ESCOLTA: Queen of the Streets

With the increasing popularity of lifestyle hubs around the metro (most of which are owned by the Ayalas), I would consider it a rare occasion to have convinced some friends to ditch highly air-conditioned malls for a day and join me in threading the labyrinthine alleys of Escolta in Manila. Considered as the New York of Asia in the early 1900s, Escolta has to be the luxurious predecessor of our modern shopping areas and lifestyle districts. The street which used to be the epicentre of commercial activities in Manila is now famous for nothing but a bunch of dilapidated buildings and the stench all neglected spaces have. But as we navigated our way through the ‘Queen street’ of the country’s capital, I realised how Escolta is like a forgotten superstar who is longing to recount her twilight years with anyone who would take the time to sit and listen to her stories.

It is not difficult to gain a picture of Escolta during its prime as there are still a handful of impressive architectural masterpieces around the area. Our trip focused on rediscovering these gems and acquainting ourselves with the history of every notable building. In the process of doing so, we gained an understanding of how the remaining hints of grandeur in Escolta coexist with the sorry state of destitution. When someone fixed his gaze to a tall palatial structure, it takes only a quick tilt of the head to see a child sleeping on the ground with cardboard as his mattress. Every visitor needs to make a conscious decision on which of the parallelized images of Escolta to see, but I think choosing one does not necessarily mean dropping the other.

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The Carriedo Fountain, located right at the centre of the Santa Cruz Plaza, is the first treasure that will welcome outsiders. It is the centrepiece in a roundabout that connects the streets of Binondo and Escolta itself. Built in honour of Don Francisco Carriedo y Peredo, the benefactor of Manila’s piped water system, the Carriedo Fountain is embellished with mythical muses and cherubs that instantly creates a royal aesthetic and a clear Baroque vision. The fuente, which has a replica in Balara by Napoleon Abueva, is certainly a personal favourite because of its intricate details and the fact that it is still operational. The sculpted characters somehow imitate movements as if the landmark is a miniature theatrical show waiting for spectators’ applause. My friends would also agree Carriedo Fountain is the one thing you need to locate whenever you find yourself lost within the maze of Escolta and Binondo. The Santa Cruz plaza serves as a terminal for jeepneys and other modes of transportation, making it a practical entry and exit portal.

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Carriedo Fountain

I recommended to go to the farthest end of Escolta and then work our way back to Santa Cruz Plaza with an excuse that it is the most efficient and quickest way of seeing all the important sites in the district. But the real reason I had in mind was to see the El Hogar Filipino Building first before anything else. Although it is probably the building with the most unfortunate condition, El Hogar has a regal identity only close attention can reveal. It is the result of the marriage between Renaissance and Neoclassical architectural styles, which reminds me of great creations in the West such as the Flatiron Building in New York and the Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. I cannot help but imagine how the elite and oligarchs used to strut around El Hogar with their expensive suits and bags. Interestingly, some accounts suggest that El Hogar was built in 1914 as a wedding present to Margarita Zóbel de Ayala from his husband Count Antonio Melian of Peracamps. With the elegance that El Hogar still has after surviving World War II and several earthquakes, it is definitely a gift that never stops from giving.

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El Hogar Filipino Building 

A couple of walks away from the spot where El Hogar stands will offer a quaint view of the Manila Central Post Office, another colossal establishment separated from Escolta by Pasig River. Home to the Philippine Postal Corporation, the post office is reminiscent of Regency-era buildings in Great Britain as if it is straight from a Jane Austen novel. Celebrated Filipino architects Tomás Mapúa and Juan Arellano originally designed the building before it was severely damaged during the Battle of Manila. I am under a firm belief that Pasig River is an essential part of the entire scene, and it is the proud answer of our capital to River Seine in Paris. I just wish Jones Bridge, which connects Binondo to the centre of Manila in Ermita, has retained its original beauty with artistic sculpture pieces by German artist Otto Fischer-Credo.

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Manila Central Post Office
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The William A. Jones Memorial Bridge connects the Manila Area of Binondo with the centre of the city in Ermita

Built in 1915, the Regina Building at the corner of Escolta Street and Calle David is one of the oldest structures in the district. Regina can trick someone into thinking it is a museum because of its grand façade and remarkably prepossessing lighting at night. The building has some interesting link to the great Indio Bravo Juan Luna because his son, Andres Luna de San Pedro, is the genius behind the design of Regina. It is important to note that the corner-lot establishment remains operational up until today, housing different businesses like the Unionbank and JRS Express. Regina continues to defy the odds by proving its relevance in front of the public who may have lost the appetite for some neoclassical beaux-arts commercial structures.

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Regina Building

The Don Roman Santos Building is the only 19th Century structure among those we have visited. Established in 1894 and named after the founder of Prudential Life, the Olympus-like building celebrates the fusion of Neoclassical and Renaissance architectural styles. It is the kind of design that would appeal the likes of Gianni Versace and Rupert Murdoch because of its elegant grandeur. The massive size of the building is both intimidating and captivating that one may assume Zeus and the other gods are holding a meeting behind its closed doors. Like Regina, Don Roman remains to be a useful commercial building as it serves as the Santa Cruz branch of the Bank of the Philippine Islands [BPI]. I was quick to be reminded of the London Palladium Theatre upon seeing the Don Roman Santos Building, and you can just Google the images to see why.

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Don Roman Santos Building

While staining our shoes with the dirt of Escolta, the topic of the juxtaposing poverty and rich history in this part of Manila has surfaced during our conversation more than once. We are aware of how both conditions exist, but we chose to aim our lens at the beauty that can be traced and recovered. Without any attempt to imitate Catriona Gray’s philosophy on poverty, I hope the Government and those who have the capacity to transform and restore Escolta may always look at it as a half-full glass.

 

 

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