Army-Navy Club now a ghost
CANBERRA—Before Manilans could make the sign of the cross, they were shocked by the news that urban developers had started dismantling one of the few remaining historical landmarks of Manila—the Army-Navy Club on the edge of Quirino Grandstand just across from the equally iconic Manila Hotel.
The Army-Navy Club stands at the heart of the nation’s historical precinct demarcated by the Luneta, which is dominated by the Jose Rizal monument on Bagumbayan Field. The grounds are soaked in the blood of Filipino patriots who gave up their lives in the struggle for independence from Spanish rule.
Unless the national government acts quickly to stay the wrecking crew of the developer who plans to build a hotel on the spot, Filipinos will lose this historical property—an artifact of our passage from Spanish to American colonial rule during the 1930s after the US military occupation of the Philippines in 1898.
The cultural and historically-sensitive community, first alarmed by photos showing that the building had been reduced to a shell, is up in arms over the dismantling of the Army-Navy Club despite a cease-and-desist order issued by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) on Sept. 5. The NHCP issued the cease-and-desist order two days after its experts conducted their own inspection.
The developer, Oceanville Hotel and Spa Corp., was ordered to suspend further renovation work until the NHCP approves the development plan. Documents showed by the NHCP to the media showed that Oceanville did not wait for the commission’s approval before dismantling corroded metal window frames and other original parts of the main building, according to a report by Rappler. The NHCP gave permission for the dismantling of two annexes which are not part of the 20th-century structure, and also allowed the developer to clear debris and rubble inside the main building for its consultant to conduct an engineering study.
Oceanville had previously told the commission it had to dismantle parts of the main building because these posed hazards to workers conducting the study, according to Rappler. But NHCP chief architect Wilkie Delumen said Oceanville should have still coordinated with the commission to ensure the proper handling of the building components. “Old structures like this have original components which should still be preserved… And even if they can no longer be used, there are ways to preserve them and integrate them into the new development,” he was reported as saying. “The decision of what can and should be preserved should have been made by NHCP as the custodian… and not by the developer.”
This makes sense, but questions are being asked. For example: Why has the NHCP, as the custodian of the nation’s historical patrimony, lacked the zeal to halt the further tampering of national treasures? The architectural firm Palafox and Associates, hired by Oceanville, presented its plans on Sept. 11, but Delumen told Rappler the plan had not been finalized because it needed “refinement in some architectural details.” Why is the commission not being tough on the developer? Is it a sacred cow?
An inspection last week of the club premises by Sen. Pia Cayetano, chair of the Senate committee on education, arts and culture, revealed the extent of the damage on the main structure. Cayetano noted that many tiles, likely 80 to 100 years old, were cracked or pulverized. The building looked as if it had been bombed, with only its walls left standing. When photos of the renovation appeared in social media, the public thought it was a demolition. Cayetano was prompted to remark that it was “painful to see” the main building in its present state. The NHCP, it was said, should have been more rigorous in monitoring the renovation, given that photos of the main building without the window frames had been circulating in social media since Aug. 26.
I stayed in the Army-Navy Club for some time after the 1986 People Power Revolution. Now, stripped and dismantled by a hotel developer with clearance from City Hall and the NHCP, it has become a ghost of its old self.
The Army-Navy Club, designed by the American architect William Parson, was built in the early 1900s. It was declared a national historical landmark in 1991 by the National Historical Institute, now the NHCP. The part that has been torn down by the developer to make way for a “boutique hotel” is merely an annex of the original structure.
It was an exclusive club for American servicemen, and Filipinos were not allowed in for a time. It had a restaurant and a bar, a swimming pool and a tennis court, which was closed after it was leased to a restaurant operator by the Manila city government, which owned the property. City Hall took over the building in the 1980s, after the club failed to pay taxes to the municipal government.
For a time the building served to house the Museum of Manila. After the takeover by City Hall, the club was converted by the administration of Mayor Mel Lopez into a training stable for boxers. It is not clear how the developer will restore the property to its historical and cultural integrity—an issue that alarms the cultural and historical activists in the national community.