by Jane O’Malley & Rajeev Atha
The Buena Vista coffee hacienda is a historical site managed by the Puerto Rican Conservation Trust located just outside of Ponce. Established in the mid-19th century by Salvador de Vives, operations at the hacienda were originally centered on fruit production to feed slaves forced to work within sugar cane plantations. Fruit production was later supplemented by corn growing and processing it. The primary commodity of the hacienda later shifted to coffee as the demand for coffee exploded in Europe during the 1880’s and 90’s. The operation was family owned for three generations until a sharp decline in the agriculture industry led the family to abandon the business. Walking through the buildings and landscapes helped us better understand a 19th century Puerto Rico then under the colonial influence of the Spanish Empire.
A composite brick and heavy timber composed the main house of Salvadore de Vives. Lime mortar was used as a substitute to cement mortar which wasn’t invented yet. Use of heavy timber posts were adopted to increase the floor span and the expanse of space under it. The original interlocking members, connected with wood dowels, were recently renovated and show character and craft of the original construction. A typical Spanish housing layout was adopted with a small courtyard in the center of the house to facilitate various domestic interactions between the family and its servants. A gallery attached the long end of the house faces the property grounds and serves as a shading device to the house to reduce the ambient heat incident on the facade. The strategic use of materials, orientation of the building, and the composition of spaces are some of the 19th century architectural strategies deployed to deal with the Caribbean climate at that time. Some it of the passive strategies used this house could be rethought to provide more resilient buildings today.
We were astonished to see the house with minimal structural damage by Hurricane Maria. A small opening in the hallways which was called “Ojos de Luna” roughly translating to “Moon Eye”, released the pressure in the structure during the hurricane and left the house undamaged structurally.
While exploring the old house where the owners used to reside on weekends followed by a short hike to see the rest of the grounds, we got a wholesome experience on how the hacienda operated during that time period. Harvested coffee is processed in several stages: deshelling of beans, roasting, deshelling beans again, and then sieving for the final product. These processing steps were originally operated under a manual process, provided by slave labor which the then Spanish colony did not abolish until 1873. Manual processing was soon replaced by mechanical systems which operated using a water wheel. Late the waterwheel systems was supplemented by a state-of-the-art—the Barker hydraulic turbine that was used to deshell and sieve the beans earned a patent in 1854. The building that housing this piece of equipment is now a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. The water powering the waterwheel and turbine is diverted from a waterfall on the Canas River, a short hike up the hill.
Water is an important source of power in Puerto Rico--the island’s electric utility was originally named for its water resources and has built over 20 hydroelectric generating units since the 19th century. Despite the country’s history and geographic favorability for hydropower, today, hydropower only provides less than 0.1 percent of the island’s power. While generating systems are installed at high capacities, a buildup of silt and debris in delivery lines have rendered several of the engines inoperable. The government has expressed interest to resolve some of these issues through the use of public-private partnerships and improved maintenance. Hydropower has great potential for the island as a renewable energy resource moving forward. Generating systems can be built at large capacities, have long operational lifetimes, and help stabilize production of more intermittent renewable resources such as wind and solar. Like the Buena Vista Hacienda, technology and social systems must mature with time to make room for large-scale grid integration.