Casa Manila Museum

LIFESTYLE OF THE DE BUENA FAMILIA. Life was predictable. In the early light of morning, the Don rises for a cup of thick chocolate and then proceeds to the despacho that is located at the entresuelo to dictate a letter or two to his scribe. It was very rare for a Don to pen anything by himself in the olden days. He then goes to the comedor to meet with his family for breakfast.  At early noon he goes to the zaguan where the carruaje awaits him for a trip downtown to transact business. At one in the afternoon he returns home to eat lunch, after which he takes hours of quiet siesta in the cuarto. At four, he rises for merienda that the mayordoma has prepared for him at the airy caida. As afternoon’s end is near, he takes his family to ride with him in the elegant barouche for a paseo just outside the walls of the city. When the Angelus bells rang from the sixteen chapels and churches of Intramuros at six in the evening, all would stop for the oracion and the family returns to the house to continue reciting the rosary in the oratorio.

From seven o’clock onwards, the family receives visitors for an evening of brandy and tertulia in the sala mayor. The comedor is reset for hot supper at eleven. The guests leave the Don’s house before midnight. The Don lights his last cigar for the evening at the azotea while from up the street came the clackety-clack of the watchman’s boots on the cobble and the clang-clang of his lantern against his knee, and the mighty roll of his great voice booming through the night, Guardia serno-o-o! A las doce han dado-o-o. Lights out.

A NOSTALGIA MUSEUM. The last lines of the previous paragraph were lifted from one of Nick Joaquin’s short stories who in many of his works has romanticized the genteel lifestyle of the de buena familia living in Pre-War Intramuros.  A similar story line is conveyed in each room of Casa Manila. This nostalgia and lifestyle museum is a reproduction of a bahay-na-bato that was built during the Spanish Colonial period, restored by a wealthy bachelor Don in the 1880s. He loved to entertain and eventually he married, had his extended family and servants stay in the house until the 1920s.

While the structure and the story line were newly conceived, the museum’s contents are centuries-old. The Furniture and Furnishings in Filipino Ancestral Houses were sourced from old homes and were arranged in each room in an evocative setting. Entering the casa through its main portal, which is directly accessible from the cobbled Calle Real felt strangely like walking into a cold and damp dungeon. The wooden door is wide and tall enough to allow the passage of the carruaje to park in the zaguan. The zaguan is paved with piedra china. These blocks of white stone were originally used as ballast of galleons. There is a wrought-iron bastonerang de hierro in the zaguan. Facing this 1880’s neo-Renaissance cane and hat rack is the main stairway.

THE DON WORKS FROM HOME. Ascending the stairs led to the entresuelo. This space has low ceiling because it is sandwiched by the ground and second floors. It houses two guestrooms and the home office. The Don opens the guestrooms in the entresuelo for his country cousins or a bachelor uncle. The bedrooms are furnished with a four-poster bed, a painadora with mirror and wash basin and a low comoda that also serves as bedside table.

The entresuelo has a long bench that resembles a church pew called a capiya. Tradespeople and tenants sit here while waiting for their turn to make a call on the Don who is also a landlord. The Don transact business in the despacho that is furnished with bookshelves, an executive desk, a caja de hierro, a gilt vargueño for keeping stationery and land titles, and a special escritorio made with double flip top so that the Don and his business partner could sign important documents while facing each other.

KAPAG GALING SA PARIS, WALANG KAPARIS. Up the second floor is the main living quarters. This space has a familiar feel to it probably from the books I read that vividly describes life in the olden days or from those out-of-town trips as a child to a great grand uncle’s house where we would climb a narrow staircase that lead to the spacious caida.

In the days of the Don, guests are welcomed at the caida. Here, new acquaintances are expected to by overwhelmed by envy from the grand murals, exquisite paintings, and ostentatious display of wealth through fine furniture like the ball and claw marble top center table and object d’art which are all imported from Europe. Like most de buena familia of that generation, they believe in the adage Kapag galing sa Paris, walang kaparis.  The Señora and her niñas spends much of their days in caida playing games like sungka and doing embroidery while the Don trains his son to play chess or demonstrates his moves as a master chess player on the same table.

TERTULIAS AND BAILES AT THE SALA MAYOR. As I entered the sala mayor through the tall double doors, I wondered how people in the olden days survived living in ancestral houses without the benefits of air-conditioning or electrical lighting. The answer: the tall ceiling and grand windows that allow gentle breezes and generous sunlight to fill the rooms. Light is filtered by the translucent capiz window panels and fine floral traceries on the transomes.

The Don opens the sala mayor only to old friends and important visitors. On evenings, faint laughter from the gentry and flutter of abanicos are heard while the host and guests casually lounge on choice seats: mariposa sofa, divan, butacas and sillons for the tertulia. The tertulia is a set of impromptu performances where everyone gathers around the music nook to watch the Señora and a lady guest recite poems and play music from the piano or the harp. The Don hosts bailes usually on dia de su santo, saint’s feast days and during special occasions where a string band opens their evening performance with a sharp rigodon and in between the poetry readings and singing with waltzes, habaneras, danzas, and fandangos.

ORATORIO, CUARTOS, AND APARADOR DE TRES LUNAS. Off to the side of the grand sala are the bedrooms that can be accessed by passing through the oratorio. Here, the Don, his entire family, including household servants squeezed into the prayer room with statues and relics of saints in a neo-Gothic altar for the recitation of the Holy Rosary.

Dominating the master bedroom is the towering aparador de tres lunas. This particular piece is a known status symbols in that period.  The massive three-door narra cabinet, surmounted by a crown of fretted scroll work is named for the mirrors attached to its doors.

THE COMEDOR ON CHRISTMAS DAY. As I walk into the dining room, I imagined this long table where every family member and invited guests were feasting on sumptuous Yuletide meals. It is generally believed that food must be abundant on the table on Christmas Day and New Year’s midnight meal to bring good fortune in the following year. The requisites of the Christmas table are the pavo or stuffed turkey with truffles, pate de foie gras, olives, red peppers, minced meats and sausages, almonds and chestnuts and the hamon en funda flavored with cinnamon, bay leaf, pepper, and glazed with panocha. The conchinillo asado that is so tender a plate is used to cut the meat instead of a knife is the table centerpiece surrounded by paella, estofado de lengua, fritada de carne, relleno de cebollas, and golden brown empanadas.

The Don is lucky to have invited guests from Pampanga who brought him sans rival from Sta. Rita and pastillas de leche from Magalang to add to the tocino del cielo, dulce de cajel, carmelito and imported turron and mazapan desserts. The diners were particularly fond of the intricate designs of stylized flowers and leaves, birds in mid-flight, a nipa hut, a provincial lass, a farmer pounding rice accompanied with names, season’s greetings and messages found in the pabalat or pastillas paper wrapper cutouts that were dangling from the four-tiered fruit tray.

COCINA. The kitchen is hectic in almost all hours of the day, especially on days when the Don had to entertain on a grand scale during fiestas or on special occasions and when hosting meals for a visiting royalty or fellow de buena familia.

At the center of the cocina is a plain long table that serves both as dining table for the servants and work table for ironing clothes using the prensang de corona and for kneading dough to make breads and cookies.  It is also used a chopping board. The main feature of the kitchen is the stove on a low stone table where clay pots and iron-cast pans are held up by three stones and a pugon with its bulbous dome. Fire wood is used for both pugon and stove. Also a standard in kitchens of the olden days were the paminggalan and banggera. The paminggalan is the slatted cupboard in the corner used for storing leftover and preserved food. The banggera is an extended window sill made of wooden slats where newly-washed plates and glasses were racked to dry in the wind.

TIME-HONORED KITCHENWARE. Found in the cocina are the Classic Filipino Kitchenware that remain charming and nostalgic of the culinary traditions of the olden days. The Don gives away home-made cookies with figure of the Augustinian saint so the kitchen has a mould where the dough is pressed into it to make the Curative Pan de San Nicholas. On the table is the brass chocolatera and batirol used by the trusted mayordomo in making thick chocolate-eh for the Don’s desayuno.

Other time-honored kitchenware found on counter are the baskets used for winnowing rice, storing and transporting produce and fish from the market. There is a kudkuran with the head of a lizard used for grating coconut meat. There are copper kettle, brass calderos, and cast-iron pans that were already used in kitchens as early as 1609. There are wooden sandok in a kamot jar, which was used for fermenting liquids and condiments. Its name came from the scratch-like parallel indentation on the pot’s shoulder.

KITCHEN EXTENSIONS. At the side of the kitchen are the washrooms. The toilette is in a small room. It has two box-like contraptions of plain wood with a hole at center that functions as the toilette seat. The bathroom is in much larger room to accommodate huge Martabana jars for storing water and the bathtubs.

Located just outside the kitchen is the azotea. This outdoor space functions as a service kitchen for butchering fowl and laundry works. There is a pocket garden in the azotea of mostly culinary herbs and medicinal plants that are grown in terracotta and glazed pots: oregano, lemongrass, chives, pandan, chili labuyo, wansoy, kinchay, spring onions, and sabila are the requisites.  In one corner of the azotea is the aljibe, a water cistern that gathers rainwater used for washing. The Don would sometimes have a quiet time in the azotea to catch some fresh air while smoking cigar and looking at the courtyard below.

ESCAPE TO THE ZAGUAN. The back stairs in the azotea functions as an emergency escape route in case of fire or social upheavals. It leads down to the courtyard and the zaguan where the Don keeps a carozza used in processions and his fleet of vehicles; a caruaje for daily use, an elegant coach or barouche to show off during paseo, and a jitney for excursions and long drives to the countryside. The first two are horse-powered. Fine stallions are housed in the cuadra located in one side of the courtyard.

The Don had a fountain and water feature built in the courtyard where goldfishes and waterlilies thrive. In some occasions, table silver and jewelry are lowered in the slimy bottom of the fountains and albije to hide them from the tulisanes in times of upheavals.

EPILOGUE: BLOG INSPIRATION. It was dark when I stepped out of Casa Manila into the cobbled street of Calle Real where a couple of street-lamps flickered and a last carriage was rattling away upon the cobbles, while the blind black houses muttered hush-hush, their tiled roofs looming like sinister chessboards against a wild sky murky with clouds, save where an evil old moon prowled about in a corner or where a murderous wind whirled, whistling and whining, smelling now of the sea and now of the summer orchards and wafting unbearable the window. While from up the street came the clackety-clack of the watchman’s boots on the cobbles, and the clang-clang of his lantern against his knee, and the mighty roll of his voice booming through the night: 

Guardia serenoo-o-o! A las doce han dado-o-o!

There is a wealth of literature to share about life and the values in the olden days that can serve as our guide for the future and how to act with intelligence, taste, and morality in the present. My inspiration and references for this blog were from Nick Joaquin’s short story May Day Eve, Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s books Turn of the Century and Philippine Food and Life, Doreen Fernandez’ and Martin Tinio’s essays in the book World of 1896, Fernando Zialcita’s iconic Philippine Ancestral Houses, Governor Jaime Laya’s Letras y Figuras, and Felice Prudente-Sta. Maria’s books Household Antiques and Heirlooms and The Governor-General’s Kitchen.

-Eid al-Adha | 1 September 2017

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Published in: on September 1, 2017 at 9:26 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. hi!! where the place casa manila museum? please email to me all the detail of casa manila museum ..my email is taylormarichu@yahoo.co.uk i”m going holiday next year i want bring my husband casa manila museum..thank u…

  2. I love this place! We went there for a school field trip. Hope to be back when I’m home 😀

  3. -Eid al-Adha, thank you for your featuring my architectural reconstruction work, showing one of the homes in Plaza San Luis [Casa Manila Museum]. I must Congratulate you for your excellent account and photographs you have taken. You have really captured the spirit which we all who were involved, wanted the visitors to experience and realize what was lost during the War II. Keep up this type of writing and well-researched and exciting account of your personal experience. I salute you.


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