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Heritage and a hotel

The Philippine Daily Inquirer in the past week has featured on its front page, articles on the problems besetting the Manila Hotel. Today it has an editorial on it. The hotel which if I am not mistaken was built in 1912. One of the first icons and architectural symbols of American sovereignty, it was meant to provide luxurious accommodation for the new colonizers. During the preceding Spanish regime, the luxurious hotels were in Binondo. Rizal's Crisostomo Ibarra in the Noli Me Tangere, describes one of them. Nonetheless before the Manila Hotel was built, travellers to the Philippines had little good to say about tourist accomodations in the city.

The hotel is famous for the fact that as part of the deal between Commonwealth President Quezon and General MacArthur on training the new Philippine Army, the general had for a perk the airconditioned penthouse of the hotel. The hotel also witnessed the end of American colonialism in the Philippines. Richard Connaughton, John Pimlott and Duncan Anderson write in a chapter of "The Battle of Manila" that just before the Japanese entered the city, the scene at the Champagne Room was like from a Bunuel movie. MacArthur's penthouse however was put to the torch by the retreating Japanese right before MacArthur's eyes.

Postwar history records numerous social events, political party conventions and the constitutional convention that gave us the 1973 charter. The hotel in the 1980s was still the destination as the newer hotels built in the 1970s had not yet attained that snob appeal. I remember attending as a teenager dubuts and soirees in the hotel ballroom. Later on as a young professional it was the UP Alumni homecomings sponsored in part by GSIS. When the hotel was bought by the group controlled by Bulletin publisher Emilio Yap, it hosted the DOST's NAST conventions and other like activities. Attendees got their complimentary Manila Bulletin.

The hotel also made history by being the platform from which journalists reported the Tagumpay ng Bayan rallies of presidential candidate Cory Aquino in February 1986. When Aquino assumed the presidency, a few months later, Marcos loyalists took over the hotel lobby.

The senior members of my family who during their long career in government or the business sector were regular habitues of the hotel say that even in the 1970s, the only redeeming feature of the hotel was its heritage and ambiance. The food they told us kids was "not that spectacular". But then we kids had no idea of what good ritzy hotel food was couldn't comment. Only when we had the chance to stay in a few ritzy hotels overseas as part of our professional responsibilities attending conferences (not on junkets mind you but on sponsored tickets!) did we get to compare what the Manila Hotel dished out.

But on recent visit to the hotel (as usual on a DOST sponsored meeting), I noticed that the food was still the same and that the hotel had seen better days. This was the gist of the Inquirer editorial and articles. In 1997 a Malaysian group won the bidding when the government decided to divest some of its business holdings. However a losing bidder went to the Supreme Court and argued that as a Filipino company it should have priority in acquiring an piece of the national patrimony and heritage. The court awarded the bid to the Filipino company.

The Inquirer opines that the hotel since then has lost its glamour and old world ambiance only to be replaced by what seems to be Chinoy tackiness including a swipe on Feng shui dictated removal and replacement of the lobby chandeliers.

And as for the CR, well it seems that too needs more attention. However the hotel's owners may take comfort in the fact that the CR there is about in the same condition or even better than that in Malacanang's Maharlika Hall.

The problem is that when the government sold the hotel to its new owners. the owners have all the right to do whatever they want to the hotel. Even if heritage preservation advocates complain, the bottom line is that it would be the hotel's guests that will determine if the hotel will be allowed to stay the same or not. If not, then they would simply check out! The hotel is under renovation.

But it seems that have done so and as the Inquirer reports, the hotel has racked up a significant debt even if it is used as a convention venue.

The Manila Hotel issue is just the tip of our issues with heritage conservation and the inadequacy of our laws to deal with it. Much of our existing heritage structures are churches. Even then under Civil Law, these are considered privately owned by the Catholic Church. Under Canon Law the disposition of these properties are under the diocesan bishops through their parish priests. Some bishops are heritage conscious while some are not. Some buildings are owned by the national or local government. For example the City of Manila demolished the Jai Alai fronton on Taft Avenue which heritage advocates believed should be protected. TheVatican on the other hand has a treaty with the Philippines about preserving heritage churches. The CBCP has a committee to look into the matter but has no sanctioning powers. It can only recommend actions.

The heritage advocates believe that demolishing or renovating heritage structures show that we don't have a historical memory. Let's face it. Money talks. New Money talks even louder to the chagrin of the ancien riche! What may be needed is a wider education campaign targeted to the public and most especially to the "new money". I say this since the less affluent's chances of getting into a heritage building is only in church or the National Museum! The rest of the heritage structures are privately owned and may be developed as tony social watering holes. Thus the new money are likely to buy the heritage properties. The people with the new cash if sufficiently made aware and heritage educated would know that there is more pleasure spending your money if the ambiance was like on the dining room of the Titanic!

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