PONCE, Puerto Rico — In this 300-year-old city, steeped in history and rich with architectural treasures, the most famous landmark is also the most unlikely.
In the middle of the stately central plaza, fast by a cathedral first built in 1670, a garishly painted wooden fire station looks only slightly more improbable amid the neoclassical and Spanish-style buildings nearby than the Burger King and Church's Fried Chicken outlets across the street.
But each year, visitors by the tens of thousands come here just to see it.
"We come over when the youngest child is old enough to appreciate it," said Evelyn Velez, holding her 3-year-old daughter, Guatibiri, on a recent Sunday afternoon after driving in from Mayaguez. Velez's two teen-age sons, wearing looks of restrained impatience, stood nearby.
"We just drive over, walk through, have an ice cream, and then go home," Velez said. "My husband, he doesn't even get out of the car. But I want to children to see a piece of Puerto Rican history."
Ponce press officer Jesus Vassallo called the fire station--Parque de Bombas in Spanish--"probably the second most-photographed place in Puerto Rico, next to El Morro (fort) in San Juan." Built in 1883 as an exhibition hall for an agricultural fair, the fire station is a whimsical Arabesque confection, brilliantly striped in red and black, that until three years ago was home to the city's legendary fire department.
Today, with the fire department moved to new quarters down the street, the old fire station is a museum housing two retired fire trucks--one from 1928, the other from 1942--a few tools and photographs, and a wealth of tradition. So esteemed are Ponce firefighters, whose heroism dates to a famous ammunition dump fire in 1899, that the city has provided free homes to some firefighters' families, and the fire station itself has become a mecca for firefighters from around the world.
Ponce, Puerto Rico's second-largest city, with 200,000 residents, is situated on the island's south coast about 60 highway miles and a mountain range across the island from San Juan. Because it does not have spectacular beaches or 15th-Century forts as tourist lures, the city has launched a campaign to promote its architectural heritage. Surrounding Plaza las Delicias, where both the fire station and Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral are located, are graceful, shady neighborhoods that feature a melange of architectural styles, ranging from Art Deco and Spanish Revival to a hybrid called Ponce Creole.
Thus, after a tour of the fire station, visitors can walk through a stucco-front McDonald's across the street and then, within a few blocks of the plaza, stroll past houses reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans, antebellum Georgia or even Miami Beach.
On the strength of a plan to spend about $440 million improving roads and bridges and restoring Ponce's 66-block historic zone, tourism rose 32% last year over 1991.
"We are attracting the cultural tourist, interested in our museums, architecture and history, rather than beaches," said Magda Bardina, a city architect who directs the historic-zone restoration project and makes sure that the fast-food franchise storefronts look as 19th Century as possible.
Indeed, Ponce is not on most tourists' itinerary; visitors who come here have made an effort to do so. The drive from San Juan usually takes no more than 90 minutes, however, and the lush vegetation and unexpected vistas in the central mountain range are their own reward.
Ponce itself, after 300 years in San Juan's shadow, seems poised to raise its profile. Along with a surge in tourism, Mayor Rafael Cordero Santiago reported in his recent state-of-the-city address that, in the last two years, private industry had invested $140 million and created more than 8,000 local jobs.
The city has a well-respected art museum, along with an archeological site and museum dedicated to the island's long-lost indigenous people. In the last year, Ponce has also opened a museum of history, begun offering free trolley rides through the downtown area and welcomed the 156-room Ponce Hilton Hotel & Casino.
Ponce also hosted the just-concluded Central American and Caribbean Games, during which more than 40 Cuban athletes and other delegation members defected.
"I think that now Poncenos are recognizing the value of their city, and rediscovering it," Bardina said. "There is a lot of pride here."
Nowhere is that sense of pride more evident than in the fire station.
"We say that if you came to Ponce and didn't visit the firehouse, you didn't come to Ponce," guide Lucy Hernandez said. "It's hard to miss."