Arguably New York City’s most impressive collection of architectural masterpieces were the Gilded Age mansions that flanked Fifth Avenue. From The Vanderbilt’s grandiose John B. Snook–designed townhouse on 54th Street to the Astors’ French Rococo–style manor 20 blocks south, the extravagant display of wealth has since been demolished in favor of more contemporary structures that, unlike the 19th-century limestone jewels of Midtown, are clad in floor-to-ceiling reflective glass panes and glossy steel. And while some architects prefer to guide their respective cities’ skylines into the future, others prefer to preserve the historic structures that, over many centuries, have become the metropolises’ pièces de résistance. One such architect is San Juan’s, Andy Rivera, the president and founder of the Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawing Society.
One of six children born to Puerto Rican migrants, Rivera spent his first 12 years in the Bronx before moving to the Island, where he lived on his grandfather’s Las Piedras farm in the El Yunque rainforest. And it was among flowering banana trees and animals that Rivera realized his innate talent for drawing and drafting, two highly prized and almost necessary skills for any architect—no matter how established. “My journey to architecture was kind of zigzagged but mostly intuitive,” he notes. “As a kid, I was always captivated by the stately colonial buildings I saw when we visited what we called the ‘Islet of San Juan.’” But like any architect, Rivera humored a curiosity that delved beneath the surface of the colorful 19th-century structures lining the cobblestone roads. He explains, “The old haciendas and balconied wooden houses of my countryside home inspired in me a curiosity. I wanted to know how they were built to endure the sometimes punishing tropical weather, withstanding constant heat and humidity.”
So he enrolled in the Escuela de Arquitectura de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, where he developed a sincere passion for both classical architectural traditions and the merits of tropical design. After all, the 16th-century Spanish forts in the Puerto Rican capital are the oldest European construction in any United States territory and among the oldest in the Americas. The entire city, bathed in sunlight from nearly every angle, is like a beautiful time capsule that displays so many of the last several centuries’ most prevalent architectural styles, including Gothic, Baroque, Art Deco, and even Mid-Century Modern. Rivera notes, “Settlers brought to the Island their own constructive traditions and regional styles, which influenced and shaped Puerto Rico’s colonial architecture. And as the city developed, new structures were built, and others were modified in the styles that were in vogue as different design movements emerged.”