To see Manila’s old soul with new and kinder eyes is to walk on its streets. We have guidebooks to help us identify and describe the itinerary. But to walk side by side with an experienced guide in one of Manila’s historic districts made the walking tour a lot more engaging.
On a Friday afternoon, we were filled with anticipation as we met our tour guide on the front steps, below the gothic spires of San Sebastian Church. This national landmark is the known as the only church in Asia that is made of steel. Built as a solution to the frequent earthquakes that destroyed the first three churches erected on Plaza del Carmen, the all-steel church was transported part by part from Belgium to its exclusive location.
Much of the information we learned about the church comes from Ivan Dy of Old Manila Walks. Clad in a yellow camisa de china and a cabeza de barangay hat, Ivan described how the entire structure was first assembled in Belgium, taken apart like Lego pieces, shipped across the ocean via old empire routes, then reassembled in Manila, and eventually inaugurated in 1891.
Designed during the same era as with the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, many believed that the church was also engineered by Alexander Gustave Eiffel. The answer to the question on Who designed the San Sebastian Church? was revealed to us during the tour.
Ivan led us inside church through the side entrance. The interior glows with the patina of antiquity as afternoon light is filtered through the stained glass windows along the church walls. The interior has gothic elements like the slender columns, interlocking fan vaults, and pointed arches. But unlike most gothic churches, it lacks intricate decorations. Ivan pointed that since steel could not be worked as delicately as stone, the walls and the supporting columns up to its vaulted ceiling were creatively painted to simulate gray marble.
A stroll away from San Sebastian Church is Manila’s San Miguel District. Leaving the all-steel glory, we went for a short walk via an alley across Legarda Street. The noise resonating from the traffic and chatters from students of a nearby university dramatically diminished as we passed through security clearance and entered the quiet dignity of San Miguel District.
Since the olden days, San Miguel has been home to Manila’s crème de la crème. The de buena familia flaunted their wealth and economic power by building posh villas and summer houses. One of the mansions in the area became the official residence of the President of the Philippines.
Upon turning to Arlegui Street, Ivan directed us in front an imposing 1930s mansion once owned by the Laperal family. He described how the original owners of the house were forcibly ejected by Marcos’ personnel and were not allowed to bring anything with them. The Arlegui Guesthouse was preferred by Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos as their residence during their terms as President. It now serves as the extension office of the Press Secretary. For security reasons, taking pictures of the mansion’s elegant colonial architecture is prohibited.
As we turned to J.P. Laurel Street, the Malacanang Complex was immediately visible. Upon reaching the gate, we went through different security procedures from the verification of the names on guest list and passing through a whole-body electronic scanner. A security tag was attached to our digital camera.
Ivan led us to the iron portico of the Kalayaan Hall, which was previously called the Executive Building at the time of Governor General Francis Burton Harrison. The old Executive Building was built in the 1920’s and its original architecture remains intact while most of the other buildings within the Malacanang Complex underwent several renovations including the Presidential Residence (the one seen on the 20 peso bill). Inside the white colonial mansion is the Malacanang Museum and Library.
The ground floor presents the museum’s collection of replicas, vintage photos, artworks, and relics. Exhibit pieces are grouped in the different American colonial rooms according to historical era. To display American sovereignty at the when building was built, emblems of the United States like the American eagle were carved on cornices, walls, and arches.
From the ground floor we used the west staircase to go to the Old State Rooms. The rooms on the second floor were in official use from the administration of President Manuel Quezon until the terms of President Ferdinand Marcos.
The old President’s Office was named after Manuel Quezon. Ivan showed us the wrought iron grill of the vents used for air conditioning in the old President’s Office This was the only room that has an air-conditioning system based on the original building plan. The chair sat on by President Marcos when he declared Martial Law is also in this room.
The old Council of State Room was dedicated to President Elpidio Quirino. This rectangular hall has a twelve-seat long table. Displayed in the old state rooms were portraits, furniture, and memorabilias on loan from the families of former presidents.
After visiting each of the old state room, we walked toward a Juan Flores relief depicting the First Mass. This exquisite piece faces the Main Hall. Used as ballroom, the Main Hall exhibits books and more artworks and relics from previous presidents, one of which were two of the 1500 pairs of shoes of Imelda Marcos.
Ivan led us to the veranda (window) were Marcos made his farewell before his years of exile in the US during the height of the 1986 EDSA Revolution. That ends our tour of Malacanang.
We left Malacanang and took a short walk to cap our afternoon stroll in San Miguel at the Legarda Mansion, an ancestral home converted into a fine-dining restaurant. Within the 1930s art deco structure is La Cocina ni Tita Moning. The Legarda matriarch was known among Manila’s society circles for her culinary skills and sumptuous parties. The restaurant continues the tradition of serving her heirloom home-cooked recipes for this generation.
We had a fine-dine merienda of paella, gallantina, a signature pudding for dessert and a lemon grass iced tea as refreshment. The table setting was complete with candles and rose petals sprinkled on top of the table. After the third serving, we were sated.
After the heavy merienda, we were taken around the ancestral house. From the foyer, Ivan showed us the different rooms on the ground floor. There were rooms for a collection miniature trains, a library of antique books, an obstetrician’s clinic, and a photographer’s studio.
Walking up to the second floor, a Christmas tree has been set in the hallway connecting the formal dining room and the living room. Arranged in the living room, were post-war furniture sets. On the walls are family photos and works of Juan Luna and Felix Ressurecion Hidalgo.
The sun has already set when we left the Legarda Mansion. As we walked back, pass the security clearance post, the quiet dignity surrounding Malacanang Palace was immediately replaced by the noise resonating from the traffic and the chatters of students from a nearby university.