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Coffee, a fire station, and a church

By PAULO ALCAZAREN, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 14, 2023 5:00 am

Driving home from Binondo recently I took a coffee break on Legarda Street after we crossed the Ayala Bridge. I was hankering for a latte and stopped by what seemed to be a new Coffee Project branch at the corner of Nepomuceno and Legarda Streets. I just recently discovered this chain, which I find serves really good coffee and better food options compared to foreign chains, despite their overly fussy, though comfortable, interior décor.

Sipping my brew, I noticed a century-old landmark across the street that had seen better days—the Tanduay Fire Station. The fire station was named after the street it was built on, Tanduay. The famous distillery has operated in the area from the late Spanish period and still has a presence, though the distillery itself was decommissioned over a decade ago.

The Old Tanduay Fire Station has been in service since 1901.

The street was renamed Nepomuceno after the war, but the designation of the fire station remained. The fire station is a two-story brick-and-wood structure that was built at the turn of the century, when the government started the Manila Fire Department (MFD). Historic literature points to the fact that the “bomberos,” as the locals called them, were part of the larger Department of Streets, Parks, Fire and Sanitation. They were made an independent department in 1901.

An old postcard shows the Tanduay Fire Station with the San Sebastian Church in the background.

Tanduay was one of the first four fire stations purposely designed and built. The others were Santa Cruz, Paco and Intramuros fire stations. Between them the MFD had 80 men and four engine companies and one “hook and ladder” company.

These stations were manned by American fire chiefs, including Hugh Bonner, former chief of the New York City Fire Department. The Americans would turn over the reins of the fire department to the Filipino chiefs when we became a commonwealth, the first being Jacinto Lorenzo. By that time the MFD had expanded to eight fire stations. A modern firebox system was also installed for Manila, making it one of the best-protected cities in the “Far East.”

Before we had concrete hollow blocks, many of our buildings were made of stone and brick.

World War II took a toll on the MFD, but the Tanduay station miraculously survived the war. The US Army had to donate equipment the first few years after liberation, but eventually the department was able to get back into full operation.

After finishing my latte I decided to cross the street to take a closer look at the fire station. I had seen old postcards of the place and a few mid-century articles that featured the handball and sipa that the firemen were known to expertly play, while waiting for the call to duty.

The interior of the fire station still has the traditional fireman's pole.

The main structure is relatively intact with its brick first floor and wood second level. The four openings on the two streets (Legarda and Nepomeceno) for the engines are still there. The Legarda openings appear to have lost its original arches and have been enlarged to allow the engines to access the street, which had been elevated in the 1960s. The Nepomuceno Street opening still sports the original brick arches.

Unfortunately, too, the handball and sipa court appear to have been replaced by a basketball court, although the handball wall is still there. That open space is now also overgrown with vegetation and unkempt. This area obscures what was a handsome façade of the fire station.

The Nepomuceno side of the station still has the original brick-arched openings.

I peeked inside the station and it still conserves the original elements, including the traditional fireman’s pole. I wanted to wait to see if anyone went down the pole, but realized they only used it during an emergency. I wonder if they still give tours for school kids? That would really be of interest to young people (who would probably post the pole-sliding on TikTok).

Beside the fire station is the campus of the National Teacher’s College. This seems to be a post-war complex, although it has some well-designed architecture. The triangular traffic island in front of it and beside the fire station has a monument to the Filipino teacher.

The San Sebastian Church anchors the other end of Nepomuceno Street.

Looking down Nepomuceno, I spotted the San Sebastian Cathedral and decided to pay a visit. I had written about the church in previous articles but noted ongoing constructions around the historic steel structure. One is a midrise public housing block and the other, closer to the heritage building, is a tall condominium complex.

The public housing is a good initiative and a distance away, but the high-rise condo, right behind the church, may compromise both the views of the church and the structural integrity of its foundations. Heritage groups have raised alarms over this. The San Sebastian itself is in dire need of more funding for its ongoing conservation. I personally would also like to see the old Plaza del Carmen that fronted the church be brought back to life as a public space.

New construction around the historic structure may compromise views as well as its foundations.

Quiapo, where all these structures are located, has a treasure trove of heritage buildings that may soon disappear unless we turn the district into a fully protected conservation area. The city needs to give incentives to building owners for conservation and find funding to ensure that future generations can appreciate history, as reflected in distinctive civic, institutional, and religious buildings and spaces.

I kept thinking of how great it would be to next time have coffee beside the conserved fire station. The open triangular space in front could be turned into a public plaza with a café, frame this heritage beauty, as well as host the statue of the Filipino teacher; so we may all learn the lessons of history.