First United Building

ESCOLTA REVIVALIST. Pre-war Escolta reigns in the memory of those who were fascinated by its former grandeur. With the old glamour gone as the country’s premier high street, the Calle Escolta for this generation is a narrow street in Manila with Art Deco and Beaux Arts structures revitalized for adaptive reuse as cafés, restaurants, barbershops, art exhibition and creative co-working spaces, boutique hotels, craft stores and antique shops, graphic design studios, etc. etc.

The central hub for all this Escolta revivalist movement is First United Building, a 1928 Art Deco building guarding the entrance of this historic street.

ART DECO ASSEMBLAGE. Art Deco is an architectural style movement that became popular in 1920s Europe. It is characterized by streamlined surfaces, linear and geometric shapes, and odd combinations of design elements from different periods but still worked seamless and bear the impression of glamour. This assemblage of intricate design completes the backdrop of any 20th century Hollywood and Parisian film and that Swing Kids- and Great Gatsby-fashion.

In the Philippines, think of the bodabil (vaudeville), the jazz age of Katy dela Cruz and the Commonwealth era of Manuel Quezon, the iconic Metropolitan Theater in Liwasang Bonifacio, the FEU Campus in Quiapo, the Capitol Theater and the First United Building (FUB) in Escolta.

PEREZ-SAMANILLO BUILDING. While World War II destroyed most of the landmark structures in Manila, those that remain were demolished to give way to modern high rise structures without considering their historical importance and design heritage.

Formerly known as the Luis Perez-Samanillo Building, First United Building is one of the few surviving specimens of the Art Deco age in the country. Designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, son of painter Juan Luna the five-floor building was considered a skyscraper of its time.

GRACEFUL ENTRANCE. Enter the building from Escolta street into the lobby through its filigreed wrought-iron doors. That graceful entrance are repeated in the moldings around the elevator doors and wrought iron handrail of the sinuous staircase.

On the elevator is a vintage floor indicator that recall the time when the First United Building was Manila’s foremost business address.

HISTORIC ADDRESSES. FUB prides itself for its maximized and tall wall space, abundant lighting and maximum cross-ventilation, large amount of architectural and decorative elements. It survived World War II and the bonfires of progress that decimated some of the  heritage structures in Manila.

In the 1930s, the consulates of Panama and France occupied Rooms 217 and 329. Various film production companies were housed in FUB because of its proximity to the movie theaters along Avenida Rizal. Room 514 was occupied by RVQ Productions of comedy king, Dolphy. Superstar Nora Aunor held office at Rooms 502 and 506. 80s matinee idol, Gabby Concepcion also held his production office in room 308.

FIRST CO-WORKING SPACE. These historic addresses have been converted for adaptive reuse by their new tenants into architectural and design firms, art exhibition and co-working spaces.

Dressed in that hipster vibe is the First Co-Working Space that has timeless views of Sta. Cruz Church, Roman Santos Building and the Beaux Arts Regina Building across, which was also designed by Luna de San Pedro.

FUB COMMUNITY MUSEUM. The building’s mezzanine houses the FUB Community Museum that tells the story of Mr. Sy Lian Teng through news clippings, photographs, and artifacts. Mr. Sy Lian Teng migrated to the Philippines from China in 1918. He grew his business and built a home for his family in Malate. But like most Malate families during the Liberation of Manila in 1945, his wife and children were murdered by the Japanese enemy. He remarried after the war and acquired the Luis Perez-Samanillo Building.

Also on exhibit, are artifacts from Berg’s Department Store that opened at the ground floor of the building in 1936. Dominating a corner in the museum is a portrait of Evelyn Berg Empie, daughter of store owner, Ernest Berg. 

HUB: MAKE LAB. The shell of the the pre-war Berg’s Department Store was converted into a bazaar and exhibition space for young creatives. Under the hanging sculpture of Leeroy New is a cluster of exhibition booths designed by Architect Arts Serrano. There is also Folk Barbershop, Fred’s Revolution pub and The Den Coffee and Contemporary Culture in their respective corners.

Good finds at HUB: Make Lab were the mugs with images of vintage cars and bicycles printed on them. This fittingly recalls when La Estrella del Norte in Escolta imported the first automobile in the country called a Richard, which was bought by a certain Dr. Miciano.

THE DEN. Whenever I end up my random walking trips around Manila in Escolta, The Den Coffee and Contemporary Culture has become by go to place. Aside from coffee and food, there are also small artworks that can be purchased from this coffee store. Have a good eye, one can snatch a good buy.

In my visit to FUB during the staging of the first Escolta Saturday Market in 2013, I was able to bring home artworks by Niel Pasilan, Leeroy New and Dexter Fernandez.

EPILOGUE: AN ASSEMBLAGE ART. Recently, I became fascinated in making assemblage art that I fashioned from vintage objects I sourced from places I’ve been to. These travel souvenirs were cramped in display cabinets at home until I decided put them together to create cohesive, maximalist, and storied artworks in box-type frames as extensions for my travel narratives.

The different happenings and gatherings in the First United Building make up an assemblage art that is timeless, huge, and out of the box.



MANILA’S HISTORIC HIGH STREET. Money and power once passed the old Calle Escolta. The Governor-General with his escolta or escorts passed by this road 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 Chinese stores called camarines were replaced by glorified bahay-na-bato adorned with Neo-Classical elements like Greek columns and caryatids.

In the 1900’s, Escolta became the country’s premier shopping destination. It was home to high-end stores La Estrella del Norte and Puerta del Sol which marked the east and west entrances of the narrow thoroughfare. Manila’s elite purchased fine household items at H.E. Heacocks and Oceanic. Fashionable clothing were displayed at Berg’s. The gentry buy quality leather and shoes at Hamilton Brown and Walkover Shoes. Botica Boie mixed potent medicines and served the best soda and clubhouse sandwich in town.


ESCOLTA SENTINELS. 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 Calle Escolta.



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 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-floor 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 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.



LANDMARK STRUCTURES. The Burke Building 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. Other landmark structures in Escolta are the charming pre-war Natividad Building that evokes a café in a Parisian neighborhood and the 1933 Calvo Building with its stunning beaux-arts architecture.

American war correspondent Robert Stewart sent the first signal of the radio station DZBB from a makeshift studio on the fourth floor of the Calvo Building. This historic event was the first broadcast of the Kapuso Network GMA channel 7.


ESCOLTA THEATERS. 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 of Pablo Antonio while Capitol Theater was designed by Juan Nakpil. The former was been demolished while the latter is awaiting to be restored.

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 Francesco Ricardo Monti. These relieves show allegorical characters in traje de mestiza, one holding a mask and another holding a lyre frame by evocative Art Deco lines and curves.


EPILOGUE. From Sta. Cruz Church, our Escolta walk ends at 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.

From the foot of Jones Bridge we walked towards the stately Chaco Building and slipped under the Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch to begin the Binondo Heritage Walk. But that’s another story.