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Photo of La Fortaleza's main gate.

La Fortaleza, or the Governor's Mansion, plays as prominent a role in Justifiable Evil as any of its main characters. In fact, a book could be written about La Fortaleza itself. It sits atop a forty-foot bluf, facing San Juan Bay, resting over the massive walls that still surround a large part of Old San Juan.

Aerial photo of La Fortaleza, resting above the walls of San Juan.

"La Fortaleza sat atop a forty foot bluff facing the bay, about midway between the Puerta de San Juan and the beginning of the Paseo de La Princesa. When it had been originally built between 1533 and 1540, La Fortaleza had formed part of the Spanish fortifications that defended the bay; hence it's name, 'The Fortress'. By the 1700's, however, the fortified house of government had evolved into the Governor's Mansion, also known as the Palace of Santa Catalina." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, page 153.

Another portrait of La Fortaleza, taken from San Juan Bay, showing its west wall with it's two towers. The Gate of San Juan is on the extreme left of the photo.

"The walls shielding La Fortaleza from any attacks coming from the bay were probably the most formidable in the entire defense system of the city. Crowned with crenellated battlements, the walls rose high above sea level, the governor's abode cradled behind them like a perched eagle." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, page 153.

Front courtyard of La Fortaleza, facing Fortaleza Street.

Same front courtyard, during the 1950 revolt.

"Not surprisingly, the only serious assault to which the fortress-turned-into-palace had been subjected during the last two centuries had come not from the bay but from the land. It had occurred in the Nationalist Revolt of 1950, when led by Harvard-educated attorney Pedro Albizu Campos, the pro-independence nationalists had attempted a coup d'etat against the then existing government of Puerto Rico -- led by Luis Muñoz Marín -- and its 'colonial overlord', the United States. In an ill-fated affair, four nationalists had driven a green Plymouth to within twenty-five feet of La Fortaleza's main entrance, and opened fire on the structure with sub machine guns. A fierce, five-hour firefight had ensued, ending in the death off the four men." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, page 153.

Fortaleza Street, leading to the Governor's Mansion, at the back.

Main gate to La Fortaleza, installed after the Nationalist Revolt.

"As a result, the entire surroundings of La Fortaleza had subsequently been sealed off. In Fortaleza Street, from where the nationalist attack had been launched and where the main entrance to the Governor's Mansion was located, a tall, iron grilled gate topped with golden spikes had been constructed to restrict the access of unauthorized vehicles. Pedestrian traffic had been controlled from a large guardhouse constructed on the sidewalk, and eventually it had been equipped with metal detectors and cameras, and manned by the Governor's personal, civilian-clothed bodyguards. Also, at least two state policemen permanently stood guard at the entrance of the gates." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, pages 153-54.

Main stairs into La Fortaleza


Another photograph of the stairway.

After passing the open entrance at the front courtyard, a passageway leads to the main stairway into La Fortaleza, on its left, and further on, to the interior courtyard of the Executive Mansion (see photo below). In the book, the Palace of Santa Catalina is the residence of Governor Roberto Pietrantoni, a widower, and of his eight-year old son Francisco. Francisco has invited his best friend, Alfredo, to stay with him over the weekend. As Alfredo's mother, Vanessa, narrates in a barbecue to the rest of her family:

"So after we passed through security, another guard--they were all so young and nice," she added, staring at her husband and stressing the word nice, "he took us to the stairway that leads up to La Fortaleza--it's such a grand stairway, like the palaces in Europe!--and the guard asked us to wait there. And after about two seconds, we heard this shout from the top of the stairs, AAALFREDOOO!...And Francisco...the Governor's son...came storming down the stairs like a wild savage, and embraced Alfredo..." Justifiable Evil, Chapter VIII, page 100.

Part of the interior courtyard, as seen from the main entrance to La Fortaleza. (The outline of the gate of the wall facing San Juan Bay can barely be seen to the extreme right.)

"It seems that one day, as the Governor's limousine was driving into the courtyard, some people were doing some repair work on some of its cobblestones, and they had uncovered something that looked like a big well...They were about to refill the hole, when the Governor saw it as he got off his car, and stopped them...It wasn't a well at all! It was a partially destroyed circular stairway. They have been clearing the rubble for two months now, and...they had originally thought that it ended in some underground storage room. But yesterday, you know what happened?...They-found-the-entrance-to-a-tunnel!" Justifiable Evil, Chapter VIII, page 108.

Part of the walk between La Fortaleza's gardens (to the right) and city wall facing San Juan Bay (to the left)

"Exiting the courtyard, the tourists had then followed their chaperone over a wide, paved way that took them to the gardens of La Fortaleza." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, page 155.

A portion of the gardens of La Fortaleza, with the Governor's Mansion in the background.

Another partial view of the gardens of La Fortaleza

"Extending to the north of the Governor's Mansion, the gardens were comprised of several, multi-tiered levels and terraces, containing immaculately manicured lawns, ornamental flower beds, rows of trimmed shrubs, trees, fountains, iron grilled benches, narrow, winding paths, statues, and stairways that bespoke of the palace's ancient history, and tried to reflect its glory." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, page 155.

"The tour had continued along a walkway that was fringed, on its right, by the western boundaries of the gardens, and on its left, by the top ramparts of the walls that cradled La Fortaleza. The two men had stopped to admire and photograph the spectacular view of the bay, and to enjoy the brisk breeze that flowed from the sea. Portions of the battlements that had topped the walls had been removed to improve the view, and had been substituted with a low, spiked fence. Even so, the forty-foot walls still constituted a formidable barrier." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, page 155.

Map of the second floor of La Fortaleza. The Governor's office is #4; the Blue Room #6; the Hall of Mirrors #7; the main stairway is #5; the kitchen is located next to the Austral Tower #15; and the interior courtyard, even though not in the second floor, marked as #16.

A portion of the Governor's office, his main desk at the back.

"Countless governors, Spaniards appointed by the King of Spain, Americans appointed by the President of the United States, locals appointed by the President of the United States, and finally, Puerto Ricans elected by their own people, had occupied that room throughout more than one and one half centuries. And in total, more than one hundred and seventy men had presided over the island's destiny in an uninterrupted succession since La Fortaleza had been founded by Juan Ponce de Leon, making it the oldest executive mansion in the Western Hemisphere." Justifiable Evil, Chapter X, page 117.

A portion of El Salon Azul (the Blue Room). It's curtains border with El Salon de los Espejos (the Hall of the Mirrors). The portrait of Isabel II (not visible in the photo) hangs on the left wall.

"As its name implied, the Blue Room was decorated in blue. Delicate, light, celestial blue, imbuing the room with a serene atmosphere that belied what was happening just on the other side, behind its closed curtains. Two gilded mirrors on each side of the drapes added depth to the hall, while its center wall was dominated by a large painting of a regally clad woman, also in blue." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XLIX, page 634.

Portrait of Isabel II of Spain

"That's Isabella II, the last kingless queen of Spain," Pietrantoni volunteered softly, when he saw Lucas take a quick glance at the work of art. "She looks nice in that portrait, but in reality she had the face of a frog." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XLIX, page 634.

The Galeria Oriental (the Oriental Gallery) which leads to the Salon de los Espejos (the Hall of Mirrors)

"Unlike the somber corridor through which they had just traveled, the Galeria Oriental was a wide, tiled, brightly illuminated passageway that was lined on the left side with shuttered windows facing La Fortaleza's interior courtyard. Interspersed between the windows were columns of square, multicolored glass panes that, illuminated with the rays of the afternoon sun, washed the floor and the corridor's other wall with the warm hues of precious stones. The gallery also contained a substantial amount of furniture: high backed, dark wooden chairs and low tables lined against the windowless wall that bordered the Hall of Mirrors, standing silently like stiff sentinels. From where they stood, the two men could see the outline of the two doors that led into the Hall of Mirrors, the furthest of which was open." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XLIX, page 638.

Partial view of the Salon de los Espejos (the Hall of Mirrors)

Another partial view of the Hall of Mirrors.

"If the Governor's office was the brain of La Fortaleza, El Salon de los Espejos -- the Hall of Mirrors -- was probably its heart. As its name suggested, its walls were covered with ten enormous mirrors imported from Spain in the nineteenth century, each separated by long, glass-paneled double doors decorated with golden curtains. Elaborately-carved gilded frames bordered each of the mirrors, complemented by small, delicate, equally ornate tables with white marble tops holding beautiful statuettes, highly crafted bronze clocks, and decorative candelabra...A great glass chandelier, imported from the famed ceramic house of La Granja in Spain, imbued the hall with bright, airy light.

"El Salon de los Espejos was...often used for important ceremonies, receptions, and the signing of laws. It was the traditional site where every year the Governor greeted all of the legislators, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, religious leaders, and other prominent citizens, and had seen black tie galas for the likes of President Kennedy, Pablo Casals, and King Juan Carlos of Spain, as well as countless receptions for world renowned actors, writers, athletes, astronauts, beauty queens, military heroes, and politicians." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XLIX, page 629.

As in other portions of the book, the story takes some liberties with La Fortaleza. The archeological dig that takes place in the central courtyard of the compound is not real. Neither is it, as far as I know, the secret passage between the kitchen and the Austral Tower, and the description of the inside of the tower was also made up for the story. I would be surprised if the ancient fortress does not contain hidden rooms and passages, but I cannot confirm their existence.

Still, most of the history and the descriptions about the Governor's Mansion that appear in Justifiable Evil are very real. La Fortaleza is a place of wonder, that should be explored by anyone visiting Old San Juan.

( To be continued...)

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