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January 23, 2006

REINERIO A. ALBA

Urban dwellers who have gone accustomed to seeing Metro Manila as an urban jungle may have to re-visit Manila soon to re-open their eyes to the sampling of architectural treasures and historical sites the country has. And one will be surprised at how such an array of sites with historical and cultural importance practically awaits everyone just around the corner.

Eight out of ten people in Metro Manila, with or without their knowledge, have likely passed by a house or a building that has that conspicuous black marker in its walls, specifically stating the history of the structure from the time it was built. No, these are not houses marked for demolition and neither are such structures damned, as in M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Village. Such “marked” places are called heritage sites.

Heritage sites follow UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) general definition of World Heritage Sites as “a forest, mountain range, lake, desert, building, complex, city or preserved sites that are of outstanding importance, either cultural or natural, to the common heritage of humankind” as adopted under an international World Heritage program by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16 November 1972.  

Heritage sites in the country, in this case, are of outstanding importance to our common heritage as Filipinos.

And which government agency identifies and puts such markers then?  It is the National Historical Institute (NHI), created in 1972, and located in Kalaw, Manila that is currently responsible for the conservation and preservation of the country’s historical legacies.

Students around the so-called university belt from España to Morayta to Legarda in Manila who suddenly find themselves with a lot of hours in their hands between classes may do well to “take a walk” and discover that one need not fly a plane to see heritage sites like Vigan (declared World Heritage Site in 1999). And these places need not always have a marker on them either. Students of the University of Santo Tomas, moved to its present site in 1927, should make the most of their everyday stay within its compound–UST after all is the oldest existing university in Asia (founded in 1611 with its original site in Intramuros, at the right side of the BF Condominium Building). In terms of student population, it also is the largest Catholic university in the world located in one campus, and the only university bestowed with the title “Royal” by King Charles III of Spain in 1758, while Pope Leo XIII granted the title “Pontifical” in 1902.

Crossing over from España to Morayta,  just around the corner from the Far Eastern University, is the newly restored historic Gota de Leche building at 859 Lepanto Street (now S. H. Loyola), a long-forgotten Manila architectural landmark.

For its architectural value, NHI has installed a historical marker in the building in April 2004, Gota de Leche’s second marker after its first, which honored the pioneering and historic work of La Proteccion de la Infancia, parent NGO of Gota de Leche, which also spearheaded the restoration of the building, the same building where it was founded.

The Gota de Leche, true to its name (translated as “drop of milk”) has been a feeding center for indigent children since 1907. The original low building was designed by architect Arcadio Arellano in 1915 and was completed two years later in 1917. It was modeled after one of the architecture world’s icons, the Ospedale degli Innocenti, an orphanage in Florence, designed and built by the renowned Renaissance architect Brunelleschi, an inspiration that well served Gota de Leche’s function.

Today, Gota has expanded its services to include mothers. It is now also the headquarters of the Kababaihan Laban sa Karahasan Foundation, an NGO focused on women’s rights. It even has a canteen and an Internet center—a real treat for students and researchers.

Nearby FEU is also a “heritage site” in itself, especially with its circa 1930-1949 Art Deco buildings designed by Pablo Antonio, one of the country’s national artists for architecture.

Within the area too is the San Sebastian Church, the only steel church in Asia that was built by the Augustinian Recollect Order in 1886. The parts were fabricated in Brussels, Belgium and were shipped to Manila for assembly. This Gothic Revival Church was put under NHI conservation program after having been identified as a world endangered site plagued as it is by years of rust caused by air pollution.

From FEU, one can opt to take a ride going to Quiapo to visit its 16th century church where the Black Nazarene is, a dark hardwood statue of Jesus of Nazareth made by a Mexican craftsman and brought via galleon from Mexico in the 18th century. One could even take a tour of the Bahay Nakpil at Bautista street, the old house of the prominent family of the Nakpils that has been turned into a gallery.

One can also choose to proceed to take a jeepney ride from Legarda to SM Manila to get to the Andres Bonifacio Shrine near the Manila City Hall, a national shrine, which features a story-high Bonifacio sculpture by Eduardo Castrillo. 

Those interested in pre-World War II architecture would find Manila, a virtual architectural mine. One can choose to walk further down through the Central Station for a visit of the Metropolitan Theater (or Met) that sits on an 8,393.58-sqm lot on the Mehan Garden property. The Met was forced to close down in 1996 due to dwindling audience patronage, but is currently undergoing major renovation. Built in 1932 at a cost of P1 million, the theater is flanked by the neo-classical structures of the Post Office Building across Lawton and the old Legislative Building, all three structures being architect Juan Arellano’s creations.

What would be worth seeing still at the Met are the murals “The Dance” and “History of Music,” done by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, which greet theatergoers at its lobby.

One could either go forward to the Post Office Building to check for oneself whether its large columns are Doric or Ionic ones or one could go back to the Manila City Hall. Done in the 1930s, the Manila City Hall is a clear landmark of Manila, but what makes the visit to it much more interesting, if one does not know it yet, is that it is home to the murals of Carlos “Botong” Francisco, another National Artist for Visual Arts, in the anteroom of the Mayor’s Office. If Michelangelo had the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling as the largest display space for his genius, Botong has Manila City Hall as his. This mural of many parts is considered by many as his obra maestra. capturing a visual history of the City of Manila and the country, executed in the lyrical and heroic style that was to start a “school” later after his death in 1969.

Just across from Manila City Hall is another heritage site: Intramuros. Intramuros is a 16th-century walled city that encloses within its walls such historical landmarks as Fort Santiago, San Agustin Church, Manila Cathedral and Casa Manila Museum. It is home more importantly to San Agustin Church, the Philippines’ oldest church, which not only features an NHI marker but a UNESCO marker as well. A visit to the San Agustin Museum within it is a virtual immersion in the “treasures” of Intramuros, and yes, do not forget to look for the niche of Juan Luna on your visit there.

One can also visit the Palacio del Gobernador, and just across from it, is Intramuros’ turn-of-the-20th-century fire station. This tour of old fire stations in Manila in Tanduay, San Nicolas, and Paco could bring in great discoveries of its own like those organized by the Heritage Conservation Society.

If one gets a ride at one of the Intramuros Gates at Round Table going to Baclaran, one will likely pass by the 413 year-old Our Lady of Remedios Church or Malate Church, founded by the Augustinians in 1588. Further down at Vito Cruz, one will find just across Century Park Hotel a quaint hotel with a marker: the Orchid Garden Suites, recognized by UNESCO in 2001 for its high quality of preservation or adaptive re-use.

This article has just covered a small part of Manila area, and there are obviously many more places to see and visit, places considered culturally and historically important. Of course,  there are the major visits to plan to see “the” World Heritage Sites Baroque Churches of the Philippines (1993), Tubbataha Reef Marine Park (1993 ),Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras (1995), Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park (1999 ), and Historic Town of Vigan (1999), but the important thing is to realize that one need not have a huge amount of money to see a heritage site. One need only to keep one’s eyes open for such places. A grateful heart comes in handy, too.