The most popular architectural artifact in the city is the strikingly painted red and black firehouse, which was erected in 1883.
There is, however, a real secret treasure — the Museo de Arte de Ponce, home of a world-class art collection that ranges from medieval religious portraits to the pop art portraits of Andy Warhol.
The first works in the museum's collection were acquired in 1957, when Luis A. Ferre, a successful businessman, philanthropist and future governor of Puerto Rico, purchased 24 paintings on auction at Sotheby's in New York City.
The current museum, which opened in 1965, is a sweeping piece of clean-lined white 1960s modernism designed by Edward Durell Stone, who is best known for his design of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
A recent renovation and expansion of the museum was completed in November 2010, highlighted by the installation of Roy Lichtenstein's colorfully swishing sculpture, "Brushstrokes in Flight."
The expansion also included the addition of an elegant new dining facility — the bar and restaurant Al Sur, which is an ideal place to enjoy a relaxing, superbly prepared lunch and one of the restaurant's signature cocktails or the fresh-squeezed tamarind juice.
It was on the advice of a savvy art buyer that Ferre made the decision to purchase the most important additions to his collection — Pre-Raphaelite art. Buying at a time when interest in this Victorian school of painting was decidedly low, Ferre was able to acquire paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Edward Burn-Jones, including Burn-Jones' epic masterwork, "The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon."
To find a British painting of this importance less than a mile from a Puerto Rican town square where street vendors were selling fresh fruit and flowers seemed almost beyond belief.
At this point in its history Ponce appears to be situated on a cusp between its role as a working-class town and an aspiring tourist destination. According to Jose Caro, director of sales for the Hilton Resort, there are initiatives in the works to make the city more appealing through a substantial architectural facelift of its older structures, the addition of more hotels and an increase in the city's accessibility by lengthening the runway to allow frequent flights from multiple airports.
But even with these upgrades, it's hard to see how Ponce could ever become a tourist destination to rival San Juan.
WHEN YOU GO
Puerto Rico Office of Tourism: www.topuertorico.org
Rico Sun Tours (Old San Juan tour, Ponce tour): www.rstpuertorico.com, 787-722-2080
Ponce Tourism Office: www.visitponce.com, 787-284-3338
Museo de Arte de Ponce: www.museoarteponce.org, 787-840-1510. Admission fees are $6 for adults and $3 for children under 12, seniors (60-plus) and students with ID. The museum is open Wednesday to Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closed on Tuesdays. Guided tours are available at 11a.m. and 2 p.m. in English and Spanish.
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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