Bahay Na Bato: The Parts Of A Stately Filipino House During The Spanish Colonial Period
One of the lasting legacies of Spanish rule in the Philippines is the Antillean style of architecture. Common in many old residential houses, this architectural style can also be seen in convents, municipal and provincial offices as well as schools. With adobe walls as its structural foundation and wood as the main material for the large open-layout top levels, the Hispanic style that originated from Central America was suitable for the Philippine climate, and especially against the natural disasters that constantly ravage it.
Despite the vestiges of Spanish, Chinese and Filipino influences in local culture, the bahay na bato ("stone house", as the Antillean residential architecture was popularly called) is unique to the Philippines. The grandeur of structural materials, beauty of intricate details and opulence of the furniture are signs of affluence and the stature the family holds in society.
When the Americans came to the country at the turn of the 20th-century, eclectic style and Art Nouveau were introduced, adding significant alterations to the classic Antillean architecture. But it was the ArtDeco movement that left the most impression, giving us architectural gems as in the Commonwealth Era mansions that survived the war.
Philippine architecture has grown along with the progress of the nation and its people. But memories of a glorious past are still imbedded in a nation’s history. And if the walls of these old houses could only speak, they would be singing songs and poems from the tertulias and bailes that once filled its halls.
The mansions of the principalia class were known for their grandness in scale. Hence, a traditional bahay na bato would have large wooden doors called entrada principal to let carruajes (carriages) enter the zaguan (corridor). At ground level, there usually is the patio, with flooring of Piedra China or Chinese granite and the patterned hand-painted tiles imported from Spain called azulejo. The patio is used as a garden and serves to cool the rooms of the house. Usually, the patio is connected to the azotea, an open-air balcony where one can see the aljibe, the water cistern, filled with rainwater or potable water.
To enter the house, an Antillean door knocker can be used to inform the servants that someone is outside. Within the large wooden door is a smaller door for people, called postigo. A grand staircase called escalera welcomes the guests, leading them to the entresuelo or mezzanine. In houses owned by the elites, there are rooms in the entresuelo that are reserved for the extended family of the owners or to visiting guests. But the main highlight of the entresuelo is the despacho, also known as oficina. This is where the owner of the house conducts business transactions together with his clerks and accountants. It is sensible that the office is located here as beside the zaguan below this level is the silong, where goods and crops harvested from the hacienda are temporarily stored.
The entresuelo leads to the antesala, also known as caida which means “to fall”, referring to the stair landing that connects the two levels. Here in the antesala, visitors are entertained. It is also where the masters of the house take their merienda (afternoon snacks).
Sala mayor is the most important part of the house for it is opened to guests on special occasions only. Its contents—furniture, figurines, artworks— are used to show off one’s status in society. It becomes a grand hall where tertulia (late afternoon parties) and baile (ball) are held. Here, prominent guests of the masters of the house discuss the latest in politics, business and fashion, while the children lead the singing, dancing and playing of musical instruments.
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Some of the aesthetic details of a traditional bahay na bato are used mainly for their function. The decorative wooden panels that adorn the walls of the antesala as well as other parts of the house circulate air between rooms. These are called calado or carved wooden screen placed at the ceiling and hung one or two metres down. The exterior corridor by the windows is called volada and is used by servants to pass through the rooms of the house, from the cocina (kitchen) to the comedor (dining room) or from the antesala to the sala mayor, hidden from visitors.
The oratorio or prayer room in a bahay na bato is usually located in the entresuelo. However, there are also some affluent families who build a chapel inside the house. Here they gather at night to pray the rosary. But the chapel is also another sign of affluence as gauged from the religious statues and images made of wood and ivory and enthroned in a urna that usually resembles the retablo (altarpiece) of a nearby church.
Comedor is the dining room where families and friends gather to feast and drink. It showcases the family’s collection of silver, glassware and porcelain. It has a ceiling fan system called punkah that is made of fabrics and strings manually operated by servants.
At the back of the comedor is the cocina (kitchen). It has a banggera or slatted wooden dish rack used for air drying newly washed utensils and tableware before they were kept inside a platera (plate cabinet) or paminggalan (dish rack).
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Some heritage towns in the Philippines carry an architectural style distinct from what was prevalent in Manila and most parts of Luzon. Silay, a city near Bacolod in Negros Occidental, is famously called the “Paris of Negros” for its unique Art Deco heritage mansions and structures that have survived through the centuries. The same style is also evident in some of Iloilo’s heritage mansions such as the famous Molo Mansion, which features the same classic colonial architecture but with graceful arches, high ceilings, and intricate carvings. Nelly’s Garden, the so-called “Queen of Iloilo’s Heritage Houses”, evokes Beaux Art and boasts a sprawling garden that was tended by the late Doña Elena Hofileña Lopez.
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Though the heritage mansions have been reflections of Western architectural styles, they have been proudly made by Filipino hands and artistry. Some design details and furniture are still being produced today, like the kapiya which is a tall and long wooden bench, the sliding windows made with capiz shells for its screen, the intricately adorned baul or wooden chest, the butaca or a chair with long arm rest, the kolumpyo or rocking chair, and our very own latticework called solihiya used on various furniture pieces. Up to now, modern houses carry some elements inspired by the traditional bahay na bato such as the usage of pasamano (windowsill) or barandilla (handrail) by the balconies and stairwells.
This story was originally published in the 27th volume of Tatler Homes Philippines. Download it on your digital device via Zinio, Magzter, or Pressreader.