Modern Living

Regaining lost glory

JOYFUL HARVEST - Joy Angelica Subido, Joy Angelica Subido, Karla Alindahao - The Philippine Star

Who would have thought that there was real gold under the old, dirty and peeling layers of paint? Surely, not the 50 squatter families that took over the house. Had they known that the precious metal was within reach, it is likely that the structure that once stood in San Nicolas, Binondo would have sustained greater damage. It could have been literally taken apart. As it was, the grand mansion built by Don Lorenzo del Rosario in 1890 was in a deplorable state of decay. Before it was torn down and relocated in 2009, the mansion was a far cry from its original splendor. The informal settlers had built a warren of rooms, boring holes and haphazardly nailing the divisions on the building’s columns that, unknown to them, were gilded with treasure.

The discovery of the gold leaf-plated upper floor columns was made when the bahay na bato was being restored. Restoration entailed a meticulous documentation process that started with numerous photographs being taken, before the structure was taken down piece by piece, with each column, beam, plank, and stone carefully numbered so that the structure could be rebuilt in its original form. The three-storey mansion with a ground storey of stone and bricks and upper levels built with Philippine hardwood was to be an important component of Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bagac, Bataan. The heritage park is envisioned by architect Jose “Jerry” Acuzar, president of New San Jose Builders Inc. (NSJB), who recognized the threat to old structures and saw the need to preserve these in a safe, new, privately-owned environment where they are not in danger of being torn down to make way for urban expansion.

Currently, the once decrepit mansion relocated from Binondo has been rebuilt into the grand Casa Bizantina. As an impressive example of what is called the Philippine “floral house” which was popular in the 1880s-1930s, it makes use of revivalist styles from the Rennaisance, Baroque, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Baroque era, However, we are told that the academics Rolando S. Tinio and Fernando Zialcita in their book Three Centuries of Binondo Architecture have convincing arguments that the mansion is mainly influenced by Moorish Revival architecture (Neo-Mudejar) as “evidenced by a Moorish door transom on the exterior, which is echoed in the interior wooden arches and traceries (ornamental stone openwork, typically in the upper part of a window.)” But whatever the style, the house with its carved details plus mosaic paintings walls and ceilings is breathtaking. Visitors to the heritage village may opt to live the life of an 18th century ilustrado in the 7-bedroom Casa Bizantina for P150,000 per day.

Just as impressive is the Enriquez mansion which is now called Casa Hidalgo from its original location on Hidalgo St., Quiapo, Manila.  Constructed in 1867, it was designed by Felix Roxas y Arroyo, who was the first Filipino to practice architecture during the Spanish era. The mansion is historically significant because it was the first campus of the University of the Philippines, with owner Rafael Enriquez as the first director from 1908-1926. The most notable Filipino artists including Juan Luna, Felix Hidalgo, and later, Fernando Amorsolo, Guillermo Tolentino, and Carlos “Botong” Francisco, trained there. The mansion was also the first school of architecture where Tomas Mapua went to school. As with other mansions relocated to Bagac, Bataan however, the structure fell into decay in later years as portions of it were used as dormitories, a bowling alley and even a brothel that featured live sex shows. The Enriquez mansion was rebuilt in its new home in 2006 and is fittingly the venue of a series of exhibits by contemporary artists.

The stories behind the other homes rebuilt and restored in Las Casas de Acuzar are just as interesting. Take Casa Unisan, built by owner Antonio Maxino of Unisan, Quezon in 1839, where an entire family was murdered by thieves with only the youngest daughter spared. (She was hidden in a laundry basket filled with dirty clothes); Casa Candaba (1780), originally owned by the Reyes family which was used by the Spanish governor general when visiting the province; and Casa Luna or the Novicio/ Santaromana house (1850) relocated from Luna, La Union and headquarters of the United States Armed Forces in Northern Luzon, where plans were made to capture General Tomoyuki Yamashita near the end of World War II.

With close to 30 restored homes in Las Casas Filipina, the guides have many fascinating stories to tell. Just as interesting are the architectural details of the structures, and the workshops where wooden friezes are carved and painted, clay bricks are baked, and ornaments made up of stone are cut. Clearly, rebuilding and restoring the old homes are a means of preserving the skills of local artisans. With opportunities for gainful employment in their area, the local people are able to practice traditional crafts and transmit the knowledge to younger generations.

But since not everyone can be pleased, there are the purists who encourage “conservation” as opposed to restoration. They disparage the work being done at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar as “renovation for a theme park.” While they are entitled to their opinions, the reality is this: While the ideal is for structures to overcome the ravages of passing years; to age gracefully as well maintained reminders of a bygone era that stand in harmony beside newer developments, it doesn’t usually happen. The deleterious effects of changing ownership; or wars, floods and other calamities have turned even the grandest old houses and buildings shabby and forlorn. Unattractive and underappreciated, many of our most imposing, most ornate old buildings are in danger of being torn down, with recovered materials being sold piecemeal to second-hand dealers and antique shops. Substantial financial investments are required in all conservation, preservation and restoration projects and very few people are willing to make a personal commitment. 

Perhaps, more than seeing the grand old houses and encouraging interest in history, art and architecture, and more than listening to the titillating anecdotes about the people who once lived in the homes at Las Casa Filipinas de Acuzar, it is hoped that people recognize the charm and unique character of their own communities.  Maybe, they could be inspired to make changes that will change their deteriorating neighborhoods for the better. Maybe they would not be too quick on the draw to eschew the old for new.












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