It must be the history, the remaining turn-of-the-twentieth century architecture, or the dusty bits and pieces of memories romanticized by great grandparents that led a group of artists into reviving the vibrancy of Escolta, not as the country’s premier high street as it was in the 1900s but this time as an accessible and popular cultural and artsy center in good old downtown Manila.
The recent staging of the Escolta Saturday Market where vintage items were sold in what used to be the site of the fashionable Berg’s Department Store in the 1930s is an attempt to bring back old world Escolta in its heyday and perhaps the first step in making generations familiar of that forgotten place and time.
But to say that we have forgotten about Escolta is an understatement. For one thing, our generation is not fortunate enough to live in that era when Escolta became the country’s classiest shopping destination. That’s why it is not surprising to learn from some people that they do not feel any connection or relevance when passing by this short thoroughfare in Manila today.
However, nostalgia can strike us when looking at old photos of Escolta. Its rows of opulent shops, which were actually traditional bahay-na-bato with sliding panels of capiz windows on the second floor and huge glass display windows at street level where all conceivable caprichos and overpriced imported luxuries were sold.
The famous emporium La Estrella del Norte and La Puerta del Sol which marked the east and west entrances of the narrow thoroughfare, introduced the first bicycles, cameras, phonographs and the trendiest and most fashionable home furnishings to the biggest spenders of that time.
A good find in the Saturday market were the mugs with images of vintage cars and bicycles printed on them. This fittingly recalls when La Estrella del Norte brought in the first automobile in the country called a Richard, which was bought by a certain
Dr. Miciano –an affluent physician.
La Puerta del Sol is said to have sold the finest European décor and household ware. In 1875, it introduced the term tulipan referring to gas lamps with tulip-shaped glass chimneys. In the 1920s and 1930s, Escolta shops selling all kinds of gas lamps made of glass were generically called tulipan. Just like in the Saturday market, everything for sale has been generically called pre-loved vintage items.
Other high end stores like H.E. Heacocks and Oceanic were known for the exquisite household items. While Fashionable clothes were displayed at Berg’s, quality leather and shoes were stocked at Hamilton Brown or Walkover Shoes.
It was also in the twenties and the thirties when art nouveau and art deco design elements were incorporated in the architecture of Escolta’s landmark buildings like the Crystal Arcade, Capitol and Lyric Theaters, Calvo, Natividad, Burke, Regina, and Perez-Samanillo (First United Building). Some of these buildings are now gone and only be seen in old photos and in miniature models at the Calvo Museum.
Pre-war Escolta only reigns in the memory of those who were fascinated by its grandeur. With the old glamor gone, the Escolta we know today is just a narrow street in Manila with decrepit art deco and art nouveau structures just waiting to be revitalized for adaptive reuse as cafés, restaurants, wineries, art galleries, art schools, culinary schools, creative workshop venues, exhibition spaces for art fairs and trade shows, boutiques, vintage and antique shops, bookstores, music stores, graphic design studios, photography studios, band rehearsal studios, etc. etc.
The successful staging of the Escolta Saturday Market is an inspiration to those who have all of the above in mind. Our generation can now start looking forward to a time and period when an accessible and popular, still old world yet artsy Escolta is thriving and pulsating once again in good old downtown Manila just like during its ‘forgotten’ heyday.