by Rose Churma
Of the outstanding heritage homes identified in a 2000-2004 survey conducted by the United Architects of the Philippines, about 50% have already disappeared. Typhoons, earthquakes, fire, and termites take their toll.
Philippine inheritance laws also divide property among all children sometimes literally splitting a property. Grime, traffic and commercial appreciation in most cases convert once genteel and quiet neighborhoods where these heritage houses once stood – into urban jungles.
There is a need to take care of what remains, or at least document these before they are lost forever – and for those still able to travel – to ensure that a tour of these houses becomes part of their itinerary!This is the first of several guidebooks that cover a sampling of heritage houses that are easily accessible from Metro-Manila. Represented in this book are provincial and urban houses and examples of architectural styles from the traditional bahay na bato to art deco.
Some are now government-owned or converted into museums or hotels. A few are still lived-in and retain their original furnishings. A notable example is the Quema House in Vigan, Ilocos Sur.
Chinese traders established a brisk trading relationship with the local population. Vigan prospered as a major trading port, and some of the entrepreneurial Chinese married the locals and established homes there.
One such edifice is the Quema House, now under the care of fourth-generation heirs of Don Enrique Quema and Dona Teresa Crisologo. It was built in 1820 by Dona Fernandina Singson (hispanized from “Sing Son”) and inherited by her grandson, Enrique Quema (from the hispanized “Que Mah”).
A few years ago, we were fortunate to be invited to stay overnight at the Quema House. It was a struggle to climb up its main staircase, purposely designed to be steep “to allow the ladies to show off the fine embellishment of their serpentinas.”
The well-decorated antesala, with its wide planks (two feet wide and 12 feet long) leads into the sala which is filled with period furniture with rattan upholstery and framed photos of the ancestors on the walls. The bedrooms contain aparadors and four-poster beds with detachable mosquito nets.
The bedrooms opened to a narrow gallery that traversed the width of the bedrooms and looked out into the street below. Of interest were the wooden rocking chairs in the galleries, where the arms were unusually long and wide – suitable for propping ones’ legs when taking a siesta during the hot afternoons.
Another interesting item in the house is the vintage Underwood typewriter probably used by one of the descendants who used to be a writer of a national daily newspaper and President Magsaysay’s executive secretary. A story shared with us by one of the heirs is that when Tom Cruise (yes, that movie star) visited the house, he was so taken by the typewriter and fiddled with it too much.
The dining room also contains a treasure trove of period items – from the furniture to the china and silverware. A descendant who was a Doctor of Medicine in the 1930s treated a patient who paid with a huge trunk of a narra tree that became its dining tables. When we stayed there, the caretaker of the house served us an authentic Vigan breakfast: the town’s famous longganisa and rice with thick tsokolate in tiny cups.
Some structures now reconstructed at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, an ocean-side resort in Bagac, Bataan are also included in this guidebook. Most were in various stages of ruin when they were carefully dismantled and transported to Bagac, where specially trained workers, reconstructed them in their original forms.
Of the houses from Acuzar that are featured here, the most memorable for me was Casa Bizantina, which is located near the front entrance of the resort. The resort was part of our itinerary when our group from Hawaii did a tour of Luzon, visiting historic houses and eating our way from Quezon province to Ilocos Norte.
The house was originally located in Binondo, Manila. In 2009, it was transferred to its present location in the Bagac resort and restored to its original splendor.
Casa Bizantina was designed by Catalan architect, Joan Josep Jose Hervas y Arizmendi, who came to Manila to assist in the reconstruction of the city in 1892-1898. He was also credited for designing the Hotel de Oriente (a replica was being built at the resort and may be done by now) and La Insular Fabrica de Tabacos y Cigarillos. His buildings are known for the Spanish modernist style, a movement led by the architect Antoni Gaudi, but Casa Bizantina is his only surviving building in the Philippines.
Casa Bizantina housed the most expensive suites at the resort. The furnishings, wall decor, artwork and accessories were all carefully chosen to create a luxurious but elegant ambiance.
Notable were the replicas of famous paintings by Juan Luna, Felix Ressureccion Hidalgo, Fernando Amorsolo and others which were “re-painted” on a larger scale on the walls and ceiling. Instead of liquid color pigments, carefully cut vinyl sheets in various colors were applied to the surfaces.
In factories adjacent to the resort, young housewives from the surrounding towns were trained to cut the vinyl sheets in shapes and tints that approximate the brushstrokes of the original and assembled to re-create the original painting.
Other factories outside the resort produced carved wooden fixtures and balusters. Another factory manufactured bricks from the clay and straw of the surrounding fields and used these for the streets and hard surfaces of the resort to recreating the old days. Since most of the building materials for the reconstructed houses were not available commercially, the resort had to manufacture the required items.
This guidebook includes maps and clear directions on how to visit the sites and suggests ways of getting around using public transport.
Let’s hope the COVID-19 pandemic ends soon so we can visit the Philippines again!
ROSE CRUZ CHURMA is a retired architect who now has the time to do the things she always wanted to do: read books, write about them and encourage others to write. Her online bookstore, Kalamansi Books and Things (facebook.com/kalamansibooks), promotes Filipiniana books and publications by Filipino-Americans. Email her at email@example.com
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by Rose Churma