The space surrounded by Perú, Moreno, Bolívar and Adolfo Alsina Streets has traditionally been known as Manzana de las Luces
-which stands for “The Block of Enlightenment” in Spanish- because it used to house, among other entities, the first college in Buenos Aires
. The first university also served there and today it is the headquarters of Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires
. These lights of knowledge have illuminated many national heroes. The Jesuits and the Beginnings of Buenos Aires
The history of the Block of Enlightenment is even older than the buildings located today in it (some of them are the most ancient in Buenos Aires). Their first dwellers were the Jesuits. First, with their primitive constructions, then with their buildings made of brick and clay, they developed various activities.
Today, the Procuraduría de las Misiones
(the Missions Procurator’s Office) and the first pharmacy in town may be visited. Beyond their original functions, these buildings have fulfilled different roles throughout history.
It was particularly interesting for us to see constructions that may seem like ruins and, hidden among the rest of the buildings in Buenos Aires, look older than them. The Tunnels: History Lies Beneath
Not much is known about the tunnel network that used to exist under the City of Buenos Aires, how long it really was or what they were used for exactly. Some people have suggested that they would be used for defense purposes or as a place to hide smuggled goods.
Today, a small part of that network still exists. It was interrupted in several spots by the new constructions raised as the city developed. Some of those tunnels remain under The Block and they may be seen, though not walked due to preservation matters.
Going down some meters underground and peeping at some stretches in the dark let us imagine what life used to be like there. Once again, we were amazed to find such a distant mystery hidden under the streets we walk every day. We started to think that Buenos Aires may not belong to us after all.
Viceregal Houses and Church
Other buildings have also witnessed to history. Even though they date back from different periods and they have fulfilled very different functions, all of them are concentrated in this block that seems to have more and more to offer.
On the one hand, on the corner of Alsina and Bolívar Streets, there lies San Ignatius’s Church. It dates back from 1712 and several Jesuit architects participated in its construction. This was the first church in Buenos Aires and its south tower is the most ancient construction in town. The whole history of Argentina seems to have touched it at one point or another.
On the other side, on the corner of Perú and Moreno Streets, there are some buildings dating back from the viceregal period. They represent one of the few vestiges from those days in the city. Raised as houses for rent, they have sheltered a long list of institutions of capital importance for the country as decades went by.
The College and End
What we know today as Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires (possibly the most prestigious high school venue in the country) has had many names throughout history and lodged brilliant minds. But it has always been in the Block of Enlightenment.
Before the present building featuring Neo-classical French style raised in the early Twentieth century, there used to be others. Originally founded by the Jesuits, the college passed onto the hands of the state after they were expelled from the territory of the colonies. And it was Bartolomé Mitre who, in 1863, founded this college and named it as we know it today.
Of course the college is still operating in the venue, but at the weekends, guided tours are available for visitors.
The Block of Enlightenment offers many more things than can possibly be appreciated in this article. It is well worth a visit.