Can the Post Office building be demolished?

As the inferno raged at dawn of May 22, fears and lamentations of the fate of the 1926 Manila Post Office building gripped social media. Was it because of government’s poor track record at heritage preservation that not a few believed the burning edifice would be demolished?

Those fears are not exactly unfounded. One netizen reminded us of what happened in the year 2000 to the Jai Alai building not far from the Manila Post Office. The Manila Jai Alai was a building along Taft Avenue designed by American architect Welton Becket along the Streamline Moderne style. Constructed in 1939, it was inaugurated in 1940 and survived World War II. It was ordered demolished by Manila mayor Lito Atienza on July 15, 2000, amid protests by heritage activists, to give way to the Manila Hall of Justice, which Atienza was never able to build on that site, anyway. Take note of the frivolity there.

However, the similarities of both buildings end there. In 2000, there was as yet no National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009 enacted as Republic Act 10066. It was following this law that the Manila Post Office was declared as an Important Cultural Property (ICP) on November 2018 by the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP), coinciding with the 251st anniversary of postal service in the Philippines.

Having no law as protection standard, the Manila Jai Alai was not a declared heritage edifice. Yet even without it, the protestations of heritage activists composed of the Heritage Conservation Society, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and the then National Historical Institute (renamed today as the National Historical Commission of the Philippines [NHCP]), could have been sufficient to register preservation because the artistic and historical values of the building were extant.

Today, local government heads may no longer do a Lito Atienza because of the law. Current Manila mayor Honey Lacuna, for instance, has stated that, “the City of Manila will work with the national government to jointly help restore the original structure of the Manila Central Post Office where it once stood.” 

Despite RA 10066, many local government heads remain ignorant or choose to remain ignorant of cultural heritage preservation and protection. Is it because it is outweighed by the enticement of bigger money for corruption in infrastructure projects?

There still remains an essential need to understand how RA 10066 works for the Manila Post Office building. In 1994, the NHI installed a marker on the building. But following the fire, current NHCP chair Dr. Emmanuel Franco Calairo stated that there were two declarations: “The post office building bears a historical marker installed in 1994 and declared as a National Historical Landmark alongside the Plaza Lawton in 2012.”

RA 10066 defines “historical landmarks” as “sites or structures that are associated with events or achievements significant to Philippine history.” Section 5 of that law makes an interesting provision. It states that a marked structure by the NHCP deems it automatically as an Important Cultural Property.

An ICP is defined by law as “a cultural property having exceptional cultural, artistic and historical significance to the Philippines,” and shall be determined by the National Museum and/or the NHCP. The NMP’s declaration of the building as an ICP in 2018 made the built heritage structure even doubly protected.  

Sometime during the last Aquino regime, national government contemplated on resorting to an approach of conservation called “adaptive re-use” for the Manila Post Office building. This approach is also embodied in RA 10066, which defines it as “the utilization of buildings, other built structures and sites of value for purposes other than that for which they were intended originally, in order to conserve the site, their engineering integrity and authenticity of design.” Even international heritage principles consider the validity and acceptability of adaptive re-use.

A committee was established to study its adaptive re-use into a Fullerton Hotel. Like the Manila Post Office building, the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore was also a general post office building and was built in 1924. It was named after the British governor of the Straits Settlements Robert Fullerton. It survived World War II as a makeshift hospital for wounded British soldiers.

From 1998 to 2000, the building was restored and converted into a 400-room luxury hotel. The restorer-conservators, complying with Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority rules, retained not only the external architecture but also several features of the original building that had to be restored faithfully following the principles of 20th century traditional Beaux-Arts classicism.

Dr. Felipe Mendoza de Leon, the former chairman of the NCCA, shared that indeed the government’s talks with Fullerton Hotel happened during his watch. “It was the Department of Finance that was involved in the negotiations with Fullerton and the problem had to do with whether Singapore will have full ownership or share it with the Philippine government.”

Apparently, Fullerton had other concerns, particularly the problem of constant flooding from the Pasig River. In the end, the planned conservation did not prosper.

It is also significant to understand how the mechanism of conservation works as stipulated by RA 10066. Section 15 prescribes that: “All intervention works and measures on conservation of national cultural treasures, important cultural properties, as well as national historical landmarks, sites or monuments and structures previously marked by the National Museum and/or the National Historical Institute before the implementation of this Act, shall be undertaken through the appropriate cultural agency which shall supervise the same. The appropriate cultural agency shall approve only those methods and materials that strictly adhere to the accepted international standards of conservation.”

What happens if the conservation work does not adhere to its original style? That is addressed by Section 25: “When the physical integrity of the national cultural treasures or important cultural properties are found to be in danger of destruction or significant alteration from its original state, the appropriate cultural agency shall immediately issue a Cease and Desist Order ex parte suspending all activities that will affect the cultural property.” 

A question has been raised as to the Manila Post Office building being associated with colonial memory. That is not a full appreciation of its cultural value. Filipino architects Juan M. Arellano and Tomas Mapua designed the building. In fact, the building is considered Arellano’s magnum opus and is deemed superior to his other obra maestra, the Congress of the Philippines (today the National Museum of Fine Arts). Other landmarks of the noted architect of Philippine colossal edifices are the Cebu Provincial Capitol (1937), Misamis Occidental Provincial Capitol (1935), Negros Occidental Provincial Capitol (1936), Cotabato Municipal Hall (1940), and of course the Manila Metropolitan Theater (1935), among others.

Following the blaze, social media was abuzz with scenarios. Will a high rise replace the burned building? Will it be demolished to give way to a commercial center? Will the absurd Pasig River Expressway gobble it up? There are legitimate fears even as Manila city ordinances have begun to reflect the advent of RA 10066. The mayor of Manila allayed fears in a discourse that sounded so very different from the day of Lito Atienza. She said:

“For those who have doubts that maybe someone else wants to build in the Manila Central Post Office area, according to the local ordinance this area is an institutional zone. It was also declared in 2018 by the National Museum as an important cultural property. The National Historical Institute declared it as a heritage zone,” she said.

“As a heritage zone, no other structure can be built — only the Manila Central Post Office. It is protected by the zoning ordinance. The local and national government cannot build any infrastructure except the Manila Central Post Office,” she added.

That is a strong statement, yet still it may not be able to appease many. For even a national cultural agency such as the NMP can delist or lift the heritage presumption of a built heritage site, and in fact such have happened in the recent past. The reader can reference the recent cases of the Philamlife Theater and the Sunico Foundry.

Can the Manila Post Office building be demolished? In principle, no. Out of frivolity – a relative application of the law, yes.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.