In desperate need of renovation, Cuenca’s venerable Colegio Benigno Malo struggles to stay open
By Stephen Vargha
“This building is the most neglected in the city!”
Andrés Tola Alvarez is talking about Colegio Benigno Malo, located on Av. Fray Vicente Solano and 700 feet south of the Tomebamba River.
“The New Cathedral, the building of the Court of Justice, and the mayor’s office are in the same patrimonial category of importance as Benigno Malo,” said Tola.
Tola is a 1994 graduate of Colegio Benigno Malo, and he is speaking about what may be the most popular non-religious building in Cuenca.
His alma mater was established by a decree issued on October 16, 1858, by the Ecuadorian Senate and the Chamber of Representatives. The reluctance of the municipality of Cuenca prompted the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives to issue a second decree on October 13, 1863, ordering the municipality to “establish as soon as possible the National School created by the Law.”
Juan Bautista Vázquez, who was a representative for Azuay province and who had pushed for the project since 1853, was named the first Rector (academic head) of the school. Classes started in a building acquired from the Order of Saint Dominic on January 30, 1864.
At the same time, a library was established at the school. A museum was established, too. “It was a unique museum when it opened and the first of its kind for the city,” said Tola.
In 1869, the school was transferred to the Society of Jesus. It was relocated to a building offered by the religious order.
After the expulsion of the Jesuits from Ecuador by the liberal government in 1876, the school returned to its original location and Vasquez became its Rector again.
In 1910, the national Congress renamed the school for Cuenca native diplomat, politician, and first Rector of the University of Cuenca, Benigno Malo.
On October 30, 1923, construction began on the new French neoclassical-style premises, conceived, and executed by the Quito architect Luis Felipe Donoso Barba.
The affluent in Cuenca in the late-19th century and early-20th century were enamored with everything French, especially that country’s architecture. Benigno Malo uses the style, sometimes called Louis XVI, that began in the 1750s. Tiring of the Rococo style, craftsmen of the 18th century turned for inspiration by going to classical art.
Construction took nearly 13 years to complete the school building. Since 1936, Cuenca’s first school building had not received proper attention.
In 2016, the School of Business Administration at the University of Cuenca conducted a three-year study of the repairs needed for the school building. The study’s conclusion and recommendations were approved by the Historic Areas Commission.
Because of the study, Benigno Malo was assessed as a patrimonial building with the highest rating. The rating meant that architecturally, the school was as important as the New Cathedral.
Hoping to save Benigno Malo, José Rosales, a graduate of the school, together with fellow graduates and a group of architects, nominated the building for the World Monuments Watch 2022. It is a program of the World Monument Fund, a private, international, non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of historic architecture and cultural heritage sites around the world.
This program selects 25 historical sites worldwide for assistance for two years to design and implement conservation work. Benigno Malo did not make the list, being beaten out by places such as Yanacancha-Huaquis Cultural Landscape (Peru) and Teotihuacan (Mexico).
The university study stated the renovation/conservation project would cost $5 million. That had greatly increased.
“The cost is $9 million to $12 million,” said Tola. “A restoration project plan is ready, and the national government has already offered to fund it.”
Restoration is projected to take three to four years to complete, and it was supposed to have begun by now. But there has not been any money forthcoming from Quito.
“I think the country’s situation with its economy is very bad, and that is why we have not seen any money,” said Tola. “The government’s priorities are for other things such as highways and security, and not for beautiful patrimonial buildings.”
Money is so short that the school’s library and museum were shut down six to eight years ago. “We don’t have the people to operate them,” said Tola. “The national government did not give any money to pay the people running them.”
The 46-year-old attorney has fond memories of his high school, and he does want the neglect of Benigno Malo to ruin them. “I enjoyed my studies at the school. I played soccer for three years and became a star,” said Tola. “During my time there, I played the drum for the school’s Guerra De Bandas.”
Literally meaning, War Band, like all other high schools in Ecuador, Colegio Benigno Malo has a Guerra De Bandas to represent the school. For public events and parades, the band has performed.
“The music played by Guerra De Bandas is original for the school. They are completely different than the other schools,” said Tola. “When I was in it, we were the best War Band of Ecuador,” said Alvarez with a smile.
Those memories drive Tola to rescue his school. He became president of an association of ex-students that began in 2002. Alvarez formed an organization, ASO-EXA Benigno Malo, to help save the school building.
“There are a few of us trying to save Benigno Malo. People are not interested in helping out,” said Tola. “They only demand to save Benigno Malo, but they don’t want to work for it.”
Tola is frustrated. “I have gone to every local and national body for the restoration of the school as well as the reopening of the museum and library,” he said. “It’s everyone’s work because it is an inheritance for posterity that the building be restored.”
Now, Tola is turning to the expat community for help. He knows they have an affinity for the historic building.
“The people of Cuenca and the Benignistas like it a lot when foreign friends speak well of what we have,” he said. Benignistas are students and former students of Benigno Malo.
“We are hoping that the foreigners who are experts in engineering, architecture, and historic preservation can contribute with their knowledge and experience,” said Tola. “Many foreigners have shown their concern about the condition of the building. Any collaboration they can give us is greatly appreciated!”
Tola and his fellow Benignistas are trying to form a foundation to preserve Benigno Malo.
“People who are interested can call or email me,” said Alvarez. “Because everything about Benigno Malo says, ‘Wow’.”
Andrés Tola Alvarez, Parthenon Abogados, Cornelio Merchán 1-150 y José Peralta, Cuenca, 099-952-4264, firstname.lastname@example.org
ASO-EXA Benigno Malo, https://www.facebook.com/groups/222185811134564/permalink/6568086453211103/?mibextid=DcJ9fc
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information and photos by him.