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Homes The Manila Hotel, Army-Navy Club, And More: Learn About America's Lasting Architectural Legacy In The Philippines

The Manila Hotel, Army-Navy Club, And More: Learn About America's Lasting Architectural Legacy In The Philippines

The Manila Hotel, Army-Navy Club, And More: Learn About America's Lasting Architectural Legacy In The Philippines
The view of the new Manila Hotel and the Legaspi Monument as seen from the walls of the Intramuros
By Jonathan Best
July 27, 2020
Compared with the Spanish occupation of the Philippine islands, the American Colonial Regime was brief, yet, the Americans left a lasting architectural legacy that is considered equally significant

This feature story was originally titled as Architects of an Empire, and was published in the June 2003 issue of Tatler Philippines. 

Just before the turn of the last century, the Americans arrived in the Philippines in the wake of Commodore Dewey's victory over the Spanish Fleet on their mock battle on Manila Bay. Within a few short hours on the morning of 1 May 1898, the more advanced ships of the American Navy effectively disarmed the centuries-old Spanish colonial government. Despite fierce resistance from Filipino nationalists who had established an independent republic outside Manila, an American administration was installed.

The American occupation of the Philippines created a rather embarrassing political contradiction. The world's most highly proclaimed democracy suddenly found itself in the role of an imperial power subjugating an unwilling people. Filipino nationalists were quick to throw America's patriotic platitudes such as "All men are created equal," "One man, one vote," "Give me liberty or give me death" back in Uncle Sam's face. To counter this the Americans formulated new terminology to try to promote their colonial policy in a favourable light. Patronising jargon extolling colonial "tutelage" and "benevolent assimilation" of "little brown brothers" was coined by spin doctors of an earlier day.

The new Government Laboratory was built in typical California Mission style
The new Government Laboratory was built in typical California Mission style

...the Americans set up a master plan for Philippine national development and initiated an ambitious series of public works projects aimed at legitimising their colonial administration

America's official policy was to modernise the Philippines and prepare Filipinos for eventual independence and representative government. American President William McKinley even went so far as to proclaim that God had personally informed him that America had a divine mission to "uplift and Christianise the Filipinos." Not the first, and certainly not the last, politician to claim a direct personal relationship with the Lord Almighty. Unfortunately for McKinley, just two years later, a deranged eastern European anarchist also heard the voice of God and decided to assassinate the poor president.

All rhetoric aside, responsible Americans did feel politically and morally bound to prove to themselves and to the world that their administration of the Philippines was justified and righteous. To do this they set up a master plan for Philippine national development and initiated an ambitious series of public works projects aimed legitimising their colonial administration. Daniel Burnham, a noted city planner from Chicago and personal friend of the new president, Theodore Roosevelt, was dispatched to the Philippines in 1904. Burnham was one of the originators of the "City Beautiful" movement in America and considered an innovative reformer. He stayed for only six weeks in the Philippines but managed to draw up a plan for Manila and the new city of Baguio, which was both visionary and practical. His design emphasised open spaces, ease of traffic flow, public health and accessible government buildings. There were parks with vistas of the bay, fountains, and broad boulevards stretching the length of the city and radiating out to the suburbs. Along these boulevards, Taft Avenue in particular, were to be placed public buildings symbolising American progress and benevolence. It took more than thirty-five years but eventually, most of his plan was carried out.

See also: How Important Is The Preservation And Restoration Of Historic Landmarks In The Philippines?

The view of the new Manila Hotel and the Legaspi Monument as seen from the walls of the Intramuros
The view of the new Manila Hotel and the Legaspi Monument as seen from the walls of the Intramuros

See also: The Ultimate Travel Guide To Baguio City

When he returned to America, Burnham enlisted the services of a young architect named William Parsons, a Yale graduate and student of the French Ecole de Beaux Arts. Parsons moved to the Philippines, where he worked for eight years with a team of Filipino and American assistants carrying out Burnham's master plan for wide thoroughfares, green parks, elegant public buildings and middle-class residential districts. The most enduring example of Parsons' architectural work is the Manila Hotel, which was completed in 1912 on a parcel of land reclaimed from Manila Bay. The hotel was the focal point for the northwest corner of a redesigned Luneta in Rizal Park. Across from the hotel on the southwest corner of the park were the Army-Navy Club and the Elk's club, which were exclusive social centres for American expatriates. The hotel and the clubs were strategically situated just off a broad new residential boulevard, aptly named Dewey Boulevard (now known as Roxas Boulevard), which originally was planned to run all the way down the shoreline of Manila Bay from Fort Santiago on the Pasig River to Cavite.

The Normal School on Taft Avenue was the first American teacher's college in the Philippines
The Normal School on Taft Avenue was the first American teacher's college in the Philippines
Neo-classical columns graced the first University of the Philippines buildings in Ermita
Neo-classical columns graced the first University of the Philippines buildings in Ermita
The American Elk's Club and Army-Navy Club built in 1911
The American Elk's Club and Army-Navy Club built in 1911
Pier 5 was the entry point of early foreign visitors in the Philippines
Pier 5 was the entry point of early foreign visitors in the Philippines

As Thomas Hines pointed out in the Pacific Historical Review in 1972, "Parsons' most dominant architectural elements, both functionally and aesthetically, were broad, deep archways and shaded porches with covered loggias that connected the cool interiors of his spacious buildings with the light and heat of the tropical climate." These features are apparent in the lobby, public rooms and roof garden of the Manila Hotel and to a lesser extent in the designs for the Philippine General Hospital, University of the Philippines, Normal School and other public buildings on Taft Avenue. The hallmark red tile roofs, stucco walls, rounded Roman arches and shaded loggias are often referred to as the "California Mission" style. What differentiated them from the architecture of the Spanish era in the Philippines was their openness and size. The Americans designed their buildings to be both imposing and yet publicly accessible in contrast to the walled enclaves and conventos of the Spanish.

The Americans wanted the Manila Hotel to be a magnificent showcase equal in grandeur to the famous hostelries the British had established in their colonies around the world, such as Shepherd's in Cairo, Raffles in Singapore and the Peninsula in Hong Kong. Manila Hotel boasted a roof garden, a smoking lounge for men, a drawing room for the ladies, a billiard room, private reading rooms, clothing shops, a barbershop along with a formal dining room and a grill room. The main dining room opened onto a wide terrace with a commanding view of Manila Bay and the inimitable tropical sunsets. Parsons skilfully combined the latest advances in reinforced concrete as an earthquake precaution, with the finest Philippine hardwood for flooring, panelling and Filipino capiz shell screening for the windows. The hotel was the first in Asia to have electric elevators, a modern food refrigeration system, an intercom, and more bathrooms per guest than most of the finest hotels in Europe and America.

Read more: The Heritage of Manila Hotel

The American era Luneta with the new Rizal Monument dedicated in 1909
The American era Luneta with the new Rizal Monument dedicated in 1909

The Americans also embarked massive commercial building projects which did not follow any clearly defined architectural style but were typical of municipal structures in the United States at the time. There was an urgent need for cold storage and refrigeration so an enormous ice plant was built in 1905 near the south bank of the Pasig River, where the Light Rail Transit now crosses the river. Sanitary public markets were constructed to combat the perennial outbreaks of cholera and dysentery. A massive new pier was built, considered the finest deep-water pier in Asia at the time. Before air travel, Pier 5 was the gateway to the Philippines from abroad. Even Bilibid Prison was renovated and turned into a model American "reform institution" complete with a tourist shop and marching band that performed for visitors. An array of Protestant churches was built, ranging in style from Gothic Revival to California Mission.

The city hall in Zamboanga, which is still well preserved today, reflects an American style, which fits no prescribed school of architecture. Yet it is similar to public libraries and town halls found in the American Southwest. Public schools and colleges followed innovative designs with high ceilings and large windows for optimum lighting and cross ventilation to make them comfortable and conducive to study. Progressive education and the universal teaching of English were top American priorities. By the late 1920s and 1930s a monumental neo-classical style became popular as reflected in the last of the major public buildings to be built along Taft Avenue following Burnham's plan. These include the Central Post Office at the head of the avenue on Plaza Lawton (now Liwasang Bonifacio), the legislature Building with its classical Greek pediments and the twin Finance and Agricultural Buildings, now part of the National Museum complex. A number of master Filipino architects like Juan Arellano, who designed several of these imposing edifices, were part of the first generation of local architects to train in the United States.

An American-era high school building in Cebu
An American-era high school building in Cebu
A 1920s government building
A 1920s government building
Baguio's first City Hall in the unusual half-timber style
Baguio's first City Hall in the unusual half-timber style
The Zamboanga City Hall built in 1909
The Zamboanga City Hall built in 1909

The development of Baguio, high in the Cordillera Mountains, gave the Americans a chance to build a city in the Philippines almost from scratch. It was intended to be a model vacation community and health resort for Americans and Filipinos who wished to escape the oppressive heat of the lowlands. Residential houses and cottages were built of wood with clapboard or shingle siding and gently sloping sheet-metal roofs. Sometimes these were painted a rustic brown or a traditional American white with green trim. Working fireplaces with field stone chimneys gave these houses an authentic American ambience. The Americans favoured open lots with flowerbeds and plenty of greenery similar to what they were accustomed to at home.

Baguio's first city hall, constructed around 1909 when the city was officially incorporated, was built in an odd half-timber style as were the buildings for the government offices, which were initially intended to be used as the Summer Capital of the Philippines. The early Pines Hotel and Zigzag Hotel also imitated the half-timber look, which was an attempt to give Baguio the flavour of a Swiss Alpine resort. This type of whimsical resort architecture was common in America's Catskill Mountains and other popular summer retreats at that time.

An office bungalow at Camp John Hay in Baguio, 1915
An office bungalow at Camp John Hay in Baguio, 1915

By 1941, at the start of World War II, the Americans had accomplished much of what they set out to do when they first arrived in the Philippines. There was a fine university system, public hospitals and nursing schools, model prisons, sprawling military bases and impressive government buildings in every province. On the private side, comfortable middle-class residential communities had sprouted in the suburbs around Manila, and Baguio had become very popular with Filipino vacationers and foreign tourists.

World War II, earthquakes and the tropical climate have taken a heavy toll on the city planning and architectural legacy left behind by the Americans. Even more devastating than war has been population explotion, which has overwhelmed the infrastructure of the country, choked the cities with squatter colonies, poverty and chaos. The population of Manila alone is now six times what it was at the end of the Second World War.

A Modern Gothic fantasy for the Presbyterian Church in Tondo
A Modern Gothic fantasy for the Presbyterian Church in Tondo

The Philippine construction industry today, along with that of the rest of the world, is being taken over by global styles that reflect very little national identity. New high-rise office buildings and residential condominiums look pretty much the same around the world. The private homes being built in Manila's subdivisions are not much different from those found outside Tokyo, Los Angeles or in European cities. Unique and individualistic structures from the Philippines' past whether in Spanish, American or traditional Filipino designs are unique treasures and should be restored and maintained as national heritage.

The Americans were here for a relatively short period of less than fifty years, yet they left an important legacy of enlightened city planning and urban design. Remembering and preserving this legacy could be an essential part of building for a strong tomorrow.

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