As we emerged from the gate at right side of Sta. Cruz Church, two impressive buildings attracted us to cross the bridge spanning Estero de la Reina. The majestic buildings, one with fancy Art Deco elements and another in an elegant Beaux-Arts architecture stood face-to-face each other as if competing in grandness at the entrance of Manila’s historic high street -Calle Escolta.
Manila’s Historic High Street
Money and power once passed the old Calle Escolta. During the Spanish period, the Governor-General with his official escorts or escolta (hence the name) passed by this short stretch lined by one storey Chinese shops called camarines from Malacanang on his way to his office in Intramuros.
At the time when Jose Rizal’s Crisostomo Ibarra strolled old Binondo, cobblestones imported from Hongkong paved the historic thoroughfare. The old rows of camarines has been replaced by glorified bahay-na-bato adorned with Neo-Classical elements like Greek columns and caryatids. In the last years of the Spanish Empire, only European establishments were permitted to do business in Escolta.
In the 1900’s, Escolta was the country’s premier shopping destination. It was home to high-end stores like La Estrella del Norte and Puerta del Sol which marked the east and west entrances of the narrow thoroughfare, respectively. Fine household items can be purchased at H.E. Heacocks and Oceanic. While Fashionable clothes were displayed at Berg’s, quality leather and shoes were stocked at Hamilton Brown or Walkover Shoes. Botica Boie, mixed potent medicines and served the best soda and clubhouse sandwich in town.
However, it was in the 1960’s when the prestige of Escolta gradually faded while pristine Makati and urbanized Quezon City were dramatically emerging as the country’s commercial and business districts.
Art Deco Perez-Samanillo Building
By the second half of the 2oth century, the jazzed-up architectural style known as Art Deco manifested in the Philippines. In Escolta, the First United Building, formerly Perez-Samanillo Building is one of the few surviving specimens of the Art Deco age in the city.
Built in 1928 by Andres Luna de San Pedro, the pink Art Deco building was once described as Manila’s foremost business address. It prides itself in enticing would be tenants of maximized space, abundant lighting and ventilation and a large amount of architectural and decorative elements.
While looking at the building’s awesome façade, our eyes were drawn at its central bay that rises towards a crowning block rendered with a bass relief of the Creation.
Beaux-Arts Regina Building
Facing the Art Deco Perez-Samanillo Building, in graceful white Beaux-Arts architecture is the Regina Building . Built in 1934 also attributed to Juan Luna’s son – Andres Luna de San Pedro, it was originally designed as a three-storey commercial building. When the de Leon family bought the building from the Roxases, a fourth floor was added by architect Fernando Ocampo -founder of the UST College of Architecture.
The senate staff of the late Senator Vicente Madrigal (grandfather of Ms. Jamby Madrigal) rented a suite in Regina Building while on the same floor across the hall was the office Madrigal Shipping, then the world’s largest tramp steamship company.
Like giant sentinels, the Perez-Samanillo and Regina buildings stood the test of time guarding the Sta. Cruz entrance of Escolta.
The Burke Building with its simple balance lines was the location of the first elevator in the Philippines. The building was named after the cardiologist William J. Burke who introduced and installed the first electrocardiograph in the country.
International style expressed by the prevalent use of sun baffles were represented by the Madrigal, the Panpisco and by the old Philippine National Bank buildings ( The old PNB was the site of Crystal Arcade, the first fully air-conditioned commercial building in the country).
Although marred by tangled electrical cables, there were more eye-catching architectural masterpieces that greeted us as we walked deeper down the street such as the charming Natividad Building which evokes a French café in a Parisian neighborhood and the Calvo Building with its stunning beaux-arts architecture.
Calvo Museum and the First Kapuso
The 1933 Calvo Building is home to a little known museum in Escolta. The museum was recently put together to showcase a bygone era through old photographs, turn-of-the-century newsprints, detailled scale models of Escolta’s architectural landmarks and an impressive Vintage Bottle Collection.
The Escolta museum also has information revealing the history that took place on its fourth floor.
When American war correspondent Robert Stewart sent the first signal of radio station DZBB from a makeshift studio in the Loreto F. de Humedes, Inc.office (later Republic Broadcasting System), he has already given birth to country’s largest television network -the Kapuso Network -GMA 7.
There were two theater cinemas along Escolta -Lyric and Capitol. Both high class movie houses brought the glitz and glitter of Hollywood to Manila. Lyric Theater was an Art Deco masterpiece by Pablo Antonio while Capitol Theater was designed by Juan Nakpil. Sadly, the former has been demolished while the latter has long seized operation, abandoned for decades and is in dire state.
As we walked across the street from Calvo Building, Capitol Theater stood majestically amidst its decaying and dilapidated shell. Built in the 1935, this Art Deco jewel once had mounted on its balcony a wall mural by Filipino modernist Vitorio Edades.
On the face of its western tower were bas-reliefs attributed to the Italian atelier Francesco Ricardo Monti. These relieves show Filipina (one holding a mask and another holding a lyre) in traje de mestiza frame by evocative Art Deco lines and curves.
The entire stretch of Escolta is less than a kilometer long with both ends extending into impressive open spaces. We exited Escolta and stepped into Plaza Moraga.
Named after the first parish priest of Paco, Fray Fernando de Moraga, the plaza was the site of the first ice cream parlor in the country. Clarke’s Café became a sensation when it opened in 1899. Although, like all other establishments in Escolta, the phenomenal ice cream parlor has closed down except for Savory Restaurant which still serves their signature savory chicken.
From the foot of Jones Bridge we walked towards the stately Chaco Building (now owned by Philtrust) and slipped under the Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch to begin the Binondo Heritage Trail Walking Tour. But that’s another story.