Manila landmarks of the ’30s
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - July 9, 2005 - 12:00am
Continuing our series of landmarks of the metropolis, we now look at landmarks of the immediate pre-war period. This column has featured most of the central Luneta government landmarks of the American and Commonwealth periods like the Manila Hotel, the Army Navy and Elk’s Clubs, the Legislative (Congress) building and the Post Office. This time around, we present other structures in central Manila, which were important landmarks of commerce, leisure and academe.

1. Old Bilibid Prison

Back when criminals did not outnumber our police forces, there were few who had to be incarcerated. A facility was built to house them just outside the city. Bilibid was a "panopticon" type of prison that sought to rehabilitate inmates by teaching them useful skills (like furniture and crafts making). Before the war the population of Bilibid hit the maximum and a new Bilibid was built in the far reaches of Muntinlupa. The old prison walls and ruins are still extant, hidden off Claro M. Recto Avenue. Informal settlers have replaced inmates – a colony of poor urban residents held prisoners by a fate that befalls over three million city folk today. Poverty has sentenced them and the rest of the country to at least a generation more of hard labor.

2. Insular Laboratory/Bureau Of Science Building

On a brighter note was this building designed in 1901 by the first American resident architect Edgar Bourne. The colonial government needed a laboratory to study and store the colony’s rich store of minerals, forest and agricultural products as well as manufactured goods like tobacco and rope. The Mission-style Neoclassic building graced the PGH Complex off Taft Avenue until the war when it was destroyed.

3. The Customs Building

At Manila’s once great harbor still stands the Customs House. Designed by Antonio Toledo in the late 1930s, this Neoclassic structure stands as a landmark to all ships approaching Manila. It was slightly damaged in the war and was quickly rebuilt. It could form the focal point of a port area redevelopment in the mold of Sydney’s Darling Harbor, San Francisco’s Pier District or Boston’s Inner Harbor – that is, if the Philippine Ports Authority realizes the potential of its territory in real estate and urban redevelopment terms.

4. El Hogar/First National City Bank

The image of commerce in pre-war Manila is exemplified by these two quay-side buildings. Sitting beside the fabulous American-era Jones Bridge, these two classical buildings lent an air of elegance to the Binondo quarter up till the late 1960s. With the escape to Makati, the district has fallen into disrepair. Mayor Lito Atienza is reviving the muelles (quays) and hopefully new uses for these still-standing buildings will be found.

5. The Insular Ice Plant

Another design by Edgar Bourne, the Insular Ice Plant was one of the first buildings built by the Americans who needed a refrigeration facility to keep their steaks and beer fresh. The plant was so well built that it survived the war and was used till the LRT had to punch through the area in the 1970s.

6. University Hotel Building

Everyone is familiar with the Luneta Hotel, which Chuck Connors used in one of his B-movies (they struck out the "E" in Luneta and it became the Vietnamese Lun Ta Hotel). What is missing is the University Hotel, which was even larger and more majestic. It survived the war and served tourists as the Shelborne till the 1960s. It was used until the early 1990s before the crazy real-estate market targeted the site for a yet-to-be-built skyscraper. A hole has replaced this erstwhile Roxas Boulevard landmark.

7. The Marsman Building

The Port of Manila was famous worldwide and one of the key stops for ships and cruise liners. One of the most modern structures built before the war was the Marsman Building. It was designed in the Moderne style that was to be known as Art Deco later. Its rounded corners and streamlined edges reflected the investor confidence that Manila had before the war.

8. Meralco Head Office

One of the key urban edifices in burgeoning Manila was the headquarters of the power and transportation company Meralco (Manila Electric Rail and Light Company). It was one of the most modern commercial buildings in Manila before the war and was designed in the Art Deco-streamline style. It had the country’s first air-conditioned office spaces (Carrier). The building’s most distinctive feature was a tall (four-story) sculptural relief by Francesco Monti. It survives today – reportedly waiting for the next real-estate boom to be demolished for a condominium. Maybe the Lopezes can save the relief and transfer it to Rockwell.

9. Rizal Memorial Stadium

Built for the 1932 Far East Olympics (precursor of the Asian Games), the complex was the largest sports facility in the region. Designed by Juan Nakpil in the Art Deco style, it consisted of a baseball/soccer stadium, a natatorium (swimming pools) and a tennis stadium (now used more for basketball). The complex sat at the periphery of what was to be Harrison Park, the city’s southern green park that was to stretch from Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard) to Vito Cruz, Harrison Boulevard (now Quirino and where the Ospital ng Maynila is) and the back of La Salle. It survives today despite the cumbersome politics-ridden sports authority that is in charge of it.

10. The Up Campus

Shown above is the College of Engineering, named Rizal Hall, of the University of the Philippines. The large original campus of the university extended from the PGH to what is now known as United Nations. The site of the Philam building was the parade and sports field. The UP transferred most of its units to Diliman in 1949. Many of the original structures remain as the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals along with the PGH. The open spaces, however, are gone and the whole district is suffering from lack of planning and a larger vision of urban growth that would respect the area’s heritage while sustaining businesses and active public life.

In the end, this is why we should conserve our architectural landmarks: They are our built heritage and help citizens develop a sense and pride of place. This is difficult if all we do is erase what has gone before in the name of profit or politics. We throw away historic street names, beautiful Neoclassic or Art Deco buildings and open space – replacing these with street names of politicians, nondescript modern buildings built to decompose in 10 years, and parking lots of tiangges.

Let’s save our landmarks!
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