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On a (Manila) high: An armchair excursion into the city’s precious gems

By PINKY S. ICAMEN Published Jun 24, 2021 9:56 pm

Manila is a city of vivid colors, bustling streets and never-ending discovery. Within the city is a symphony that tells the story of its past and present—loud, rough, and beautiful.

It may be easy to create a love-hate relationship with the city, but it is when one is ready to explore that the gems of the city, some hidden in plain sight, are revealed.

When in the city once called the “Pearl of the Orient,” one need not look far to see its architectural heritage that tells the story of Manila’s rich past waiting to be revisited and rediscovered.

The interiors of the soon-to-open Metropolitan Theater Main Auditorium. Photo by KJ Rosales/The Philippine STAR

Recently, it was announced that the newly restored Metropolitan Theater on Padre Burgos and Arroceros St. would open its doors in December after being shut for almost 25 years. Once in a sorry state of disrepair, the Met is one of a few iconic landmarks that was saved from being reduced to rubble.

There are also Art Deco, Beaux-Arts and Neoclassical-style buildings that still line Binondo’s Escolta, once considered as “Manila’s ritziest strip.”

The Art Deco-style Capitol Theater on Escolta in 2018. It is now reduced to rubble to make way for a new high-rise. Photo by Pinky Icamen

A few years before the pandemic hit, Escolta was slowly coming back to life, thanks to groups whose members are staunch supporters of preserving culture by celebrating the glory days of Old Manila through music and the arts.

Along Escolta was the Art Deco-style Capitol Theater, built in the 1930s and designed by National Artist Juan Nakpil. It had a seating capacity of 1,100. Sadly, in the middle of the pandemic, the iconic theater had been demolished to make way for a new high-rise.

The First United Building on Escolta. Photo by Pinky Icamen

Just a few steps away from the Capitol is the Art Deco-style First United Building, first opened in 1928, which now houses the creative collective HUB: Make Lab, coffee shop The Den and Folk Barbershop. First United still serves as an office building today.

The Neoclassical Don Roman Santos Building in Santa Cruz. It was the original office of Monte de Piedad Bank. Photo by Pinky Icamen
The Regina Building on Escolta was completed in 1915. It is currently used as an office building. Photos by Pinky Icamen

Some of the restored and renovated buildings that remain on Escolta are the Regina Building, which was completed in 1915 designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro and Fernando Ocampo; the Beaux-Arts style Teoff Building formerly known as Natividad Building; and the intricately designed Neoclassical building in Santa Cruz—Don Roman Santos Building built in 1894 that was the original office of Monte de Piedad Bank. This building has since become a refuge for the homeless.

Carriedo Fountain on Plaza Santa Cruz. Photo by Pinky Icamen

Near the Don Roman Santos Building is the Carriedo Fountain that sits on Plaza Santa Cruz in front of the Santa Cruz Church. It was built in 1882 in honor of Francisco Carriedo y Peredo, who raised funds for Manila’s pipe water system.

El Hogar, considered one of the early skyscrapers in Manila, stands still in this photo from 2018. Photo by Pinky Icamen

Not far from Escolta is the iconic El Hogar building built in 1914, which is majestic with its Beaux-Arts, Neoclassical and Renaissance style. Built as a wedding present of Antonio Melian Pavia to Margarita Zobel de Ayala, it was considered as an early skyscraper in Manila. It is now condemned and has received threats of demolition since 2014.

The imposing Manila Central Post Office with its ionic pillars. Photos by Pinky Icamen

Across the Pasig River, there is the imposing Neoclassical building of the Manila Central Post Office, which is known for its 16 iconic pillars. Juan Arellano and Tomas Mapua designed the post office in 1926.

The St. Pancratius Chapel in Paco Park. Photo by Pinky Icamen

Meanwhile, a hidden gem in the heart of Paco is the Paco Park, which was once Manila’s municipal cemetery designed for the affluent and aristocratic Spanish families. It served as a temporary burial spot for Jose Rizal and the Gomburza. This circular park also houses the St. Pancratius Chapel, whose rustic charm makes it a popular wedding venue.

The Art Deco-style St. Cecilia's Hall inside the campus of St. Scholastica's College, Manila. Photo by Pinky Icamen

On Leon Guinto in Malate, St. Cecilia’s Hall, located in St. Scholastica’s College, Manila, was built in Art Deco style in 1932. It became the premier concert venue in Manila after it reopened in the mid-‘50s. The National Historical Commission of the Philippines declaredSt. Cecilia’s Hall a National Cultural Landmark.

Up on España, is the University of Santo Tomas with its massive Renaissance Revival Main Building, designed by Fr. Ruaño, O.P. Completed in 1927, the building is reportedly the first earthquake-resistant building in the country.

The University of Santo Tomas Main Building is reportedly the first earthquake-resistant building in the country.

Surrounding the building’s giant clock are pieces of sculpture by Italian Francesco Riccardo Monti that adorn the rooftop of the Main Building. They were installed between 1949 and 1953.

There are so much more of these gems that stood witness to the best and the worst the city has gone through. Each of them echoes the stories of the past that tell the present to “never forget.”

Banner and thumbnail images by Pinky Icamen. All photos were taken pre-pandemic.