Perhaps one of the country’s most heartbreaking celebrations of National Heritage Month, days before May ends, the Manila Central Post Office was gutted by an inferno-like fire. The beautiful neo-classical edifice and dominating landmark in the country’s capital engulfed fire for nearly eight hours, severely damaging the almost century-old building.
Come daylight, its iconic cream-colored façade turned black and grey — dimming its beauty and glory. The proud geographic symbol that witnessed triumphs and defeats of the country will once again leave its fate at the mercy of urban development and modernization. These declared cultural properties are part of who we are as a people. What we do and what comes after this tragic incident will define our collective narrative.
Strategically located along the banks of the Pasig River, the Manila Central Post Office started construction in the 1920s—a location chosen to aid in the swift delivery of mail in the country. Filipino architect Juan M. Arellano worked with American architects Tomas Mapua and Ralph Doane to build the headquarters of the then-Bureau of Posts and the country’s center of postal services. Its construction was completed in 1926 but was reconstructed in 1946 after it was damaged during World War II when the Battle of Manila took place.
The late President Fidel V. Ramos issued an order to turn the Postal Service Office into a government-owned corporation which was then changed to the Philippine Postal Corporation (PhilPost). By virtue of Republic Act No.7354, the supervision of the government entity was also moved from the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) to the Office of the President.
In 2018, the National Museum of the Philippines declared Manila Central Post Office an Important Cultural Property (ICP). It is the second-highest distinction, next to National Cultural Treasures (NCT), given by either the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, or the National Museum of the Philippines to properties that possess cultural and historical relevance.
The Manila Central Post Office’s neighbor, the Manila Metropolitan Theatre, was also declared an ICP, along with other cultural properties like the University of Santo Tomas Main Building in Manila, and the Bank of the Philippine Islands Building in Binondo, to name a few. But are our efforts as a nation enough to protect the symbols of our rich history?
Despite the number of declared cultural properties in the country, we still see the continuous decline of heritage sites over the years. Historical buildings were demolished. Buildings that paved the way for our economic growth and witnessed our progress as a nation were abandoned. It would be easy to point our fingers at urbanization; however, it isn’t entirely the only reason for it. Many factors play a role, which could be deeply rooted in our lack of awareness.
One example is the Paco Railway Station, built long before the Manila Central Post Office was erected. Inspired by New York’s Penn Station and created by William Parsons, the same architect behind the Manila Hotel and The Mansion in Baguio, before Paco Railway Station became a stronghold of the Japanese Imperial Army in 1945, it served as a major thoroughfare for the Manila Belt Line to Cavite.
After the bloody Battle of Manila, the station was repaired and used for several more decades before it was auctioned off. It was then partially demolished in 1996 to build a mall. However, the project did not push through due to financial constraints, which left Paco Station in ruins.
Another example is the Spanish colonial structure called the Aduana (Customs House), also known as the Intendencia. The historic building was home to various government agencies as early as the 1820s. It served as the first home of the Philippine Senate before the Bureau of Customs took over in 1926. It was finally left abandoned when a fire struck the building in 1979. Plans to restore the building have been stalled since the 90s. To this day, it remains in ruin despite numerous commitments and pledges made to restore the building to its former glory.
The Philippines is a proud nation. We hold our culture and values to our chest. Buildings like the Manila Central Post Office, the Paco Station, and the Aduana are concrete symbols of our culture and heritage. They are just some of the shapes of who we are as a nation. They represent our identity. Their walls and foundations witnessed our defeats, triumphs, heartbreaks, and successes.
B: “The State shall likewise endeavor to create a balanced atmosphere where the historic past coexists in harmony with modern society. It shall approach the problem of conservation in an integrated and holistic manner, cutting across all relevant disciplines and technologies. The State shall further administer the heritage resources in a spirit of stewardship for the inspiration and benefit of the present and future generations.”
These are the strong words from Republic Act No. 10066. A strong and active heritage conservation, now more than ever, is necessary to preserve the country’s important cultural edifices. If lack of awareness is indeed the culprit of our disregard for the history of the buildings that housed important events in our nation, with the available technology and the power of social media, we as a people can take a stand in protecting our heritage sites.
May the fire that destroyed the Manila Central Post Office spark some drive in us as individuals to help increase awareness. Out of the ashes, may we build a stronger desire to value and protect that which forms and shapes our identity as Filipinos. As a democratic country, your voice is needed to amplify all efforts to preserve what makes us who we are as a nation.