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Reminiscences of Gota de Leche |

Arts and Culture

Reminiscences of Gota de Leche

- Impy Pilapil -
The phrase Gota de Leche literally means "drop of milk," and no, I am not writing about a fountain of milk, but a charming old building in an obscure street called S. Loyola, between C. M. Recto Ave. and R. Papa St., in Sampaloc, Manila .

It was my first time to hear about this building from architect Augusto Villalon when he took me for a tour of the National Museum with his wife Darla. The name Gota de Leche so intrigued me that I asked him to tell me more about it. So, we decided to continue our talk over lunch to get more details.

I was a Malate person for the longest time, I told the couple, and never had the intention of leaving it. Unfortunately, I could not find a suitable place to buy in the area when I needed to move out of my apartment in the early ’80s. With much regret and a broken heart, I could only find a house away from there and was compelled to move to Makati.

Realizing that I hardly go to the area now, not to mention that it is always an ordeal to go through Manila traffic, Darla took the opportunity to take me to a place I have never been to. I was excited that she chose one that I had been meaning to visit and try, the Orchidarium in Rizal Park. It was truly a pleasant surprise to see this sanctuary in the middle of a busy city and right at the heart of Rizal Park. I saw its usefulness to the school children, who go there for workshops, picnics and educational tours. There is also a small restaurant, which has a simple menu and serves good food. My mind reeled at the thought of how many such sanctuaries could be built out of the money spent for one hideous Boracay mansion. Of course, I had to snap out of it before it got me all upset.

So why Gota de Leche, I asked the mild-mannered architect Villalon?

He explained that it is a center for helping children, and it has been so for about 100 years already.

"Every Thursday is consultation day, when Gota de Leche receives over 250 children beneficiaries of the nutrition program it has created. The house provides for free the services of a resident pediatrician, who checks the babies and certifies which of them are to receive free weekly rations of milk," he says.

I got really curious about this place and asked them to take me so I could see it for myself.

Driving through downtown Manila was a bit disconcerting for me. It was simply a contradiction to the high-tech world of today’s 21st century lifestyle. I’m not even talking about the progress of business there, but the general look of the place, which is one of decay. The dreary and deteriorating atmosphere stared at me wherever I looked. I was aghast and virtually in a state of disbelief.

"What happened to us?" I asked the Villalon couple, and both of them could only heave a sigh of sadness.

"We just try our best, and under such circumstances, everyone should still try his best," said Villalon in his characteristically calm voice.

I felt a surge of relief and delight when we reached a narrow street and our car suddenly turned into a clean, cemented parking lot. Then, I had a surreal feeling at finding this beautiful building amidst the chaos and the deteriorating surroundings that are now a too common sight in our city.

This is the Gota de Leche compound, Darla said. I looked around and felt fortunate that the property had a lawn that kept the building away from the streets around it. The building stands distinctively in the middle of a manicured garden. Thank God, there are still those who maintain their properties, which most people never bother to do anymore these days.

Darla said, "Well, Toti was asked to undertake the restoration of the building two years ago, and so this was just finished in the last couple of months."

Of course, I heard this information not from the architect himself. He is a self-effacing gentleman, who was simply happy to show me a noteworthy structure with a noble purpose.

"Tell me about it and what you did," I asked Villalon, and he explained that the structure is one of the forgotten jewels of Philippine architecture.

It is a low arcaded building jointly designed in 1916 by local architectural icons Arcadio and Juan Arellano. It takes its form from a classic architectural landmark from the Renaissance, the Ospedale degli Innocenti, built in Florence in 1419 by another master architect, Brunelleschi. The building’s name translates to "hospital of the innocent" and, quite appropriately, it became an orphanage.

Villalon said, "The structure has lasted a century, and while physically it was in a sorry state, its heritage-quality bone structure stood out."

"Who was Brunelleschi, and why did you call him a master architect?" I asked.

Villalon readily said, "Oh, he was the Renaissance architect who was responsible for the revolutionary design of the cupola of the Duomo in Florence." Clearly, this architect knows his history.

"Let us go inside and let me give you a tour," architect Villalon said, as he looked for the head custodian who kept the keys. The present Gota de Leche occupied just a small part of the original building, he explained, as we entered the building.

"Do you know that as soon as I saw the framed photograph hanging on their wall, it was instant déjà vu! You know why? The picture was an identical print of the one that once hung on the wall of my grandmother’s house when I was a child. As one of the memories associated with our old family house, it was an inexplicable thrill to be unexpectedly revisiting this particular memory, except that the visual it was connected to was on someone else’s wall," he said.

So what was it doing here? The architect was puzzled.

"The 1922 photograph shows my grandfather sitting around a circular table with other stern-faced board members of the La Proteccion de la Infancia (the Protection of Infancy), a charitable institution established in 1907. The names of the colleagues with him around the table have long passed into history: Mrs. Leonard Wood, Mrs. Aurora Quezon, Mrs. Librada Avelino, Teodoro Tangco, Ariston Bautista, Joaquin Quintos and Natividad Almeda Lopez," he added.

Villalon continued with his story: " My family’s copy of this portrait hung on the wall above the telephone outside my widowed grandmother’s bedroom in the house where she and my grandfather brought up their children. It was a spacious wooden house in the middle of what were then the open fields of Mandaluyong. The same fields still surrounded us when it was my generation’s turn to grow up there. I suppose the old house would be called ancestral today. But a drastic 1980s remodeling totally changed the way it looked. It cut off all ties with the shared patrimony of our family as embodied in the old house."

You must have been close to your grandfather, I said.

"Actually I was not," the architect said with sadness. "He died before I was born and so, I did not get to know much about him. The members of my family who knew him said he once led a full physician’s life dedicated to humankind. The old photograph is one of my few visual links with him."

"Dr. Jose Fabella, my grandfather, was the Public Welfare Commissioner at the time the portrait was taken, which is proof that he did lead a life of service, as I was told. His involvement with the La Proteccion de la Infancia grew out of his concern for the welfare of indigent children, and the same organization was the NGO that ran Gota de Leche, which is a charity organization that gave out free milk and provided medical attention to indigent babies at that time. One will be amazed to know that, since its founding in 1907, it has continued to carry out its mission without stopping to this day."

Records show that Fabella was the president of the La Proteccion de la Infancia from 1931 to 1935. The presidency eventually passed on to Justice Natividad Almeda Lopez from 1936 to 1976. Her daughter, Lourdes Almeda Lopez-Sarabia, took over from her and is the current president of the institution now.

" I had the most unusual feeling when the staff of the present administration took out from storage the same round table that was in the foreground of my grandfather’s photograph. To celebrate the table’s return to the room where it had originally been, a great lunch was laid out for the foundation staff and construction crew," he said.

"My work was done and the last months spent working on the architectural restoration of the building brought mixed feelings of pride and elation, and to have lunch on that table spelled more than the usual thanksgiving at the end of a job I did from the heart. I touched the table, which brought me back to family roots, and I realized that this was the only architectural restoration project that I had done, which linked me with my own personal heritage," he added.

"Have you brought your kids here?" I asked the architect.

"Well, Darla and I plan to bring our children and grandsons to the Gota de Leche one of these days. It would be a thrill to show them the old photograph that will now hang with renewed pride of place on the restored wall of the main salon, in the very same room where the photograph was originally taken. I am imagining them already having lunch like I did on the same table, in full view of their great grandfather’s portrait. That will be quite a lunch that should live on as a treasured family memory."

As we left the compound, one cannot ignore the deteriorating commercial and residential structures that form a sorry backdrop to the graceful architectural lines of Gota de Leche.

The architect could only nod his head. "Imagine, an oasis of heritage right in the middle of an overpopulated and polluted neighborhood."

Yes," I said. It looks like it just does not belong here – but at the same time, I like the element of surprise that it brings.

Last week, the Gota de Leche was given a special award by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at the 2003 Unesco Asia Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. As lead conservation architect and coordinator of the project, architect Villalon was elated and quick to mention and acknowledge his whole team.

The Unesco citation reads: "The careful restoration of the 1917 Gota de Leche building provides a welcome model for preserving Manila’s rich architectural and social history. The removal of unsympathetic additions, the restoration of the original landscaping and the use of traditional crafts and skills in repairing the dilapidated building have been undertaken within a clear and low-intervention conservation framework. Returning the building to its original appearance and prominence in the University Belt neighborhood provides a worthy and appropriate setting for the sustained operation of Gota de Leche’s charitable programs – while demonstrating a commendable commitment to advancing the local conservation agenda."

If you wish to visit, learn about or support the La Proteccion de la Infancia, contact Gota de Leche at 736-0508. All donations to Gota are completely tax-deductible.

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