For Carlos Colón and his family, rehabilitating a former Art Deco theater building in downtown Ponce, Puerto Rico, has been the very definition of a labor of love. Committed to revitalizing their hometown by restoring its beautiful historic buildings, the Colóns spent four years and $400,000 of their own money transforming the vacant building into an airy community bakery that pays homage to its past.
Since the building’s genesis in 1940 as El Teatro Argel, it had been used as a movie theater, a disco, a storage space, and a church. The artful structure was the work of Pedro Mendez Mercado, a native of Ponce who received his B.A. in architecture from Syracuse University in 1926 and went on to design many of the Art Deco-style theaters around Ponce, in addition to his most famous work, the Miami Building in Condado. However, in 1990, a powerful fire melted some of the iron beams that held up the ceiling, leaving the grand theater vacant for two decades until Ponce businessman Carlos Colón moved in across the street.
In 2008, Colón started La Nueva Victoria bakery on the street that was once the main avenue for business in the city. Another project quickly caught his eye: The empty shell of a 1940 movie theater that sat vacant across the street. “Every day when we opened the doors to our bakery at 5 a.m., as we saw the old theater in front of us,” Colón’s daughter Tatiana explained, “[My father] could feel that the building was screaming to be saved. That it deserved a new life.”
Colón asked the building’s owner about purchasing the historic property, but was repeatedly turned down until finally reaching an agreement a few years later. In February 2013, the Colón family started work on the place. A mere four walls and a ceiling damaged beyond repair, the place needed a fresh reimagining—and a lot of time and money—before it could get back on track. For a year, all the profits from the bakery went to rehabbing the theater. “We decided that everything we made on the bakery was going to the other building,” Tatiana commented. “It was an investment that [is paying] off now. It was a difficult year, but my father had this idea in his mind, and he was going to make it happen no matter what.”
Colón, an experienced contractor, oversaw the renovation and did much of the work himself—and with such a damaged space, there was no shortage of work to do. The roof had to be replaced and the interior reconstructed.
Colón did research on how to give the building a historic feel, and every significant change made to the space had to be approved by the city’s historical commission, who also helped pick the bold teal color that now graces the building’s exterior.
While many of the building’s original interior details were lost over the years through renovation or by fire, Colón sought to preserve what details were there. One exciting find was the theater’s original 1941 projector, which was found on the second floor. Colón moved the projector to the front entrance, where it now sits behind the large glass windows that look into the newly refinished bakery space.
Another discovery was the original flooring that had been in the building’s open entrance foyer. The floor had been covered with other tiling at some point, saving the 1940 tiles, which Colón restored and then replicated throughout the rest of the building with similar materials. In the process, Colón decided to add a little history of his own: In the entrance area, he integrated tiling with the letters T, A, E, and L—the first letters of his four daughters’ names. Colón calls the women his legacy, and they help out with running the bakery in addition to their own jobs. “There’s no doubt that those letters will become a part of history since they’re now a part of the building,” said Tatiana Colón. “It’s a beautiful story to tell generation after generation.”
While Colón headed up the project, many hands pitched in to help bring the building’s rebirth into fruition. Architects and decorators lent their advice for free and a student from a local university painted the signature Art Deco bas relief panels on the exterior. The project took four years to complete, with work wrapping up in the summer of 2017. The Colóns got to work ordering tables, chairs, espresso machines, and the works for the newly finished space—until Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September.
The family postponed opening the new bakery space and put all hands on deck to using their old building to help out the hurting community. No serious damage had been done to the newly renovated Teatro Argel, however. After the family and a team of helpers moved the entire bakery from one building to another in one night, La Nueva Victoria Panadería y Repostera opened in its new home on December 16.
Jaime Yordon-Frau, a friend of Colón’s who has started his own nonprofit organization, El Nodo, which also hopes to rehabilitate old buildings in Ponce, praised Colón’s forward thinking: “This is, against all odds, a single individual charging forward, respecting and looking after, restoring and reusing places that mean a lot [to] the city.”
The Colóns hope this isn’t the end of the road for their passion for preservation; the family now has their sights set on a historic police station. They hope their rehab of Teatro Argel will inspire more people to save the historic buildings of their city and, in turn, revitalize the community. “It was very important for us to start with this building,” Tatiana Colón said of the project. “Hopefully more [buildings] will come our way because we are very, very proud of where we come from, and it’s been really sad to see how these beautiful Art Deco and Spanish-style buildings have been abandoned over time because of economies, fires, and natural disasters.”