Remigio Crespo Museum tells the story of Cuenca’s past and one of its most celebrated citizens
By Stephen Vargha
One could say the French neoclassical former home of one of Cuenca’s most famous residents has a huge story to tell. Or a hundred.
“The museum is 75 years old and that is why we did this exhibit,” said Ximena Pulla, Coordinator of the Remigio Crespo Toral Museum. Pulla is referring to the museum’s newest exhibit which opened in December.
“The Modernity: 100 Years Ago, is to show the progress of Cuenca from an old city to a modern city,” said Pulla. “We are trying to show people what life was back then.”
Life was certainly a lot different when the land that the museum sits on was gifted to Remigio Crespo Toral in 1886 by the family of his wife, Elvira Vega. She was the youngest daughter of Dr. Manuel Vega Dávila, who was appointed Governor of Azuay in 1860 by President García Moreno.
To replace the small house on the land he gave as a gift, Dr. Vega built a beautiful republican-style house on Presidente Borrero, between Mariscal Sucre and Simón Bolívar. The Hotel Boutique Santa Lucía currently operates in this house.
Fourteen years later, in 1900, Crespo Toral started building his casa situated between what is now Calle Larga and Paseo 3 de Noviembre. It took 17 years to complete the brick façade building and is one of the first samples of the French neoclassical architectural style in the city.
“It was one of the first brick buildings in Cuenca,” said Pulla. “The Bank of Azuay and Benigno Malo were built around the same time.”
Now Cuenca’s city hall, the neoclassical style bank building opened on January 15, 1913 and served as a symbol of modernity. With its distinct Renaissance influence, construction of Benigno Malo as a unitary, free-standing structure on the outskirts of the city began 100 years ago.
“Remigio Crespo Toral designed the house along with Chilean architect Teodoro Tomás,” said Pulla. “Because Crespo Toral was really connected, he was able to get the architect to help design the house.”
Born in 1860, Remigio Crespo Toral lived a long and very accomplished life as a poet, Ambassador to Chile, owner of the newspaper Correo del Azuay, and the Rector (academic head) of the University of Cuenca.
“He did a lot to make Cuenca a modern city and was much appreciated by the city,” said Pulla. “Crespo Toral created the music conservatory and a painting school.”
In 1917, Crespo Toral was crowned as the most prolific poet in Ecuador, by President Alfredo Baquerizo Moreno, at Parque Abdón Calderón. It was a very important ceremony, which was attended by the entire city, and the ambassadors of the United States, Belgium, Chile, and Peru. A replica of the ornate gold leaf crown is on display at the museum.
In 1919, Crespo Toral founded, with Alfonso Moreno Mora, “La Fiesta de la Lira,” which was a poetry and literary contest. Held just outside the city, in the quiet countryside, it had a six decades break before being restarted in 2007. That contest promoted reflections on poetry and its contributions to the culture of Cuenca.
Crespo Toral died on July 8, 1939. His wife donated the first collection of their books and furniture to the city eight years later. “That is when the museum was created,” said Pulla. “It was the first public museum in Cuenca.”
The museum has one of the most valuable art and historical collections in the country. It includes the first books of the city council, the declaration of independence for Cuenca, 18,000 items that represent the history of the indigenous of Ecuador, period clothing, and furniture of the era Crespo Toral lived. Photographs from the family as well as from distinguished photographers are on display.
Taking advantage of the 75th anniversary of the museum, Pulla and administrators decided to show what the city was like a century ago. The collection was reviewed to highlight the major changes of the last 100 years. “Cuenca was very rural up to 1980,” said Pulla.
A harp, a piano, a ceramic sink that were brought from Europe are on display as well as a Victrola. The early-20th century tabletop phonograph had a price tag of $75, which is equivalent to about $2,200 in today’s money.
A bargueño owned by Elvira is on display, too. It is an intricate wooden form of a portable desk that the affluent took with them on their trips.
“When you look at the French architecture in Cuenca, it is because they thought it was modern,” said Pulla. “Even the suits, the fashions they bought were French. A lot of the rich could speak French.”
The transition to modernity was a slow one for Cuenca. Guayaquil and Quito progressed at a lot faster pace said Pulla. A lot of it had to do with the city’s isolation.
“We have a space dedicated to how Cuenca became connected with the rest of the country,” said Pulla. “That includes the Italian pilot and roads.”
The Italian pilot Pulla referred to is Elia Antonio Liut, who was the first to fly across the Andes mountains from Guayaquil to Cuenca on November 4, 1920. Thousands of people were waiting for him to carry him on their shoulders to the center of Cuenca. The Macchi-Henrit HO, had “Telégrafo I” painted on it, and a replica of his mail plane sits on the grounds of the museum.
Planes like what Liut flew could not handle what the affluent of Cuenca wanted. “In order to transport everything from France, the indigenous were hired carried everything on their backs from Guayaquil,” said Pulla. “They used the old Incan roads. While they walked, the rich rode on horses to and from Guayaquil.”
The indigenous were given a derogatory name: Los Guandos. It was a form of exploitation of the indigenous people as they used a guando, a stretcher to mule things in. In 1912, the first car was brought to the city… in pieces to be put back together in Cuenca. Of course, there were no roads to drive out of the city.
“Because of that, I think it was necessary for us to have a space to honor the Guandos,” said Pulla.
In honor of the indigenous, the museum’s exhibit has an area dedicated to life prior to the 16th century, when the Spanish invaded South America. “People were ashamed of their indigenous past,” said Pulla. “The intellectuals of the early 20th century started to appreciate the indigenous past and did a lot of research on them.”
Chola Cuencana is an important part of that exhibit. The name came about in 1607, and referred to a woman who is a mestizo, someone of indigenous and Spanish ethnicity.
These women wear long, crimped skirts that are reminiscent of the wide skirts of the ladies of the Spanish court. They are made of wool or cotton, and the designs are contrasted between the dyed and undyed parts.
“This custom was imposed to the women here,” said Pulla. “The indigenous put their identity to the clothing with embroidery.”
That includes corn husks on the upper portion, which is on display. The bottom of the skirt is embroidered with Amancay flowers that is also known as Alstroemeria. The flower is also called Peruvian Lily or Lily of the Incas.
To help visualize what Cuenca looked like 100 years ago, there are landscape paintings by Honorato Vázquez, one of the best landscape painters in the country. Vázquez died at the age of 31 in 1924.
An important painting of his is of the Tomebamba River and the rural valley land that existed before the city developed all the way to Turi. The perspective of the painting is from where the museum sits so one can easily contrast the huge differences in the landscape of the city.
Though the signs and audio displays are in Spanish, one who can only speak another language will be able to learn a lot about the rich history of Cuenca. The museum is open six days a week for your enrichment.
Remigio Crespo Toral Museum, Calle Larga y Presidente Borrero, Cuenca, Hours: Tuesday-Friday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Closed Monday, Admission is free.
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats.