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An exploration of the architecture in this UNESCO World Heritage Site

“Cuenca doesn’t look like a sixteenth-century city that has been preserved; it looks like a city that has been in use since the sixteenth century” Calvin Trillin

There are so many things I love about Cuenca, but my absolute favorite thing is the architecture. On December 1, 1999 the Historic Center of Cuenca was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in recognition of the historical, cultural and architectural merits of the city. So 2019 is the 20 year anniversary of that designation.

My fabulous Spanish teacher, Cristina Flores Ortiz,with Walking Spanish Lessons, knows of my love for the architecture, and she presented me with a copy of a book published by the City of Cuenca in 2007 – “Guia de Arquitectura Cuenca.” I decided I would like to follow along with the same format as this book, and take pictures of the buildings as they are today, with their current usages. There are 165 buildings featured, so this will take some time. Some of them are very recognizable historic landmarks – such as the cathedrals. Some you might have walked by, and wondered about the history of that particular building. And some you might have walked by and not noticed at all… The book only includes one photo of each structure, and it is always only one exterior photo. I will try to include multiple photos, and also interior photos when possible, whenever access to the interior is available. All of the photos are mine, unless otherwise noted. The old historical photos come from various sources.
The historical facts are coming from the City of Cuenca, so I am assuming the history is correct. I am doing this only for the fun and love of it. I believe when you love something you want to learn as much as you can about it.
I hope some of you will enjoy following along on this tour of Cuenca historical architecture.
Jane Hiltbrand
August 5, 2019
http://www.architecturalcuenca.com

Casa de la Lira

Calle La Condamine

The Casa de la Lira is a beautifully restored house on La Condamine Street in the El Vado neighborhood. It possesses elements of both the Colonial and Republican Eras. It is famous for the elegant green glass brick façade, with a very noticeable Lira (Lyre) on the balustrade of the rooftop.

The original house was purchased in 1878 by Rosa Rodriquez. In 1894 Luis Paute Rodriquez bought the house, and in 1935 built the facade that is there now, with the Lira.

The Lira was symbolic of the music and poetry and theatre of the epoch, in support of writers, musicians and artists. There are several houses in Cuenca that display a lira on their façade or somewhere inside, but none of them is as impressive or visible as this one.

The Lira was symbolic of the music and poetry and theatre of the era. Luis Paute constructed a stage for poetry and theatre. Inside this house, a kind of conservatory was established in which piano and other instruments were taught. It also had a concert hall where opera pieces, zarzuelas, classical and popular music concerts were performed.

A photo of the “Lyra” on top of the roof, being restored in 2016.

The most recent renovation was from 2016-2019. There are now large open spaces on both the lower and upper floor. The hopes are to have music performances, and spaces for other performing arts, after covid restrictions have ended.  This is in memoriam of the music and concerts that filled this building long ago.

In 1978 there was a huge fire in the building. Only the very front of the building remained intact.  Wherever possible, those elements have been restored.

During the restoration of the building, several ancient city water canals were uncovered underneath the flooring. These have been carefully restored, and can be seen flowing under the first level of the house.

During the restoration, these colonial era pots were uncovered. They were left in their original state.

The balconies in the front upper level have a wonderful view over the Tomebomba River.

There are tile and river pebble floors in the front hallway. This original restored wallpaper is a juxtaposition to the modern office space. The balconies overlook La Condamine Street, and the Cruz del Vado, one of seven crosses from Colonial Days which delineated the boundaries of the city of Cuenca.

Started by Ecuadorian poet Remigio Crespo Toral, in association with Alfonso Moreno Mora in 1919, the Lira Festival was established in the city at that time, attracting poets and lovers of poetry to a country gathering held annually on the last Saturday in May. The poets would talk about their compositions and award a prize for the best poem. The winner would be gain the temporary name of “vate” (bard, poet) and would be given a laurel crown. The first festivity took place at the Buen Vecino country estate, owned by Remigio Crespo Toral,in May 1919. 

Originally, the Lira Festival was an annual literary event, held in Cuenca between 1919 and 1950, in which poets were awarded for their works. The Festival was re-invigorated in 2011, and was held every two years in November, in Cuenca. The festival is four days of meetings with poets from Ecuador, Mexico, and the South American continent, and there is an award of $30,00 and $5,000 to two selected authors, whose poems have been submitted to the competition. The last festival was held in 2019, which was the 100 year celebration of the inception of the festival. 

Area Convencion 45

When I first heard of Area 45, I thought it was the numerical description of a city neighborhood. But instead, it is the area where five future Presidents of Ecuador met after signing the Constitution of 1845. It is full of colorful Colonial and Republic era homes, that are a more modest size than the homes in El Centro.

The faces on the gate are all wearing blue masks!

La Guarida is a popular restaurant and performance space in Area 45. Photo on the left is La Guarida before restoration.

Andrés Zambrano

 Andrés Zambran is the owner of La Guardia. In addition to being an incredible chef, he also arranges for amazing movies and music. He is also the President of the Area 45 Neighborhood Association.

Hanging on the wall is a work of art by Eduardo Segovia.

The gate to Eduardo Segovia’s house. He is a long time resident of Area 45. Andres Zambrano is trying to convince the City to have Maestro Segovia create murals in the neighborhood.

On the wall of Ivan Encalada Pottery Studio in Area 45.

A panaderia and a pastereria – my favorites!

Casa del Alfareros. This is the building where the reception was held following the signing of the Constitution of 1845. It is now used as a City Cultural Center, to encourage the art and tradition of pottery.

Cuenca had a tradition of different neighborhoods representing different trades and tradesmen. Area 45 was the neighborhood of pottery.

“Neighborhood of Convention 45. History, Tradition, and Culture since 1845.”

“Heladeria Sari”. This ice cream store sells nothing but LIME ice cream, and it is Delicious!

On the left photo are “Lima Balconies” which were, and are, very popular in Lima, Peru.

Area 45 is a very colorful and authentic neighborhood of Cuenca.

Casa del Alfareros

House of the Potters / Mariscal Lamar y Calle Convencion 45

Previously called the House of the Convention of 45, this building is now called the El Alfarero (Potters) Cultural Center.  The history dates back to the Convention of 1845, in which Ecuador’s 4th Constitution was drawn up. The actual constitution was not drawn up in this house, but it is the space where there was a celebration afterwards. In this constitution, the term of office of the President of Ecuador was limited to four years, instead of the eight years allowed previously. 

The current building was restored in 2012.   Beautiful wood floors and thick adobe walls remain in the restoration.

This neighborhood also had a strong cultural tradition of potters and pottery.  La Casa del Alfarero has as a goal the strengthening and continuation of this trade.

A treasured very old work of pottery.

It is located in the “Y” intersection of Mariscal Lamar and Calle Convencion 45. The murals on the neighboring walls reflect the history of pottery in the neighborhood.

Photos of the building before restoration.

Many  artistic workshops are held in the Casa del Alfarero, including pottery, ceramics, drawing, and painting. 

Escuela Central

Gran Colombia and Benigno Malo

Originally this was the first public hospital in Cuenca from 1747 to 1822. From 1882 it functioned as a school for girls and for a short period of time also accommodated the library. It was known as the Central School due to its location in the city center.

At this moment there is an excellent exhibition in this historic building celebrating Cuenca’s 200 year Bicentennial of Independence from Spain. There is a beautiful exhibit of Cuenca clothing in one of the main halls.

It currently has a library, internet cubicles, auditorium, cafeteria, two rooms for artistic workshops and several rooms for exhibits.

This building is the work of the German monk Juan Bautista Stiehle. It was one of the first civic buildings erected by Stiehle and was specially requested by the city council. This is a photograph of Juan Bautista Stiehle.

In 2009, during a renovation under the courtyard, old water canals were unearthed, along with many old skeletons buried there.

“El Gran Libertador – Simon Bolivar / Jose Maria Vazquez de Noboa, in 1820 the first President of the Republic of Cuenca.

Shown is a copy of the Constitution of Cuenca. The original copy is in the Museum of Remigio Crespo Toral.

Located on a corner, the building has two entrances, both of which lead via hallways to the same central courtyard..

Las huérfanas – the girl orphans.

Plaza de San Francisco

The Plaza de San Francisco Market is a wild colorful combination of  weaving, basketry, ceramics, ironwork, wooden utensils, kitchen cups and plates, pots, plastic trinkets, religious paraphernalia, guinea pig roasters, sweaters, ponchos, rugs, weavings, and more.  It has a very storied history.  But it hasn’t looked the way it looks now, even since I have been here….

Almost since it’s beginning in 1558, it has been a place where the people brought their products to sell.

From the 1700’s and on, it became the preferred location for fairs and carnivals as well as executions which were a form of entertainment at the time. After Cuenca’s independence in 1820, dozens of enemy soldiers went to the gallows in the plaza. 

The most recent renovation of the Plaza was unveiled in January 2019. There were many years of conflict between the merchants, vendors, politicians and local Cuencanos before this renovation was completed. The renovated plaza has 96 units for vendors, distributed around the perimeter of the open square, which is quite a different layout from the very  crowded use of the square previously. 

In the 1800’s  the plaza underwent a transformation when Cuenca officials decided to “clean up” the Plaza de Armas, today’s Parque Calderon, and ordered all commercial activity relocated to San Francisco Plaza. The relocation of the Plaza de Armas vendors caused a minor uproar as they tried to find space with the vendors already in San Francisco Plaza.

The plaza saw another big change in 1953 when the city established the Diez de Agosto market two blocks to the south, on Calle Larga. Most of the plaza’s food vendors relocated to the new market but a few remained. During the next decade, the commerce of the plaza focused on clothing and household goods.

In the 1950’s the plaza served as the city bus station and was home to  Cuenca’s first gas station.

City photo) of the San Francisco Plaza renovation.

In addition to the vendors on the plaza, there are many stores and shopping center around the plaza. It is an excellent place to purchase Ecuadorian crafts and merchandise.

Panama hats have always been made in Ecuador! It is a misnomer from the days when Teddy Roosevelt wore an Eucadorian straw hat at the Panama Canal, and the style caught on in a big way!

There is now a fountain in the center, and plenty of space for concerts and music and performances. The paving stones were preserved for the floor of the square, a characteristic material of the streets of old Cuenca.

This Christmas the San Francisco Plaza was the location for Cuenca’s huge electric Christmas tree.  The Plaza was the place to be to see Christmas lights with the backdrop of the New Cathedral domes. 

Overlooking San Francisco Plaza…..

Favorite Architectural Cuenca Photos 2020

Corte de Justia
Iglesia de Todos Santos
Chaguarchimbana staircase
Calle Rafael Maria Arizaga
Calle Rafael Maia Arizaga
Iglesia Todos Santos
Antigua Casa Ordonez Vintimilia
New Cathedral
Parque Calderon
Hotel Santa Lucia
Salon del Pueblo
Santuario Mariano
Flower Market
Manuel Arce Torres House
Neira Family Home
San Luis Seminario
New Cathedral
New Cathedral
New Cathedral
Casa de la Familia Jerves Calero
Casa del Coco
Casa del Coco
Iglesia San Francisco
Iglesia San Francisco
Cass de la Familia Jerves Calero
Iglesia Todos Santos
Casa de la Familia Jerves Calero
Remigio Crespo Toral Museum
Cass de Bienal
San Sebastian Plaza
Iglesia San Sebastian
Iglesia Santo Domingo, Chapel
Iglesia Todos Santos
Iglesia Todos Santos, Convent
Pasaje Leon
Pasaaje Leon
Casa de las Palomas
Iglesia Santo Domingo
Casa del Artista, y Yanuncay Aqueduct
El Maiz Restaurant
Casa del Parque
Plazoleta San Blas
China House

Casa del Parque / Mansion Matilde

Luis Cordero y Simon Bolivar

This building, built in 1880, was originally owned by the Ordóñez Mata family. The family in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were involved in powerful national political and economic groups. They exported quinine, cocoa husks and Panama hats, and the family members included governors of Azuay, bishops and cardinals.

At the end of the 19th century the family commissioned two French artists (René Chaubert and Giussepe Majon) to redesign, build and decorate their various dwellings. Chaubert taught the local craftsmen wrought and cast iron techniques, which were then applied to balconies, doors and railings and nearly always included plant motifs. Attributed to the Latacunga architect N. Cornejo, this building displays a Renaissance-style façade.

Two large sections were in the original house: A service section, which was entered through Luis Cordero Street, and the main or residential part, where the family settled. This section was entered through Simón Bolívar Street. At the back of the service section was a courtyard where quinine husks were processed prior to sale.

The city’s main political and social events between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries took place in this house, as it was the only dwelling at the time suitable for accommodating illustrious guests. Its owner Hortensia Mata, hosted numerous club gatherings, and important political receptions.

When Doña Hortensia passed away, her heirs lived here for many years. Later, Mrs. Gladys Eljuri Antón acquired the property. In 2014, the idea for this project was formulated and in 2016 the restoration of this house began, which was closed for many years.  The idea was to build a gastronomic and cultural center in the Historic Center of Cuenca.  The restoration took four years, and Casa del Parque opened in 2020. 

Casa del Parque offers a great variety of gastronomic experiences with different flavors and costs.  On the ground level. there are nine stores, restaurants, and cafes.   

The murals were painstakingly restored.

Just this past week, the upstairs level of the building was opened to the public.  It is called Mansion Matilde – an architectural and cultural treasure for the city. All of the work was done under the supervision of the owners Mrs. Gladys Elijuri, and her husband Mr. Antonio Alvarez.  The architect was Esteban Espinosa.  The exquisite restoration work was supervised by Ana Urgilés.

There are five different rooms on the second level in Mansion Matilde. 

The Turquoise Tea Room serves a traditional English High Tea, with finger sandwiches, delightful pastries and a full menu of teas.   The room is named after the gorgeous original turquoise wallpaper with gold accents. 

Angels in the Architecture!

Bar 1880 is a great room for enjoyment of drinks and cocktails, while enjoying the fabulous view over Parque Calderon, and the New Cathedal.

There is a more formal restaurant “El Preferido de Matilde” serving classic gastronomy with local touches, with a capacity for just 20 persons. And then there are two meeting rooms – The Treaties Hall, and the Diplomatic Hall, with a capacity up to 40 persons for business appointments, and social events, birthday parties, engagement parties, and anniversaries. 

Casa del Parque, and Mansion Matilde have been restored as true architectural and cultural treasures, that will please your taste buds, in so many varied ways; and also completely delight your eyes!

El Cafetal de Loja

Sucre 10-50 between General Torres and Padre Aguirre

I have purchased excellent coffee from Loja at this store so many times, but never went further than the counter in the front. I only recently discovered there is a truly lovely cafe directly behind the front store. And then I got exceptionally lucky and asked the owner if I could go upstairs to see the house!

Coffee from Loja is considered to be some of the very best coffee in Ecuador. Maria at the front counter will package up freshly ground Loja coffee for you. (total biosecurity measures are followed, she just took her mask off for the photo).

The gate opens to a very lovely garden cafe in the middle of Cuenca’s historic El Centro district.

I was very fortunate to be allowed a private tour of the home.

The view out to Calle Sucre.

The busy coffee grinder. It is almost impossible to walk by the door without going in, because of the captivating coffee aroma drifting out to the street.

“Pisos de huesos” decorative flooring made from cow bones and river pebbles.

This is a very authentic beautiful old Cuenca family home, still very much lived in, not a museum.

The house follows a traditional colonial style centered around two courtyards.

The grande sala – a very spacious room with very high ceilings and the original wood floors, overlooking Sucre St.

Very old stone flooring.

If you are in El Centro Cuenca you must stop in to buy some fresh ground coffee. Or enjoy a cup in the cafe.

Casa de las Palomas

Calle Benigno Malo 6-40

This adobe constructed house was originally built around 1900, and at that time only had two rooms and a large lot that was used as stables.  In 1908 the building was bought by Joaquín Rendón who added on to the construction.  Joaquín Rendón  was a painter and dedicated most of his time to decorating the house’s walls with landscapes and decorative motifs, with the principal theme being women with doves.  

It is a good example of a Colonial home – which would consist of a courtyard, a rear yard, and a vegetable garden. It is an example of the Cuenca romantic tradition.

 One detail in the decoration is the paving of the floors of the hallway and the patios, made with river stones and rows of bones from the skeletons of cattle, called “pisos de huesos. And yes, you can see it is made of real adobe.

Other paintings show European rural landscapes with small towns and hunting scenes. The decoration of the house is consistent with the romantic taste of the time.

This building ceased to be a family home after Rendón’s death; his wife leased it to the military to be a casino. The house had many uses afterwards – for a while it was leased to the Tres de Noviembre  Elementary School.  Later the house was used for a candle and fireworks factory, and then later rented for the office of a newspaper called “El Sur”.

By 1972 the house had been abandoned and was rapidly deteriorating. In 1987 El Instituto Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural purchased and restored the building, and it is now their office.

Calle Rafael Maria Arizaga

This is one of the roads with the greatest historical value in the city, since this street was for a long time the northern limit of Cuenca and the gateway from neighboring towns.

The road is as unique and narrow as ever, paved with Andean cobblestones and a pebblestone pattern.

Formerly called “Real del Vecino” street, in 1961 the street was renamed Calle Rafael María Arízaga, after an illustrious local figure who had a distinguished career as a legal advisor, member of parliament, presidential candidate and diplomat.

I took many of these photos during a parade one year ago on December 1, 2019 to honor the 20 year anniversary of Cuenca being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site City. Calle Rafael Maria Arizaga was considered a fitting place to have the parade because of it’s historic past and authentic architecture. Pictured here in the parade is the Mayor of Cuenca, and his wife.

Calle Rafael Maria Arizaga is also known for many murals of Cuenca tradesmen.

The architecture of the street reflects the authentic style of Cuenca. The simple houses along the road have adobe and bahareque walls.

This neighborhood is known as El Vecino.

According to the historian Víctor Manuel Albornoz Cabanilla, El Vecino was the first Cuenca district, renamed by the cañamazos or “reedmen” who, skilled in the use of sharp knives, made the Panama hats. The straw hat weavers gradually settled in this street between the late 19th and early 20th centuries,

Iglesia de San Jose de el Vecino, on Calle Rafael Maria Arizaga.

“En agradecimiento a la Municipalidad de Cuenca por la restauracion del monumento nacional a Nuestra Madre de la Merced como especial protectora y guardiana de la Cuidad” Padres Mercedarios Cuenca 28-11-2014.