The Struggle to Save the Philippines’ Architectural Heritage

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The Struggle to Save the Philippines’ Architectural Heritage

The recent blaze at the Manila Central Post Office highlighted the challenges in keeping the depredations of time and private commercial interests at bay.

The Struggle to Save the Philippines’ Architectural Heritage

A boat passes by the still smoldering Manila Central Post Office after it caught fire early Monday, May 22, 2023 in Manila, Philippines.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

The question of how to preserve heritage sites of the Philippines isn’t exactly new, but its importance was underscored by the recent fire that gutted the century-old Manila Central Post Office. The blaze, which was reportedly due to a car battery explosion, prompted renewed calls for action to restore the country’s historical heritage and the preservation of heritage sites that are either threatened with demolition or slowly disintegrating due to neglect.

In particular, legislators and experts are calling for efforts to preserve Manila’s remaining architectural and historical buildings. The fire, which caused damage estimated at 300 million pesos ($5.4 million), prompted the Philippine Senate to form a special committee that will handle the rehabilitation of the damaged building through a resolution filed by Senate President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda.

Legarda released a statement after the fire calling for additional support to be given to the Philippine Postal Corporation (PhilPost) and urging investigations into the fire. She also suggested the establishment of the Philippine Museum of Philatelic History and the redevelopment of the destroyed part of the post office into an arts and culture hub.

Since then, similar calls to preserve what remained of Manila’s surviving architectural gems have only grown louder. In a Facebook post, former Senator Richard “Dick” Gordon, who once served as tourism secretary, expressed hopes that the incident would finally prompt officials to create guidelines for preserving the country’s heritage sites. In response to speculations that the fire was deliberately lit in order to clear the site for commercial development, Manila Mayor Honey Lacuna-Pangan reminded the public that the site of the post office is protected by the city’s zoning ordinance and its status as an important cultural property.

Looking Back

This isn’t the first instance of a historical building in the Philippines fighting to survive the passage of time. Manila alone has numerous historical buildings dating back as far as the Spanish colonial times. Most of them were old churches built by Spanish missionaries and friars, while others were Bahay na Bato (House of Stone) buildings built by the ruling elite of that time and stone forts used to guard the colonial seat of the government from pirates and rival powers such as Great Britain. There were also numerous buildings built during the period of American colonial rule, among them the neoclassical Manila Post Office, which was completed in 1928.

Aside from Manila and the rest of the National Capital Region, there are other historical structures left by the Spanish and American colonizers in other parts of the country.

However, a lot of buildings were damaged and destroyed during World War II, especially during the Battle of Manila in 1945, which saw fierce urban fighting. Some of the buildings destroyed were no longer rebuilt or restored and many of those left standing faced imminent destruction.

In an effort to save the Philippines’ remaining historical treasures, the National Cultural Heritage Act, officially designated as Republic Act No. 10066, was authored by then-Representative Sonny Angara and passed into law back in 2009. The law mandates the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) to create a Philippine Registry of Cultural Property to record all cultural properties that are considered to be important cultural heritage to the Philippines.

The law also mandates the preservation of buildings that are over 50 years old, while houses of historical value can be declared a “Heritage House” by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines and historical markers placed on the buildings to indicate their historical significance.

The law requires Local Government Units (LGUs) to maintain an inventory of cultural and historical property under their jurisdiction and submit a copy to the NCCA. It also required private owners to register any personal properties that are deemed culturally and historically important to the country, although they are permitted to retain ownership of said items.

Mixed Results

However, despite the government’s best efforts to protect what remains of the country’s built heritage, the results of the ongoing conservation program to preserve or restore historical buildings and cultural heritages have been uneven.

Many prominent heritage buildings in Metro Manila were successfully preserved or restored, including Fort Santiago, Fort San Antonio Abad, La Loma Cemetery, Paco Park, the Manila Cathedral, the San Agustin Church, and the main building of the University of Santo Tomas, as well as other Spanish-era baroque churches.

However, Manila and its surrounding regions have also lost many other historical gems, to say nothing of the situation in regions outside of the National Capital Region, especially in provinces where tourism isn’t highly prioritized.

There are many reasons why the Philippines had a hard time saving and restoring its endangered historical gems. One is that incumbent officials often prioritize projects that require tearing down an old building with cultural or historical value to make room for new developments. For example, in 2000, the Manila Jai Alai Building, completed in 1940 and long considered among the most impressive Art Deco buildings in Asia, was demolished by then Manila Mayor Lito Atienza to make way for the construction of the Manila Hall of Justice, which ended up being built elsewhere.

Before the demolition, the NCCA, the NHCP (then called the National Historical Institute), and other heritage experts pleaded to Malacanang and the Manila City Hall to preserve the iconic building but their pleas fell on deaf ears, as there were also concerns about the integrity of the foundations of the dilapidated building. The demolition of the Manila Jai Alai Building caused outrage among cultural and historical enthusiasts, and the backlash contributed to the passage of the National Cultural Heritage Act in 2009.

Aside from prioritizing government projects, heritage sites have also fallen victim to neglect and exposure to the elements. One example of this is the original house of the revolutionary hero, Fancisco Makabulos, which is located in La Paz, Tarlac Province. Despite earlier assurances that the house would be repaired, the two-story building ended up being demolished in 2018. However, plans to rebuild his ancestral house were announced in 2021, and the NHCP unveiled a historical marker on the grounds while a groundbreaking ceremony was conducted.

There have also been structures that were demolished completely or partially due to internal disputes between members of the family who owned the building. The famous Bahay na Pula (literally, Red House in Tagalog) is an unfortunate example of this. True to its name, the now-dilapidated house was painted in red but mostly made out of wood.

The house became notorious for being a witness to one of the most brutal Japanese war crimes committed during World War II and much to the dismay of heritage conservationists, was partially demolished because of the internal dispute between various members of the Ilusorio family, who owned the house. There were also questions whether it was worth keeping the structure considering its dark past.

Future Opportunities and Challenges

The efforts of the special committee to rehabilitate the Manila Post Office show that there is indeed a concerted government effort to preserve and restore the country’s cultural and historical sites. However, this exists alongside a general lack of interest among most government officials to hold the line against the various factors that are leading to the destruction of built heritage. Despite the existence of the heritage conservation law, it is barely implemented.

Aside from rapid development, clan disputes, and the forces of nature, a general lack of interest can also be seen as having a hand in the disruption of efforts to protect the Philippines’ heritage sites. This can be attributed to the fact that government officials would rather prioritize the needs of investors over the nation’s cultural heritage, especially when projects involve the commercialization of historical sites. There are also concerns that officials are not especially interested in long-term heritage projects that could last beyond their terms in office. Moreover, a lack of actual budget for preserving and monitoring what’s left of our historical sites as well as manpower shortages are hurting efforts at conservation.

So far, most of the Philippines’ well-preserved cultural and historical sites are also top tourist destinations. These include Fort Santiago, the Aguinaldo Shrine, the Banaue Rice Terraces, the Rizal Shrine, the Spanish-era houses in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, and the ruins of Corregidor Island, as well as many of the Spanish-era churches that are still in use by the local Catholic Church. The Philippine government can start expanding its efforts to preserve and restore its heritage sites by partnering with the LGUs to promote their endangered sites as tourist attractions. This can be done as a compromise between preserving or restoring important sites and prioritizing the local economy by hiring their constituents as tourist guides and workers to maintain the historical structures.

Legislators can also add more provisions such as incentives for the preservation and protection of heritage sites as well as stiff penalties for involved stakeholders failing to protect a particular heritage site.

Although calls for the protection and preservation of the Philippines’ heritage sites have been going on for years, the burning of the Manila Postal Office, an iconic structure in the capital, has intensified calls for all stakeholders to do more. The issue is now in the government’s hands.