Luneta Hotel and the Beautiful Era

I wrote this article when I was 18 years old and a college freshman. Apparently, at that time, there were very few articles of considerable length about the old hotel and it has been read by a number of people and used as a reference in some news articles and I get embarassed every time I see it quoted because of some factual errors so here’s a rewrite and some additional information from John Joseph T. Fernandez’s research published by Lund University.

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If not for the remarkable Belle Epoque architecture of the facade, it would be difficult to think that once in a more beautiful time, the hotel had been home to the colonial life of Manila. When it was built in 1910, the six-storey hotel towered at an undefined calle San Luis (now T.M. Kalaw) and calle Alhambra in Ermita, Manila. It faced the unfenced bermuda grass lawn of the Luneta Park. The building’s neighbors were blocks of bahay na bato and bodegas until the 1930s when the University Apartments was built in the adjacent lot. While the Philippines was a Spanish colony for more than three centuries, the miniaturised grandeur seemed a foreign fashion; at present it is alternately called Belle Epoque, French Renaissance, and sometimes erroneously, art deco (this was a movement that would come in the following years).

A little background on the Belle Epoque and French Renaissance:

Between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I, 1871- 1914, much of Europe enjoyed a period of peace, prosperity, optimism, rapid developments in science and technology, and relative political stability. It was “the beautiful era,” a golden age, a time best characterized by the expression joie de vivre (from the title of a book by Émile Zola). With this prosperity and the ascension of the Third Republic in France, La Belle Époque also sponsored a remarkable renaissance in the visual arts. Impressionism laid the groundwork in the 1870s and 1880s in works by Monet, Renoir, and Sisley. By the 1890s, such Postimpressionist masters as Cézanne, Matisse, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec had found their patrons. These artists were the vanguard of modernism in painting, a new freedom within the medium that inspired similar experimentation in all of the arts.

Paris hosted the World’s Fair in 1889 with its great exclamation mark, the newly constructed Eiffel Tower serving as the beacon in a world of new possibilities. Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s redesign of Paris was nearly complete. By then, the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère also were open for business. Hosting another World’s Fair in 1900, Paris seemed, indeed, the place to be. To be sure, there were less salutary aspects of this period: the Dreyfus Affair exposed the era’s deep-seated anti- Semitism, which would have catastrophic consequences later in the 20th century. While French imperialism, especially in Africa, brought new riches to the wealthy, the working classes remained largely impoverished. Anarchists began to toss bombs, a practice that continued right up to the advent of the Great War.

In the Philippines, with the American Occupation in full swing, urban planning and architecture served the needs of secular education and public services. Upon the invitation of then Commissioner to the Philippines, William Cameron Forbes, prominent American Architect Daniel H. Burnham, assisted by young architect Pierce Anderson, came to the Philippines in 1904 for a six-week visit to survey and prepare a development plan for Manila and the future summer capital of Baguio.

Burnham‟s recommendation of the establishment of a government center with street radiating from it, the cleaning of canals, the construction of a bay shore boulevard from Manila to Cavite, and the development of parks and open spaces for recreational activities was approved on June 20, 1906.

Burnham provided a site for Manila Hotel, Army and Navy Club, the Philippine General Hospital and the Post Office between Jones and Macarthur bridges. While he devised the plan, most of the structures were designed and built by his successors, William Parsons, who served as consulting architect at the Bureau of Public Works from 1905-1914. Other well-known American architects who eventually helped shape the country‟s urban landscape were George Fenhagen and Ralph Harrington Doane.4

The new civilian government in the Philippine thus generated an array of building types that required new architecture. Structures for government programs included public schools, sanitariums, universities, city halls, and municipal hospitals. Neo- classical-inspired government buildings served as an ideal medium for creating convincing metaphors of powers and colonial omnipresence.

Some of these American built structures are still standing like monuments for the architects who designed them. To name a few, The Uy-chaco building, the first and only Art Nouveau high rise in the Philippines, which is located at the corner of Quintin Paredez st. and Escolta. In 1902 The Insular Ice Plant and Cold Storage was built. It was considered as the first large building to be erected by the Americans. Its massive brick masonry was fashioned in the Neo-classical style with low relief false arches. William E. Parson famous works were the Normal School (1914), the Women‟s Dormitory of the Normal School (1914), The Philippine General Hospital (1910), The Manila Hotel (1912), The University Hall of the University of the Philippines in Padre Faura (1913), The Army- Navy Club (1909), the YMCA Building (1909), the Elk‟s Club (1911), The Manila Club (1908) and the Paco Station (1914). His works was a clear translation of Neoclassicism into a new hybrid of colonial tropical architecture.

During the reign of Neoclassicism in Philippine Architecture, a new type of Architecture emerged, brought about by Filipino Architects educated in Europe trained in Ecole des Beaux Arts tradition.

In the 1920, the Art Deco style swept the nation, breaking away from the Neoclassic Beaux Arts tradition. The homecoming of second generation Filipino Architects, like Andres Luna de San Pedro, Pablo Antonio and Juan Nakpil – who after benefiting from foreign education and exposure to various trends in Europe and America, initiated a deflection from the Parisian Beaux Arts tradition and embraced the Art Deco sensibility. The zenith of this style was embodied in Juan Arellano‟s Metropolitan Theatre (1931). Architectural details of Filipinized forms such as Philippine flora motifs, bamboo banister railings, carved banana and mango ceiling reliefs and Batik mosaic patterns are found. Complementing Art Deco aesthetics was the Neo-Castillian (or Spanish Mediterranean) style mansion embraced by the upper class. Andres Luna de San Pedro popularized this style among the elite with his design of the Perkin‟s House, located along Dewey Boulevard.

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Bag tags from the Manila Hotel, Photo: Isidra Reyes, Manila Nostalgia Facebook page

The residential architecture and interior design of the extant Tomas Mapua house in Taft Avenue, stood out as a proud testament to Tomas Mapua‟s virtuosity in 1930‟s Philippine Art Deco.8 In the 1930‟s, streamlined modern architecture in the Philippines was considered the precursor of the International style. Filipino architects adapted their designs accordingly. Examples of such works are, Andres Luna de San Pedro‟s Lavish Crystal Palace, Pablo Antonio‟s Far Eastern University, Fernando Ocampo‟s FEATI University, Juan Nakpil‟s Manila Jockey Club, The Ziggurat topped Capitol Theatre by Juan Nakpil, The Ideal and Lyric Theatre by Pablo Antonio and the Cebu Custom House by Antonio Toledo. The Jai-Alai Building by Wuderman and Becket‟s as well as Luis Araneta‟s Times Theatre reflect the streamlined Art Deco of the 30’s.

The outbreak of World War II spread to the Pacific in December 1941. The battle for liberation, damaged irreplaceable architectural treasures and left Manila in ruins. As reconstruction took place after the Pacific War, a building frenzy took place. Houses and other structures were hastily erected in response to the shortage of shelters. “Fly-by-night” contractors dominated the scene

and various attempts were taken to resurrect the photographs of old buildings from magazines. This resulted to a hodge-podge of architectural false-fronted makeshifts and a mélange of styles ranging from classic to different interpretations of modern architecture in the early pre-war period.

The construction of the building came at relative peace time. The pacification of the islands and the promise of progress under a new colonial master was in full swing. Earlier built were the Manila Hotel and Army Navy Club (now also a hotel).

Around this time, Escolta saw the construction of new commercial buildings and arcades, the art nouveau Uy-chaco building. Northwest of the hotel, across Luneta and Mehan Gardens, the neo-classical architecture of the Insular Ice Plant and Cold Storage. The design of the structure was attributed at times to Andres Luna San Pedro or to one of the American architects on William Parson‟s staff but research has uncovered that it was designed, built and owned by a Spanish architect-engineer, Salvador Farre, who also designed the Montalban Dam.

The hotel may have been built in 1918 or 1920 when the Americans brought in reinforced concrete that allowed the construction of high rises. An early title of the property from Manila City Hall, dated 1915 makes no mention of the building. In 1922 a mortgage was taken out that was eventually paid off in 1931.(12) It first appeared in Rodenstok’s Manila City Directory’s “List of Manila hotels in 1919”. It can be safely deduced that the hotel started its operation during the early American Period. The proprietor was Mr. J. L. Burchfield and the General Manager was Mr. F.M. Lozano. The hotel was then featured in the 1920 Yearbook of the Philippine Islands.

The hotel was known to serve a both American style and Filipino style (with tinapa or longganisa) breakfast and lunch, exotic among foreigners of the time.  I earlier wrote that President Dwight Eisenhower wrote about its beauty:

This Luneta was for more than 4 years the scene of my habitual evening walks. To this day it lives in memory as one of the most pleasant, indeed even one of the most romantic spots, I have known in this entire world. Leaving the front entrance of the Luneta Hotel in the evening, I could walk to the right to view the busy docks where Philippine commerce with the world was loaded and unloaded. From the hotel, looking across the peaceful waters of Manila Bay, I could see the gorgeous sunsets over Miravales. Walking toward the Club of the Army and the Navy, and looking down toward the city itself, I nearly always paused for a moment before the statue of the great Jose Rizal before returning to my quarters.

That was a mistake. President Dwight Eisenhower did not stay at the Luneta Hotel but at the Manila Hotel and the beauty that he was describing, as indicated above, was Luneta Park not the hotel. Nevertheless, the hotel does figure well in history, as a favorite haunt of merchant marine officers and sailors due to its proximity to Manila Harbor. In 1937, it accommodated participants to the XXXIII International Eucharistic Congress held at Luneta Park.

During World War II, according to an unofficial account, the Luneta Hotel became somewhat of a brothel and the scene for wartime rape. I now say this is unofficial because in 2015, I was asked by members of the Heritage Conservation Society to confirm this piece of historical tattle but I couldn’t find the book that mentioned it.

I vaguely remember, though, that the person who wrote that book was a veteran of the war and he recalled from a first-person account how the hotel felt “like a gleam of hope” when it withstood the bombardment and how in the heat of battle it was turned into a purgatory of pleasures for soldiers facing imminent death.

The burned building survived but never recuperated from its war wounds.  After the Second World War, Agustin and Rosalia (nee Farre) was sold to Lednicky in 1953. Ledniscky in turn, sold it to Toribio Teodoro, owner and proprietor of the renowned Ang Tibay shoes. In the Associated Hotels of the Philippines Directory of 1972, the hotel appears under the name of Luneta Park Hotel with Cecilia Dayrit, Tribe Teodoro‟s daughter, as owner. During the Marcos era, it became the property of the Panlilios and was used briefly as a costume museum. Luneta Hotel was renovated in 1983, in an attempt to recapture its former glory and old world charm. The National Historical Institute included the Luneta Hotel, circa 1983, in “A Multi-Proposal for the Preservation and Restoration of Historical Structures I the Philippine”s which was presented to the UNESCO (3) National Commission of the Philippines for possible funding.

However such proposal did not merit UNESCO approval. After the EDSA Revolt, the Presidential Commission of Good Government sequestered the Hotel in the belief that it was owned by the Former First Lady Imelda R. Marcos. However documents shows that the present ownership of the Luneta Hotel is indeed the Panlilio’s.  In 1998, the Luneta Hotel was declared as a National Historical Landmark.

Some architectural details about the hotel: It has 60 rooms with private bath, two suites, telephone in all rooms, a restaurant, coffee shop and spacious lanais. (1) Around its facade gargoyles in the form of lions, crocodiles, griffins and other mythical creature as decorative supports of its balconies adorned with delicate filigreed railings that add a touch of lightness to the solid concrete. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the hotel are the French-style mansard roof, the full length and dormer windows, the classical ornamentation.

The Luneta Park was renovated in 1972 but the hotel’s conditions continuously deteriorated. The Belle Epoque wave of architecture also didn’t survive into the postwar and there are very few examples that survive to this day. Thus, the hotel became an architectural outlier. I always saw it as a monument to an era where people used to do things differently—more relaxed and elegant—where windows are not mere peeking holes but studs of jewel that compliment a luxurious frame. I later found out that the windows were called ” By today’s standards, the Luneta Hotel would be a botique hotel for travellers who spilled over from the fully booked Manila Hotel across the park. Luneta Hotel was operational until just after the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986.

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Luneta Hotel in the 1920s, Discovering Old Philippines Facebook page

Rather than the cost of maintenance of the heritage structure, as I earlier wrote, it was the controversial ownership of the  the Luneta Hotel that ultimately caused its closure. in 2004, when I was able to make a close inspection of the hotel for a paper I submitted to an essay writing competition sponsored by Bluprint Magazine, I found the romantic to be mere shadow of what is used to be. From the barricaded front entrance, I saw that the grand staircase in an extremely dilapidated state.

All of the glass windows were broken and everything just seems either damp or brittle.  Comparing it to newer hotels of the same capacity, I mused about the elegance and burloloy, for which the Filipino culture is known for. How we did away with anything that looked fancy to live up to a false concept of minimalist design which was just an excuse for business establishments, to subscribe to no-nonsense kind of money-yielding and saving architecture.

As I wasn’t really an architecture critic or writer, I got an idea from my brother who was studying architecture at UP Diliman during that time that the gargoyles that adorn the building are meant to keep the water away from the walls so it would maintain a pristine appearance. A closer look at this gargoyles would reveal that their appearances were distinctly local, and a research paper on its conservation correctly identified it as “Anito motif gargoyle.” So two things: it isn’t just burloloy because it actually has function and the design wasn’t purely foreign, it took inspiration from Philippine mythology and religious belief.

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Luneta Hotel ante-chamber of a suite (Source: manilanostalgia.com)

I was struck by the growth on the roof of the upper floors, they weren’t just small plants but small trees, perhaps bearing fruit like guavas. At that time, these were the only signs of life in the building. Following the demolition of the the Jai-alai and the YMCA earlier in the decade, there were rumours back then that the hotel was bound to be demolished. The only thing that prevented it from falling victim to the wreckers ball was the fact that it was sequestered by the PCGG and practically owned by the government. Years later, and somewhat mysteriously, the real owners turned up and showed a deed and title.

Perhaps living in a tiny apartment in Quezon City with six of us in the family made me reflect how the “era of beauty was way past my generation” and how remnants of former beautiful buildings resembled “extravagant gravestones” which I got from the image of Cemeterio del Norte. The irony, as I pointed out in the earlier article is that even though the building predates any other structure in the vicinity, it seems out of place from the skyscrapers that surround it and “deprive it of the sunlight it used to claim alone.” Before the another building was built on what used to be the site of the University Apartments, I noticed how the side of the hotel that faces bay would turn golden when the sun strikes it at high noon and onwards. I wrote how “the gem still sparkles as if there wasn’t wartime or demolition but inside, the staircases and ballrooms have crumbled.”

When fire ravaged the building in 2003, only a few people wrote about it. This was before the age of social media and there weren’t petitions or rallies to save it. Those events were saved for when the demolition is ongoing. Many people said at that time that after World War II, Manila already died. I compared it, and I regret doing so to a “beautiful corpse,” and it is in buildings like the Luneta Hotel that we have a glimpse of its once beautiful life.

P.S. A year before it opened, I got an email from representatives of the new owners that it will go under renovation. I was ecstatic about the news and when the hotel was restored and re-opened in 2014 after 28 years of being shut, I went there and had a slice of cake and a cup of coffee.

Reference

1.”La Belle Époque: France and the Rise of Modernism,” Washington and Lee University, June 25-30, 2017, http://my.wlu.edu/office-of-lifelong-learning/alumni-college/la-belle-epoque.

1. John Joseph T. Fernandez, “Methods and Strategies in the Rehabilitation of the Luneta Hotel – Rehabilitation and Adaptive reuse,” (Sweden: Lund University, 2014), http://www.hdm.lth.se/fileadmin/hdm/alumni/papers/CMHB_2008b/19_PHI_John_Fernandez_-_Luneta_Hotel.pdf

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