The Welfare House (Asilo de Beneficencia), headquarters for the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, is the first monumental building constructed at the Ballajá Quarter in Old San Juan.
In 1838, Governor Miguel López Baños proposes to the Municipal Government the construction of a seclusion house for imprisoned women. In 1840, architect Pedro García presents the Municipal Government his blueprints and budget. The following year, Santiago Cortijo, engineer commander, is entrusted with the construction of the project. Artillery Captain José de la Pezuela takes charge of the construction work, while García and Cortijo start working in reconstruction projects in the city. The original project had been enlarged so as to build a general establishment for public welfare.
The construction of the Welfare House, as it was generally known, started in 1841, and in 1844, before its completion, it opened its doors to the needy. In 1846 the blessing of the chapel takes place, the first Mass being celebrated on November 18. The building was completed in 1848 under the government of Juan Prim, Field Marshal.
The building is of a rectangular shape with its branches distributed around two great patios, with a second story in between them. It consists of two stories on its posterior side, taking advantage of a lowering of the land. The main façade consists of just one story of Greco-Roman style of the Doric-Roman order.
During its first years, insane persons, inmates, prostitutes, old people, beggars, invalids, orphans, stray young people and other unfortunates all lived together in the Welfare House. In 1858 steps are initiated for the segregation of the insane. In 1872 the Institute was declared a provincial institution, being then transferred to the Parliament. Institutional reforms are immediately started and, as a consequence, the building undergoes minor repairs and improvements. It is during those years that Dr. Manuel A. Alonso, initiator of our literary “criollismo” and patriarch of Puerto Rican literature, occupies the seat of Director of the Welfare House.
From 1896 to 1897, in answer to measures initiated in 1879, a second story on the front part of the building is constructed. Construction foreman Luis G. Rubio was in charge of the project, adopting the architectonic style that predominates in the façade, with round arches on the top floor windows, in contrast with lintel bays with individual cornices on the lower floor. The front door is accentuated with eight Doric columns, which end on a triangular gable.
During the first two decades of this century, the building is mainly used for the mentally sick, and the structure undergoes periodic modifications. The Department of Health occupies the building from 1923 to 1929, when the U.S Army takes possession of the same for military purposes. During the ensuing decade, the military removed the floor tiles, ceilings, wooden stairways and masonry and replaced them with reinforced concrete. They built two reduced symmetric wings, complementing its present “E” shape in the second floor, and added the garages on the abutting West side of the lot.
On November 17, 1978, the U.S. General Services Administration deeds the building to the Government of Puerto Rico. The building was abandoned and started to rapidly deteriorate until 1985 when Governor Rafael Hernández Colón announced that the building was soon to be restored and will serve as headquarters for the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture, a project that took place under the direction of architect J.R.C. Davis Pagán.
The formal inauguration in October 1992 coincided with the celebration of the Fifth Centennial of the Discovery of America and Puerto Rico. The main purpose of this project points towards the conservation of our national patrimony and the remodeling of the Ballajá Quarter, rescuing it from forgetfulness and imparting sense to this important urban space that has been defined as the institutional sub-sector with the most monumental scale in the city.