Photo Credit: Gerswin
Since I only started studying in the Philippines from high school to college, in suburban Metro Manila, I never had a sense of Philippine architecture. All I could see were malls, subdivisions, and unfortunately — informal settlers. So it was really hard for me to “love” this country because I did grow up abroad where I didn’t see slums or only malls and subdivisions.
But good thing we have the internet, so I decided to look for images of colonial architecture from all over the Philippines. It turns out we still have enough to be proud of, and not just Vigan in the province of Ilocos Sur, which is the only place I knew of back then.
So now, I’ve been living in Batangas province. When I first moved here, I decided I would go and explore Lipa City because it’s one of the province’s 3 major cities, it’s where my maternal grandfather comes from, it once became the wealthiest municipality in the country because of its Liberica variety of coffee, locally called Barako, and I read about an ancestral house there called Casa de Segunda which I thought I’d check out.
Photo Credit: Ramon FVelasquez
I got to Casa de Segunda Katigbak by tricycle and I was able to get in unscheduled. I didn’t really have anything planned and I thought I would just look around. But one of the descendants of the Katigbak clan actually gave a guided tour which taught me more than my one year of Filipino history class.
From what I can remember, she said that there were around 40 colonial houses in the city of Lipa. During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II, the Japanese troops liked to quarter in our ancestral houses because of their spaciousness. So of course the Americans had to bomb our beloved houses. After the bombardment of Lipa, there were 3 left.
If we extrapolate that for the whole country, what percentage of Philippine architecture was destroyed?
Despite that there are still plenty of Philippine ancestral houses scattered throughout the country, with concentrations in Taal, Batangas; Pila, Laguna; San Miguel, Bulacan; San Fernando, Pampanga; Silay, Negros Occidental etc.
Photo Credit: Constantine Agustin
But the truth is, I was inspired to write about this because of a December 1983 article I read in National Geographic by John J. Putnam called “Savannah to Charleston: A Good Life in the Low Country”. It was inspiring to know the actions taken by the Historic Savannah Foundation, in order to save the city’s historic buildings. Lee Adler (Leopold Adler II) who was once president of the organization said,
“We got professional estimates of the tourist potential, a professional inventory of noteworthy buildings–we had 1,100! The only way we could save them was to buy them. We borrowed money, asked people to cosign notes. We established a revolving fund, added a line of credit.
“We bought up huge amounts of property. Since we realized we didn’t have the money to restore all these buildings, we had to get other people to do it by getting the property into their hands. We sold about a hundred buildings, and the rest were done by individuals attracted to the idea.”
Lee and many others moved on to the Victorian district, built in the 1800s, a wonderland of gingerbread. Federal tax breaks now making capital easier; rent subsidies enable the area’s residents, mainly black, mainly poor to remain.
As for Charleston, it passed the first historic-district zoning ordinance in 1931, making it a pioneer in preservation. Just like Savannah, Charleston’s old houses and neighborhoods were ravaged by hard times, but individuals and organizations joined to save them.
“The Preservation Society of Charleston is the oldest community based historic preservation organization in America.”
It is also worth noting that the architectural firm of Simons & Lapham (Albert Simons and Samuel Lapham) was influential in creating the nation’s first historic preservation ordinance. “The firm worked on preservation projects in South Carolina and Georgia starting in the 1920s.”
Photo Credit: liz west
Going back to what Lee Adler said, money is definitely the issue. But why does a historic building have to be torn down when it can be used for commercial purposes? Shophouses in Singapore and Malaysia are used for businesses, as well as colonial buildings in Macau.
Photo Credit: Terence Ong.
If the will of the people is really malls and subdivisions, then so be it. But if it isn’t, it’s worth checking out these websites so we can find out what we can lose if we don’t at least say something:
Putnam, John. “Savannah to Charleston: A Good Life in the Low Country”. National Geographic, December 1983, pp. 798-829