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Clubbing by the bay |

Modern Living

Clubbing by the bay

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren -

Last week’s article on the old American Embassy Office building elicited a lot of interest in print and online. I’ve taken to posting my articles on my Facebook page and I’m able to spread it to a wider audience as many of my friends are Filipino migrants all over the world. (I do tell them that my articles are available on

While highlighting the embassy I also posted a few images of the American heritage structures that actually predate the embassy buildings and complex. These are the two exclusive clubs that became landmarks of that corner of the “New Luneta.”

Daniel Burnham, the famous American architect and city planner, had drawn a plan for a large civic space in that section of Manila fronting the bay. The area was modelled after the Grand Mall of Washington, DC, a linear swath of green bordered by key structures of government. In 1905, Burnham’s plan for Manila was approved by the US Congress and work to reclaim the bay front started in mid-year.

The Manila version of the US capital was a third of the length but about the same width. One end of the space was to hold the main legislative structures. What is now still known as the Agrifina Circle was to hold five large structures in the Neo-classic style. Only two were built. They are now the DOT and the National Museum.

The other end, by the famous Manila Bay, was to be more recreational. On one side was to be built a large hotel, mainly to house visiting American officials. The southern side was to house smaller structures. This side was quickly allocated to two facilities. The two were exclusive clubs, one for the American military and the other was for American civilians.

The Army & Navy and the Elks Lodge as it looked from the Manila Hotel in 1912.

The Army Navy Club and the Elk’s Club took shape almost at the same time, between 1909 and 1911. They were completed and operational before the Manila Hotel was finished in 1912 (it’s the hotel’s centennial this year). The three were the first landmarks of the area. The Rizal monument had to wait another year (1913) to be completed.

Both structures were designed by William Parsons, the architect handpicked by Daniel Burnham to implement the Manila master plan. Parsons was allowed to take on other work and the two clubs were among the first of his two dozen or so structures that he designed while serving seven years in the Philippines (the Manila Hotel was also his design).

The Elks Club had a green roof a century before it became fashionable.

The two structures were similar in form, plan and massing. Both had three stories in a block plan with two wings. Both had courtyards behind the main front block. Both originally had open decks on the top story. This was to allow for the magnificent views of the bay. The difference between the two was mainly that the Elks Club faced Dewey (later Roxas) Boulevard; the Army & Navy Club faced the open field across from the Manila Hotel.

The Army & Navy Club was exclusively for American military officers. Women, non-commissioned officers and regulars, and people of color (as well as Filipinos) were not allowed in the club until well after the war. The exceptions were servants and musicians (like Captain Loving, the African-American who led the Philippine Constabulary Band). The Elks was less strict but also a predominantly male bastion.

The Filipino elite did not take this exclusivity too well. The Manila Polo Club down near the beaches at Pasay was also exclusive for Americans. So they formed their own polo and exclusive clubs. The Tamaraw Club for polo and the University Club for general membership open to the Filipino elite was established to compete with the three American (and other European clubs).

The clubs did well all the way to the 1930s when the Philippine Commonwealth was established. The Army & Navy Club expanded the most with tennis courts (an influence of Governor General Dwight Davis — after whom the competition is named) and a swimming pool that sat at the corner with an unimpeded view of the bay. Both the Army & Navy as well as the Elk’s Lodge expanded with serviced apartments.

The Army & Navy Club was an exclusive bastion of the American military until after the war.

From 1935 onwards the site was to change drastically. The American governor general had to build a new residence and chancery since the Philippine Commonwealth President had taken over Malacañang Palace. The city of Manila donated reclaimed land behind the two clubs. Reclamation started in 1936 and the American chancery took another three years to build. It opened a year or so before the Pacific war started. The American ambassador held temporary residence in one wing of the Elk’s Lodge.

The war saw the two structures heavily damaged. They were quickly rebuilt after the war and the two continued their operations well into the 1980s. Their exclusivity, of course, changed with the times. Filipino members joined the ranks and a generation of Filipinos grew up in these hallowed halls. One could even book rooms in the club’s accommodations upstairs. The Elks moved to Makati in the 1960s, leaving the original building to Manila City government. (Mayor Villegas, in fact, tried to reclaim the American Embassy site in the early ‘60s. He was not successful.)

The two structures were adaptively reused in the late 1990s. The Elks became the Museo Pambata. For a spell, the Army & Navy became the Museo ng Maynila. I gave a talk on the modern urban history of Manila in 1999 at the old Army & Navy. A few years later the museum closed its doors. The scuttlebutt was that a developer had intentions to take over the two properties to build a mall. Thankfully this did not push trough.

The Army & Navy Club had vertical green walls and was naturally ventilated with large windows for natural light.

The Museo Pambata is still running strong to this day. The old Army & Navy is crumbling away while short-term leasees have put up seaside restaurants of less-than-five-star quality where the tennis courts used to be. The whole place looks grubby and in a sorry state.

A few years ago the city brought conservationists, architects and academics together for a series of talks to try and put together a plan to bring the two structures, as well as the entire historic district, back to their former glory. Nothing of substance has happened since. In the meanwhile a humongous hotel and aquarium was allowed to rise just off the old Burnham-designed seafront. This structure has usurped the magnificent sunset view, which had been free to all who visited the area or looked out from the windows of the two clubs.

What will happen to these two structures? Your guess is as good as mine. I just hope that their fate does not go the way of the Jai Alai or the countless heritage buildings of what a half-century ago was proudly “The Pearl of the Orient.” If this happens, then we will have joined that sordid club of cities with no heritage or history left. All this new and expanding club of cities have are countless malls, soul-less streets, non-descript architecture, billboards and unending blight. Want to join that club?

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Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at

The two clubs, as seen from the air in the 1920s, were landmarks of the Pearl of the Orient: Manila.

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