The University of Havana (UH) is the oldest in Cuba and for more than 200 years was the only university in the country. Over its almost three centuries of existence, it has been known by several names. It was founded in 1728 as the Royal and Pontifical University of Saint Jerome. In 1842, its name changed to the Royal and Literary University of Havana. It was during the pseudo-republic era (following U.S. occupation) that it acquired the title of National or the University of Havana.
The renowned institution was not founded in its current location of Vedado, but rather in the historic center of Old Havana, in the Convent of St. John Lateran, a building that unfortunately no longer exists today.
The university today enjoys a privileged location, connecting the heart of modern Havana (Vedado) with Centro Habana, one of the oldest areas of the city.
The UH surpasses “La Colina” (The Hill), as its main campus area is known. Other faculties have been specifically built in different parts of the city, including the university stadium, and the institution has also acquired other buildings.
On the occasion of the upcoming 290th anniversary of the founding of the university, we talked with Claudia Felipe Torres, PhD in Heritage Management and Conservation, about the patrimonial wealth of this college. She shared the information below with Granma International.
The university moved to the space it occupies today in 1902, at the end of the U.S. military occupation of the island. Until that time, the colonial buildings situated on this hill were for military use. They were adapted to house laboratories, libraries, and offices. Following the move, students begin to again use the buildings, which were not in the best condition.
Different schools and departments began to be built, depending on both the budget and the interest of the university management. Almost 30 years passed from the completion of the first to the conclusion of the complex of buildings we are familiar with today.
Construction was completed on the University as we know it today in 1940. With great judgment, the management of the time decided that new buildings would be located outside of La Colina, to preserve the architectural coherence and harmony of the campus.
After the Aula Magna (Auditorium) was finished, the rector's office and the former Physics and Chemistry schools were built almost in unison. Later, the School of Law was constructed. Then came the Faculty of Sciences, the Central Library, the Varona Building. The design of La Colina concluded with the former School of Commercial Sciences and the School of Pharmacy, the first two buildings that one reaches after climbing the Escalinata (Grand Staircase).
The Trinity of the University is composed of the Alma Mater (sculpture), the Grand Staircase, and the Rector’s Office. Although it is difficult to imagine them separately, the famous sculpture existed before La Escalinata. The staircase was constructed to a very high quality in less than three months and with material brought from the United States. To a large extent, it is a natural amphitheater that joins various areas of Havana. It is also a historically valuable site that plays host to strong university values. From here the annual March of the Torches commences the night of every January 27, in homage to Cuba’s National Hero José Martí.
This sculpture of the Alma Mater is one of the most famous in the world. Unlike the vast majority of the works at La Colina, undertaken by Cuban engineers and architects, Czech-American sculptor Mario Korbel is responsible for this figure. Korbel used two models to craft the statue: a very young girl for the face and a woman aged around 30 for the rest of the body. To a large extent the Alma Mater spatially organizes the entire university campus. There is an imaginary line that connects it with the Aula Magna. You can walk without any obstacles between the sculpture and the rector’s office. This central route allows you to cross the Rectorate building, Ignacio Agramonte Plaza (once Plaza Cadenas), the Central Library, and enter the Aula Magna.
The Havana University Hill is majestic, monumental, visible, and at the same time very intimate. It includes very imposing spaces that combine with more modest areas of the institution’s everyday life. One of its busiest areas is Agramonte Plaza (pictured), but it also has small open air sites such as the Hugo Chávez, Martí, Lídice and Los Ilustres parks. Less than half of the UH’s 18 faculties are located at La Colina.
Another of the places most beloved among students and teachers is the Aula Magna. It was completed in October, 1911, and was the first university building. Its physiognomy has changed little since then. While the exterior of the building is quite simple, the opposite is true of its extremely majestic interior. The first solemn act that took place here was the unveiling of the sepulchral monument that guards the remains of Félix Varela. The Aula Magna is a special site due to its history. Many great national and international leaders and personalities have been received here, such as Pope John Paul II. Fidel spoke regularly here. In the last two years the presidents of France, Portugal and the prime minister of Canada have visited the auditorium.
In addition to its architecture, the university’s heritage is enriched with documents, archives and libraries. The UH has museums of Natural History and Anthropology, an astronomical observatory, as well as Archeology and Art collections. In order to instill an appreciation of the institution in students, courses on its heritage have been included in different study programs. Since 2013 the university has joined the Rutas y Andares (Walks and Wanderings) project of the Havana City Historian’s Office, and proved very popular among the public.
The whole design of this campus evokes a classical spirit, but fundamentally a reinterpretation of the codes of antiquity. The idea of wisdom and a love of knowledge are constantly evoked in buildings, sculptures, paintings, names, and the personalities honored. This is the case of Cuban professor and zoologist Felipe Poey Aloy, whose remains lie in the building that bears his name, and which today houses the Faculty of Mathematics and Computing.