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Forgotten Fergusson

Plaza Fergusson in Manila is paved with slippery tiles better meant for indoor flooring.

Today we bring you to Manila and the first plaza of the capital to be featured in this column’s continuing series on Philippine plazas. Although old Manila has many large plazas of note and size, we will start with this small, but not inconsequential, public space in the Noble and Ever Loyal City of Manila.

Just off Roxas Boulevard and right before reaching United Nations Avenue traveling north is a sliver of space currently named Plaza Guerrero. The plaza is only 20 meters wide and stretches just over 100 meters inward crossing Alhambra and Guerrero Streets to MH Del Pilar Street and the Ermita Church. This may be the reason for the space, since most churches established in the Spanish era had to have an open space in front of it.

The plaza is named after noted Filipino poet Fernando Ma. Guerrero. A plaque acknowledges this homage to the poet celebrated as the “Prince of Philippine Lyric Poetry.” It proclaims that he was “’El Maestro’ to a whole generation of Filipino poets who wrote ardent nationalistic poetry in Spanish.” The marker was installed in 1999 by Mayor Jose Atienza Jr., the Museo Pambata Foundation, Inc. and the Philippine Board on Books for Young People.”

The plaza was originally called Plaza de Mercado because of a market reportedly near it in the 1800s. The market may have been a seasonal one in the plaza itself as seen in an 1898 map.  The same map shows the Ermita Church or the Church of Our Lady of Guidance. The church is today the Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Guidance and home to the oldest Marian statue on the country.

The church, as most structures were then, was made of wood and thatch. The story is that it was made to protect an image of Our Lady of Guidance, where Spanish soldiers found it in the late 16th century.  The church underwent several reconstructions, into stone, and then concrete after its post-war rebuilding. The current church is the design of architect Carlos  A. Santos-Viola, who is better known for his art deco-ish Iglesia ni Kristos churches.

Until the end of the Spanish era the plaza was also known as Plaza Nuestra Señora de Guia. In the American colonial period, the plaza was re-named after Arthur Walsh Fergusson, a ranking government official in the early American colonial period. He was Executive Secretary for the American colonial government and served various Governors General from 1901-1908.

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Fergusson was born in California in 1859 but spent his childhood in Mexico, where he gained a facility with the Spanish language. He earned a law degree from Georgetown University and pursued careers in journalism and law.

He eventually parleyed his linguistic skills, first as translator to various international commissions of the American government, then to a key position as Spanish secretary of the US Philippine Commission sent to Manila in 1900.

Fergusson made himself indispensable in all key discussions between the new civilian government and the Filipino elite, who, in the first decade of the American era were still grappling with the English language. Fergusson died in office in 1908.

He was memorialized with a bust on a marble plinth. This bust and the plaza was a landmark of the American period.

 

 

 

 

After liberation, Fergusson Plaza was still a noted place for Manilans. The districts of Ermita, Malate, Paco and Singalong still had residences of the rich until the 1950s and the centers of business were still nearby. The area around the plaza was full of restaurants and cafes including the original Swiss Inn, the famous Taza de Oro, and the New Europe Restaurant.

In the 1960s the bust and its plaza was given a face-lift. This was concurrent with the renovation of Rizal Park. The restaurants and nightclubs of Roxas Boulevard were still frequented until the 1970s. From the late ’70s onwards the district deteriorated because city life transferred to the suburban centers of Makati and Ortigas.

The plaza still kept evolving. A Marian statue sculpted by Ed Castrillo replaced Fergusson, which was transferred to the U.S. Embassy garden. Jaime Laya reports that it stands there with another landmark that stood on Plaza Cervantes (Binondo).

Today the plaza is a dark stretch of space, obscured by un-kempt trees and a landscape that has been allowed to deteriorate. Few notice the plaza, which has also hosted a playground for a spell (now removed).

Renovations have not helped the space improve. The city of Manila’s designers have paved most of the plaza with slippery tiles that are really meant for indoor salas and not outdoor plazas. The plaza is also filled with ornamentation that does not help its deficit of aesthetics. A new guardhouse or tanod shelter was recently erected exactly on one corner of the plaza blocking pedestrian paths. In fact, most of the sidewalks around the plaza, as well as the plaza itself is full of vendors. Their numbers increase every Sunday because of the masses at the church.

The plaza is a wasted opportunity to imbue the district with quality public space. Cleaning and clearing the plaza to create better views and more functional settings with more suitable paving and seating would be a step in the right direction. The small tourist hotels in the district would benefit if the plaza, as well as the streets in the Ermita district, were better maintained, cleared of ambulant vendors who block circulation, and provided with a police presence.

This plaza, like Mr. Fergusson, has been largely forgotten. Few people go out of their way to visit the plaza, which could actually be a pleasant spot for locals and tourists alike. As it is now, I would rate this plaza a 4 out of 10, the lowest rating since this series started.

Hopefully this hidden gem will shine again one day.

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Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.

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