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El Convento tops Historic Hotels of America’s ‘adaptive reuse hotels’ list

The hotel is a former Carmelite convent that was built more than 350 years ago.

Historic Hotels of America, an official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, announced the 2024 Top 25 Historic Hotels of America Best of Adaptive Reuse list, which is headed by El Convento Hotel in Old San Juan.

A popular and creative approach to historic preservation, “adaptive reuse” saves unused historic buildings from demolition by rehabilitating and renovating them for a new purpose, the organization explained.

“Travelers can visit many historic inns, resorts and hotels in the United States today because their owners chose to reimagine historic buildings in sustainable and creative ways. At Historic Hotels of America, adaptive reuse hotels offer travelers an immersive, authentic and fun way to experience their next trip,” the organization stated.

El Convento, a former Carmelite Convent, was built more than 350 years ago as a Roman Catholic convent for nuns of the Carmelite Order. The land was donated to the order by Doña Ana Lanzós, a wealthy widow, in the early 1600s, but construction was delayed as labor and material resources were redirected to build what is now Old San Juan’s fortifications.

“In 1646, King Phillip IV of Spain approved the convent, and San Juan finally had its beautiful new convent. Debuting as the Monasterio del Señor San José de la Orden de nuestra Señora del Carmen in 1651, the convent welcomed three nuns from Hispaniola as its first residents,” Historic Hotels of America stated.

For nearly 250 years, the convent was one of the Caribbean’s major Catholic facilities, often providing support to the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint John the Baptist — the second-most historic cathedral in the Americas. The convent closed in 1903.

“The Bishop of Puerto Rico determined that the convent was too expensive to maintain, and the building faced an uncertain future for 50 years. In the mid-20th century, Robert Woolworth stepped in and invested in a complete rehabilitation of the building, ultimately transforming the aged convent into a stunning, boutique hotel,” the entity stated.

“Reborn as El Convento Hotel, it soon emerged as one of the most popular vacation destinations in all of San Juan. In fact, numerous celebrities — including Rita Hayworth and Truman Capote — were among the first guests to step inside,” it added.

Further restorations and renovations have rejuvenated the building’s historical and structural integrity, revitalizing the Spanish-style design features of the original convent, such as the architectural details throughout the building’s façade.

Among other historic features, a 300-year-old Spanish naseberry tree remains in the historic courtyard.

El Convento Hotel was inducted into Historic Hotels of America in 1999. It is owned by International Hospitality Enterprises (IHE).

Released during Preservation Month, the list spotlights 25 preserved historic buildings that were not originally built to be hotels.

Historic Hotels of America guests can spend the night in former factories where Ghirardelli chocolate and world-class cork products were produced or make a historic Masonic temple their home base while exploring New Orleans.

One historic hotel featured on the list is a former junior high school that embraces its past with “hall pass” guest room keycards and signature cocktails like the Prom Queen. Another historic hotel featured on the list is a former train station that curates train-car-themed suites, named after ticketing agents who once worked there.

Others offer dining inside a historic bank vault and historic smokestack. These hotels are living proof that historic buildings can serve contemporary needs while preserving their timeless character, Historic Hotels of America added.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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