‘WE will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed,” the late architecture critic and writer Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the early 1960s in reaction to the destruction of the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City.
Once a majestic landmark designed and constructed in the Beaux-Arts style by McKim, Mead & White, the station was demolished following the decline in the number of railway passengers. The Penn Plaza, which includes the iconic Madison Square Garden, now stands where the old Pennsylvania Station used to.
In Metro Manila we have countless little Pennsylvania Stations of our own—establishments that have been, and are yet to be, demolished to make way for modernization. Although I acknowledge that property development has always been an integral part of a country’s drive to move forward, I also believe that modernization doesn’t always have to entail widespread destruction of our architectural heritage, particularly the structures that can still be used one way or another.
In one of my previous columns, I talked about the renewed restoration efforts for the Manila Metropolitan Theater (MET), spearheaded by the National Center for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). It is surely a welcome development amid all the news of old historical establishments being unceremoniously destroyed. Nevertheless, recent years have seen conservation efforts being made by various entities to bring back the grandeur of some of our most historically significant buildings. While there are those that were simply renovated, there are others that were renovated and repurposed by creative and even enterprising minds.
Consider, for instance, the numerous ancestral homes, which Metro Manila has in great number. Many either continue to serve their original purpose as residential spaces, or lay abandoned their fates unknown. Others, deemed unsafe and unsightly, have been demolished and replaced by commercial establishments.
But then, there are vintage homes that have been meticulously renovated and beautifully repurposed for other uses—the perfect examples of adaptive reuse.
One such example is the colonial mansion on A. Mabini Street in Ermita: Casa Tesoro. Originally built as a vacation home in 1901, it actually served numerous purposes—military headquarters during the war, postal station and even housed commercial establishments—before finally housing the 1335 Mabini modern art gallery, and a tribal art and antiquities showroom. It was such an apt repurposing of a very important architectural relic.
Another example is the historic Legarda House, which has the distinction of being one of the first Art Deco houses built in Metro Manila in 1937. Just a stone’s throw away from the Malacañang Palace, the house was transformed into a 19th-century-themed fine dining restaurant, La Cocina de Tita Moning. It was named after Dr. Alejandro Legarda’s wife Ramona Hernandez, who was said to have enjoyed hosting lavish parties in their home, serving her guests sumptuous dishes that she cooked herself.
A third example is the Henry Hotel Manila. This charming boutique hotel occupies five 1950s era houses within a sprawling property on F.B. Harrison Street in Pasay, where creative minds such as furniture designer Eric Paras and fashion designer Jojie Lloren used to stay. The Henry Hotel Manila also boasts of a large, beautiful garden.
While there is nothing wrong with looking to the future and modernizing the city, we should never forget our past. Our first impulse should always be to protect, not destroy or let go to waste, old but historically relevant structures that serve as our windows to bygone eras that should remain forever in our nation’s collective memory.
Conservation is never an easy feat, I admit, and because of that I passionately applaud all those who exhaust all means possible just to preserve our ancestral structures—and, in turn, our heritage—for future generations to see and experience themselves.
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