After being battered by 2017’s Hurricane Maria and subsequently forced to close for nearly five years to undergo major repairs and upgrades, the primary visitor center and informational hub at Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest has reopened. Known simply as El Portal, the United States Forest Service-operated facility’s $18.1 million refresh was led by New York City- and San Juan-based multidisciplinary architecture and design practice Marvel.
The firm, led by San Juan-born and -raised founding principal Jonathan Marvel, has played an active role in Puerto Rico’s recovery from the catastrophic Category 5 hurricane, with a particular focus on the creation of a series of community-based solar power hubs across the island through the nonprofit Resilient Power Puerto Rico. The firm has also helmed housing, hospitality, and education projects across the island.
The reborn El Portal at El Yunque National Forest similarly embraces renewable energy through the implementation of solar-ready infrastructure and a host of other sustainable elements—rainwater harvesting, green infrastructure additions, and more—that helped the newly reopened visitor center target LEED Silver certification.
Designed by Puerto Rican firm Sierra Cardona & Ferrer (now SCF Arquitectos), the original center opened in 1996 at the nearly 29,000-acre El Yunque National Forest, which is largely located within Puerto Rico’s northeastern Río Grande municipality and is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest Service system. As detailed by Marvel, the facility was already showing its age when Hurricane Irma rolled through and then, two weeks later, the deadly Hurricane Maria lashed the island in September 2017. Damage sustained during the storms necessitated extensive repair and renovation work. Marvel, joined by Puerto Rico-based Interlink Construction, was subsequently awarded the design-build contract for a major El Portal overhaul by the USDA through a competition.
“Our challenge for this project was to envision a refreshed design, that would respect and harmonize with the beautiful natural surroundings of El Yunque, integrate environmental sustainability factors, and build upon the previous structure,” said Jonathan Marvel in a statement. “El Portal is an integral part of one of Puerto Rico’s biggest tourist attractions and, as such, it is an iconic destination. Playing a role in assuring its longevity and ability to remain accessible to both residents and visitors, all while preserving this fragile natural ecosystem in perpetuity was critical in our decision to take on this project.”
In addition to the aforementioned new elements that enable El Portal to operate in a self-sufficient manner, the revamped visitor center features a new entry plaza and gardens, new interpretative exhibits designed by Minneapolis-based Split Rock Studios, the work of local artists, furnishings and signage crafted from storm-felled trees, and a refreshed cafe complete with a commercial/catering kitchen. Major spaces at El Portal, including its exhibit area, cafe, and multi-use pavilions, benefit from passive ventilation strategies that help to keep the facility cool and comfortable with minimal impact on the natural environment. Marvel also designed the only accessible interpretive nature trail at El Yunque. The easy .3-mile-long waking path encircles the lush grounds of El Portal, which was formerly the site of a coffee farm and then a tree nursery.
Major elements of the older, storm-damaged El Portal facility including the main visitor hall, upper courtyard, and water feature were “modified to give way to a newer design vision, accommodate current needs, and comply with current building and sustainability codes and standards,” per the firm.
“Marvel seeks to promote initiatives and tackle construction projects that favor sustainability and resilience,” said Edna Echandi Guzmán, director at Marvel’s Puerto Rico office. “The renovation of El Portal exemplifies our philosophy, and we are proud to be a part of this historic and significant project for Puerto Rico.”
For those plotting a mid-winter escape to the balmier climes of Puerto Rico, more on El Portal de El Yunque’s amenities and operating hours can be found here.