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Sta. Mesa: Manila's northeastern edge |

Modern Living

Sta. Mesa: Manila's northeastern edge

CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren - The Philippine Star

The border between Sta. Mesa, Manila and the city of San Juan, where SM Sta. Mesa now stands, is a unique place that stands at the cusp of historical eras and physical landmarks of the metropolis. It is a key section of Manila’s storied Sampaloc district and its stories are begging to be told.

Sampaloc gets its name from the tamarind trees that lined and shadowed its streets; at least back in the Spanish colonial era. Like the rest of Manila, the district of Sampaloc proffers two, or actually several, faces. On one side, it is teeming with shops, markets, the University Belt, and rows of rundown apartments, or accessorias. On the other end (where SM Sta. Mesa sits) it was a residential quarter that is evocative of a more quiet and refined past; and now, a promising urban future.

Manila’s third district enjoys a wide embrace, from the San Juan River and the stone bridge that Sta. Mesa crosses, to the Pasig river at Nagtahan, and on to the boundaries of the districts of San Miguel, Quiapo and Santa Cruz.

Magsaysay Avenue, as it looked in the ‘50s, had problems with jaywalkers.

Sampaloc was founded by Franciscan priests in 1613. Here, they built a church to Nuestra Señora de Loreto on what is now Bustillos Street. As they did, the new parish church set the point from which the township was going to radiate, as was typical in most towns.

But Sampaloc proved to be not quite so typical because, curiously, in 1783 the Franciscans ordered the relocation of another church, the Church of St. Anthony of Padua from its original location in Paco to a parcel of land just off Calle Bustillos. It faces off with the Church of Our Lady of Loreto, and now acts seemingly as a second parish church to the locale.

The San Juan Bridge was the site of the start of the Filipino American War.

In 1891, however, another church was to be considered as another religious landmark in addition to the previous two — the San Sebastian Church. Touted as the world’s first and only prefabricated all-steel church, this minor basilica was designed by Spanish architect Genaro Palacio as a fire- and earthquake-resistant structure. It sits on the site where the previous incarnations of the church once were, after it was destroyed by fires and an earthquake between the years 1859 to 1880. The church, with its soaring spires, is a prime example of the Gothic Revival style in the Philippines.

Not far from the San Sebastian church was the original horse race track that was laid out by the Manila Jockey Club in 1867 in what is now R. Hidalgo Street. The tracks were laid on a straight course and stretched for about a quarter mile long. For close to 20 years, the place thundered with the pounding of horses’ hooves and cheers from crowd, before the racetracks were moved to a bigger home in Sta. Mesa.

Sta. Mesa was the site of ‘50s suburban development because of its proximity to central Manila.

Up until the early American period, Sta. Mesa was just one of the barrios that comprised the Sampaloc district. In 1911, it achieved a status of being a separate religious district, and divided Sampaloc into two parishes. The newly created parish is now known as the Old Sta. Mesa, which extended from V. Mapa to Sta. Mesa Boulevard.

The neighborhood was composed of wealthy Spanish and Filipino families who built summer houses attracted to Sta.Mesa’s cool climate and the picturesque streets that were lined with ilang-ilang trees. So numerous were the trees that it was not for long until it became an industry — flowers were harvested, pressed and the oil were exported in great quantities to perfumeries in France.

In 1881, shortly after its relocation, the Manila Jockey Club once again opened its doors and resumed horse racing in the Sta. Mesa Hippodrome, in the street that now bears the same name. For four days during racing season, everything was at a standstill, and everyone in town, from the governor to the archbishop to the elite, the expats down to the market vendors attended these racing events.

Sta. Mesa is also known for a beautiful landmark, the Carriedo Waterworks Fountain; named after the Spanish philanthropist, Don Francisco Carriedo y Peredo, who made it his life mission to bring potable water to city of Manila. Up until 1878, Manila had no running water, and the population looked to the rivers and estuaries as the chief source of water.

The original Sta. Mesa market was originally planned with a skyscraper at the rear.

Donating P10,000, which even at the time was a sizeable amount, a municipal waterworks was established by Gov. Domingo Moriones. Upon completion, the water system was then able to deliver 16 million liters of water per day to 300,000 people. A fountain was built in honor of this event and the man that made it possible. It was located at the point where Sta. Mesa Boulevard, Aviles, Nagtahan and Legarda Streets converged.

In the 1970s, the fountain was transferred to Plaza Sta. Cruz where it remains to this day but not after a replica of the fountain was made by National Artist Napoleon Abueva and brought to the water treatment plant in Old Balara in Quezon City. Incidentally, Francisco Carriedo did not just bring us water, he also lent his name to the street in Manila where the original Shoemart was located.

In the 1950s, plans to revamp Sta. Mesa were under way, and the construction of the new Sta. Mesa market ensued. It was a big shopping complex, and was popular for the selling of PX goods. The shops were laid out in straight rows, with almost no end in sight. A tall building for offices was planned at the rear overlooking the San Juan bridge, but it was never constructed. The biggest attractions in the market were an indoor skating rink and hobby shops featuring slot cars and remote controlled miniature planes.

The Carriedo fountain at the turn of the century was a prominent landmark north of Malacañang.

Today, Sta. Mesa has come a long way from being just a sleepy barrio. It has risen to become one of the busiest sections of the city …every bit as urban as the rest. It is now a confluence of modernity and history, high-rise buildings and a popular mall but still retaining the character of the old district and its small town heartland.

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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at For more on Sta Mesa and two other historic districts of Manila please come and see Portals of the Past, an exhibit as told through archival pictures. The exhibit opened last June 28th and will run for two weeks before being transferred to SM San Lazaro.

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