunners shot a cannonball through Drake’s cabin on the ship. In 1589, George Clifford, Duke of Cumberland attacked El Morro from the land side (before the construction of San Cristobal) and was successful in taking El Morro - the only time this happened in its history. In 1625 the Dutch under the command of Boudewijn Hendricksz attacked and took San Juan captive from the land side, but El Morro held, even though the city was sacked and burned. The U. S. shelled El Morro in a day long bombardment on 12 May 1898. Six months later, Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S. in the Treaty of Paris. In 1942, the U.S. added concrete bunkers and observation posts during Word War II. In 1949, the San Juan National Historic Site was established, and in 1961, the U.S. Army moved out of all the forts giving control to the U. S. National Park Service. In 1983, the site was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.
I spent four months in 1961 working as a Student Assistant Architect for the National Park Service’s Historic American Building Survey (HABS) documenting various aspects of several of the forts. In El Morro, I assisted an archeological team from the University of Florida by producing sketches of their digs and artifacts that they found, and at San Cristobal, I measured the 5 bay masonry barrel vaulted Officer’s Quarters portion of the fort which was built atop a 5 bay barrel vaulted cistern. These drawings are in the U. S. Library of Congress.
Ladd P. Ehlinger AIA