From Manila’s Queen of Streets
#selfiEscolta. A bank that looks like a spaceship. Making heritage ‘competitive.’
WORDS Pola Esguerra del Monte | PHOTOS Philip James F. Dagun
The Queen sits by the river, stately and unperturbed, though war has taken its toll on her monuments. Escolta, Manila’s former Queen of Streets, was the country’s central business district before World War II prompted business establishments to flee to Makati one by one. Broken glass and unwashed walls are all that remain of Escolta’s glory.
Grime and fetor coat the Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts structures overlooking the Pasig River. Manila’s horizon is marred by electric wires and tarpaulin faces swaying in the wind. This same wind carries Escolta’s stench—a mix of stagnant water and pungent urine—into adjacent streets, where students from De La Salle University (DLSU) are walking with their mobile devices out. Arms extended, lips puckered, faces angled for the camera, they tour the Escolta district and snap photographs of themselves against ruined buildings.
In seconds, their images—hashtag “selfiEscolta”—join an Instagram gallery of 638 posts (and counting), where the terms “art deco” and “art nouveau” are thrown around with ease by teenagers. The hashtag yields pretty images, filtered and cropped accordingly, of a seemingly Western city comparable to Paris, New York, and Barcelona.
These #selfiEscolta posts are by-products of the walking tours organized by the Youth Arm of the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS-Y), in coordination with the Escolta Commercial Association, Inc. (ECAI). “You walk down the streets and you see different architectures from different times. That’s the main edge of Escolta. You can’t see that in Makati,” said Stephen Pamorada, president of HCS-Y. Mr. Pamorada, a fresh graduate of Philippine Studies from DLSU, was leading the morning tour for Lasallians. In his spiel, he repeatedly used the term “Escolta” to refer to the entire district, not just the short street of the same name. The nomenclature is a branding strategy that separates Escolta from Binondo (the district it technically belongs to) and Binondo’s immediate association with Chinatown.
DOWN MEMORY LANE
The tour begins at the Escolta Ferry Station, though no jaunts along the Pasig River are made. Standing right in front of the station is the Commercial Bank and Trust Co. building. Designed by National Artist for Architecture Jose Maria Zaragoza, it is now the Escolta branch of Bank of the Philippine Islands or BPI. Built in the 1960s, the “spaceship-looking building” (the tour guide’s words) bears the imprints of Brutalism, a postmodern movement that saw architects veering away from tradition into futuristic concepts.
A few steps under the bridge takes tourists to the corner of the controversial El Hogar Filipino Building and the Juan Luna e-Services Building. The 100-year-old El Hogar, designed in 1914 by architects Ramon Irureta-Goyena and Francisco Perez Muñoz, is an American-Colonial period building that housed the financing cooperative Sociedad El Hogar Filipino. “The building is run-down,” said Mr. Pamorada, “but you can still see its beauty and elegance.”
The building, commissioned by Don Antonio Melian as a wedding gift for his wife Margarita Zobel de Ayala, is at risk of being turned into a warehouse#if not demolished. It’s a pity since El Hogar, a fine example of Neoclassical and Renaissance styles, has sculptural adornments on its arched windows and cornices as well as Beaux-Arts symmetry.
There’s a sharp contrast between El Hogar and the Juan Luna e-Services Building in front of it. Unlike El Hogar, the Juan Luna Building was subjected to adaptive reuse. Its Neoclassical style and prominent columns look fresh, despite dating back to 1922 when the building served as the Binondo branch of the First National City Bank (now known as Citibank). In 1969, the interior of the building was renovated according to the design of National Artist Leandro V. Locsin. Plans to turn it into a business process outsourcing (BPO) hub fell through; it’s present incarnation is a mixed-use commercial building with a food court on the ground floor and a breathtaking view of Escolta from its seventh-floor balcony.
The tour passes through Plaza Cervantes, named after Spanish literary giant Miguel de Cervantes, which is surrounded by the old buildings of banks and insurance companies such as BPI, Insular Life, and HSBC. The HSBC building was designed to be at par with the best office buildings of the pre-war period, hence its classical features such as decorative consoles, cornices, cartouches, and pilasters. Other notable landmarks include the Art Deco-style Geronimo de los Reyes Building, the Art Nouveau Uy-Chaco Building, and the Art Deco Insular Life Building that was designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, son of Juan Luna.
Beyond business, the Escolta district also catered to the people’s recreational needs. Near Plaza Moraga used to stand the country’s first ice cream store, Clarke’s Ice Cream Parlor. In the early 1900s, ice cream was an indulgence for the rich: ice was imported since refrigerators had yet to be invented, making ice cream a costly treat. Another structure by Luna de San Pedro, the Crystal Arcade, was the most high-end department store in the Philippines before World War II as well as the country’s first air-conditioned building. Meanwhile, still standing in the district is National Artist Juan Nakpil’s 800-seat Capitol Theater. Built in 1935, the Art Deco theater is adorned with bas-relief sculptures by Francesco Riccardo Monti, an Italian sculptor who collaborated with many Filipino architects while he lived in the country from 1930 to 1958.
The tour moves to The Philippine National Bank or PNB Building, built in 1962 and designed by Carlos Arguelles, the same designer of the PhilamLife Theater and the Manila Hilton (now Manila Pavilion) Hotel. It was the most expensive building constructed in Manila then and played a vital role in the street life of Escolta. Before the Central Bank was established in 1949, it was the PNB that had the special power to issue circulating notes. The transfer of PNB’s headquarters to Pasay—along with its 5,000-strong work forc—in 1995 was another nail in Escolta’s coffin since small-business owners lost vital patronage. The abandoned building caught fire in January this year, with structural damage estimated at Php20 million.
The tour ends on a hopeful note, with buildings that are well-maintained by their owners. The Calvo Building, built in 1938, is an outstanding example of Beaux-Arts architecture. The Burke Building, built in the 1920s and designed by pioneer architect Tomas Arguelles, is the site of the first elevator in the Philippines. The late Fernando Poe, Jr. and current Manila Mayor Joseph E. Estrada held office there. The First United Building, built in 1928 and originally known as the Perez-Samanillo Building, was designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro in the Art Deco style. It was the site of Berg’s Department Store, and the offices of Nora Aunor and the deceased Comedy King Dolphy. Lyric Music Store, another tenant, once hired a young singer to attract customers. She would turn out to be Imelda Marcos.
SOUTHEAST ASIAN PROBLEMS
Retreating to their headquarters at the First United Building, Mr. Pamorada told High Life that the challenge for their organization is marketing heritage to the youth and persuading them of history’s relevance. “We can get inspiration from the stories in the past, the stories that Escolta offers,” Mr. Pamorada said. He believes that without Escolta, there would have been no Manila—it was the core of the city, from which sprouted all of the business establishments, entertainment hubs, and fashion centers. These buildings bore witnesses to Manila’s glorious past. “That’s what we Filipinos of the present times should not forget.”
Clara Buenconsejo, HCS-Y secretary-general, was a Philippine delegate to the 2014 ASEAN Youth Heritage Program held in Malaysia. While there, she observed that the concerns of their organization were no different from those in other Southeast Asian countries.
In Singapore for example, Chinese-Singaporeans see Chinatown architecture as “sanitized” and “inauthentic.” Meanwhile in Malaysia, heritage advocates fight to keep monuments from being lost to a government that wants to build train stations. “Sometimes you have to ask, is this the right kind of development you should be pushing for?” she said. “People forget how important it is to live in a city that actually looks nice.”
THE BUSINESS OF HERITAGE
At one of the regular meetings between HCS-Y and ECAI, High Life caught up with three members of the latter: Gerry Teotico, owner of the Calvo Building; and Roberto and Lorraine Sylianteng, owners of the First United Building. The ECAI members were a little less idealistic than Mr. Pamorada and Ms. Buenconsejo.
This is unsurprising since the association has been trying to revive Escolta for 25 years since it was established as a liaison to City Hall. Building owners who are part of ECAI have been paying the price of heritage conservation: endless maintenance costs, renovations, and vacant rooms that don’t make money. Mr. Teotico estimates that properly maintaining a building requires about Php50,000 a month—an amount owners can’t always spare because they, too, “need to survive.”
"We will never be able to bring it [Escolta] back to its old glory, that’s for sure because the market is different," he said. "There’s a market, there’s business, but it’s different. That’s when we started to think about the arts—heritage—but then we realized you can’t live on heritage alone. This is still a business area." He’s happy to note that HCS-Y understands that it’s not only about culture, it’s also about having a viable business that will earn enough to preserve the buildings.
"Makati is led by Ayala; Ortigas, by Ortigas and Company; Eastwood, by Megaworld," he pointed out. "Here, there’s no one. It’s not easy. Here, we [ECAI] are active, but the other building owners couldn’t care less."
ECAI had close shots at the goal. The organization was excited to find out that the City College of Manila (now Universidad de Manila) was moving into the building vacated by PNB. Hopes were dashed, however. “It was not a proper school,” said Ms. Syliangteng, who lamented the school administration’s lack of money. “These kids, they didn’t have a proper toilet.”
In 2011, it was announced that the Juan Luna e-Services building would be home to a BPO. Had the plan pushed through, Escolta would, by now, have 3,000 to 5,000 people working 24 hours a day. It was not to be. Because of the sad plight of the neighborhood, BPO companies approached by building administrators refused to become tenants. Juan Luna e-Services, which is still being renovated, will house regular offices (a design boutique being one of them). Opening soon, the building still has vacancies.
"It’s really Manila going down in terms of relevance. Escolta, being part of Manila, cannot be different from the whole," Mr. Sylianteng said. "If the tree is rotten, how do you expect to have good fruits?"
THE BUSINESSMAN’S EQUATION
There will always be cities rendered old by newer ones, Mr. Sylianteng pointed out. Now, he says, Makati is threatened by Bonifacio Global City. The cycle goes on. It’s good for heritage conservationists to talk about how early civilizations can stay relevant, he said. The next step, he added, is a nationwide conversation on making heritage “competitive” since these old structures now belong to modern neighborhoods.
He pointed out that there should be a shift in looking at things. The traditional thinking is that when a property’s value depreciates, it’s time to tear it down and build a new structure. “In the accounting sense, you no longer have book value,” he explained. The cost of maintaining an old building versus the appreciating value of land—which is a theoretical value—makes it more enticing for an owner to destroy the existing structure and erect a new building that is six times taller. In other words, “tear down and build high.”
The modern way of thinking, on the other hand, channels the national budget into undeveloped properties and territories.
There’s room for discussion. “On paper, there should be tremendous savings if there were a national policy. But at this point in time, it’s just logic. It would be nice if there were experts to work on it,” he said. “But if you look at the national equation instead of the independent corporate equation, the country has a pool of money for the development of the country. That pool of money can be better channeled to retrofitting, and then developing elsewhere.”
It is for that reason that ECAI turns to HCS-Y: to make people aware of the merits of heritage conservation. The young, unlike ECAI’s jaded members, do not easily lose hope. “If we get our act together, what is real in other countries will be real here,” Mr. Sylianteng said. Back in Escolta, the old buildings remain forlorn. The broken glass and broken walls look like the empty eyes of a Queen waiting for her people to return.