Crumbling heritage

As though the crumbling state of our cultural heritage needed a metaphor, a big part of the roof of the 200-year-old ancestral house of Jose Rizal’s mother in Biñan, Laguna, collapsed last Sunday—a victim of both the elements and human neglect.

Locally known as the Alberto Mansion, the two-story house was built in the early 19th century at the poblacion across from the city government building. The house was owned by the family of Jose Alberto Alonso, the father of Teodora Alonso, the national hero’s mother. It has a floor area of about 600 square meters.

Biñan authorities had been (vainly) moving heaven and earth since 2010 to buy the house from its current owner, Gerardo Alberto. The city council had approved the release of P20 million for the purchase of the 2,000-square-meter property, but Alberto sold the house to Jose Acuzar, the controversial realty and construction magnate who buys up antique houses all over the country, collapses them, and reconstructs them, pillar by pillar, shingle by shingle, in his estate in Bagac, Bataan. He has transformed his estate into a “heritage resort,” calling it Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar.

Alberto obviously sold the house to Acuzar for a handsome price, enough for him to resist the local authorities’ offer to buy it. In fact, part of the reason a portion of the roof collapsed is that much of the house’s interior has been dismantled and brought to Bataan, where Acuzar is rebuilding it using the doors, pillars and other appurtenances from the original structure. “[The roof] collapsed not because the house was rotting,” said Rosario Sta. Maria, head of United Artists for Cultural Conservation and Development. “The house was in almost perfect shape except for a few leaks in the roof until they (Alberto and Acuzar) dismantled the interior even without a demolition permit from the city government.”

To be sure, the matter has gone beyond the local government. Biñan officials and residents have done all they could to stop the demolition, but they could only do so much. Biñan declared the house a cultural heritage landmark through a city ordinance in 2011, and residents have been raising money to buy the property. But the National Historical Commission has not intervened. This is surprising because the National Heritage Law, although still without implementing guidelines, has declared that any 50-year-old artifact or property may be declared a national cultural property. The provision is admittedly controversial, and even artists and cultural workers have raised fears that it may be abused. But surely this is the right time and the right case for national cultural agencies to step in.

It’s true that because of incompetence and apathy of government, national and local, many old houses with historic and cultural value have fallen into desuetude, if not ruin; many of them are gone now. Elsewhere, big-ticket commercial developments have uprooted the ancient pine trees of Baguio City, the futurist Virra Mall in Greenhills designed by Jose Ma. Zaragoza, and the ice-cube-like ice cream parlor of Magnolia designed by National Artist Leandro Locsin.

Acuzar in fact should be credited for salvaging the house of Gregorio de Jesus on Hidalgo Street in Quiapo and other old houses of historic and architectural import and reconstituting them in Bataan. At least he puts his money where his mouth is. But salvaging the houses also means wrenching them from their original geographical and sociocultural contexts; by rebuilding them in a coastal town in Bataan (where incidentally they become prey to the corrosive effects of the sea breeze), they become mere doll houses, playthings of someone with a curious notion of toys. They become empty of meaning.

Moreover, by “commercializing” the “flea market” for antique houses, Acuzar has made it difficult for locals who care about their heritage to conserve their cultural patrimony. Owners of ancestral homes looking for quick cash can now sound off Acuzar and others with deep pockets and demand high prices beyond the reach of even the most hopeful locals.

Conservation is needed to provide generations a sense of place and of history because culture and heritage are inextricably bound with space and time. But alas, government incompetence and lack of a sense of urgency have abetted the people’s short memory and neglect of their cultural patrimony. Meanwhile, the death knell for culture is being sounded by the merry ringing of the cash register.

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Tags: Alberto Mansion , Biñan , culture , editorial , Jose Rizal ancestral home , Laguna , opinion , Teodora Alonso

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