It all started with a message from a friend and fellow heritage advocate last Tuesday evening, 15 January 2019: “Angela Apartments along MH Del Pilar is being demolished already. Just passed by it now.” Having been a heritage advocate for several years, I am used to getting message alerts whenever a heritage building is in apparent threat or is in the process of demolition. Sometimes I just shrug it off when the building is not historically or architecturally significant enough in my opinion. But when it is, alarm bells ring in my head, triggering a barrage of SMS, PMs, and GCs to friends and contacts in the heritage community.
After gathering information, I posted the news in the Facebook group Manila Nostalgia. The post elicited sad and angry reactions. “Tragic!” “Sad!” “What a pity!” And then, “Good riddance!” posted another, surprisingly. This last was from a resident who stayed in the building for 17 long years; he complained about the building’s tilt and “sloppy construction.” Meanwhile, enraged by yet another heritage massacre, former ICOMOS (International Commission on Monuments and Sites) president and one of the country’s leading heritage conservation architects Dominic Galicia commented: “Fernando Ocampo must be rolling so vigorously in his grave a tunnel is being created.”
While gathering information and photos for this story, I was hoping and praying the demolition would be stopped and a substantial part of the building left to stand and continue on. On Wednesday morning, the restaurateur and Malate resident Elbert Cuenca posted a photo showing only the central tower left erect. When I visited the site on Saturday, it was a fait accompli; the Angela Apartments was reduced to a pile of rubble with only its grilled main door left standing. The following day, Cuenca again posted another photo showing a tarpaulin inscribed “Angela apartments,” with Chinese characters on top, being hung at a nearby fenced property. The following day, Angela Apartments was totally gone. What led to this tragedy?
But first, why all the fuss over another building? Here’s why.
Angela Apartments, located at 2135 M.H. Del Pilar Street, Malate, Manila was built in 1936 and designed by the eminent architect Fernando Hizon Ocampo. He was the co-founder of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) College of Architecture and one of the founders of the Philippine Architects’ Society (later renamed the Philippine Institute of Architects). Among his best-known works were the Manila Cathedral (Post-WWII reconstruction), the UST Central Seminary, the Benigno Aquino, Sr. Residence in San Miguel, Manila, the Eugenio Lopez Iloilo Boathouse, the Paterno Building (later known as the FEATI Building), the Cu Unjieng Building, the Calvo Building, and a number of modernist structures.
The Angela Apartments was one of several reinforced concrete mid-rise apartment buildings developed in the then genteel Ermita-Malate-Pasay areas in the 1930s. Among these were Pablo S. Antonio’s Bel-Air (1937) and South Sy-Quia (1930s) Apartments, Francis “Cheri” Mandelbaum’s Rosaria (1936) and Michel Apartments (1937), Juan Nakpil’s Elena Apartments (1936) and Fernando H. Ocampo Admiral Apartments (1939), North Sy-Quia Apartments (1930s), and the two buildings of the Gomez Mansions (1939 and 1949).
Like several apartment buildings of this era, the Angela Apartments was designed in the Streamlined Moderne Style which emerged in the 1930s as a variant of the earlier, more ornate Art Deco Style. Characterized by horizontal bands, smooth curves, cantilevered “eyebrows” over windows, nautical design motifs such as porthole windows, and reinforced concrete structures, Streamlined Moderne was greatly influenced by Bauhaus Architecture, Le Corbusier’s Machines for Living, Modern Art, and boat architecture. Angela Apartments typified this, and other fine examples of the style we are fast losing to the wrecking ball: Walter Beckett’s Jai Alai Building, Juan Nakpil’s Elena Apartments and Manila Jockey Club, Francis Cheri Mandelbaum’s Michel Apartments, and Fernando H. Ocampo’s Admiral Hotel & Apartments.
Even during its early years, Angela Apartments was one of the most sought-after apartment buildings in the Malate area. It was seven stories high with a nine-story central tower. Apart from the porthole windows, it had high-ceilinged apartment units, and an elevator integrated into the building design. It was one of the few Pre-War Art Deco Style buildings which survived WWII, escaping with minimal damage—in the form of a slight tilt in its plumbness.
No information has been uncovered about its original ownership and whom it was named after. Neither is there information on historical personalities who lived there nor historical events which occurred in its premises.
But past residents have begun weighing in. Upon learning of Angela Apartment’s fate, Warren Chip Eck commented in Manila Nostalgia’s FB page: “How sad! My family lived there in the early 1950s and it was a beautiful building!” Dina Abdullah Enriquez recalls that her flat “was like the model unit because I redid the flooring and restored all the woodwork—the jam(b)s, doors sanded and polished. Happy days there with my daughters.” Nonong Pedero maintained a unit at Angela Apartments years ago, and housed his favorite antique and vintage collections. “I threw some memorable parties for friends there,” said the composer (he wrote the legendary SM Shoe Mart jingle and the Metropop classic “Isang Mundo, Isang Awit.”). “The apartment’s high ceilings and wonderful views of Manila Bay gave it a classy old world ambience. What a waste that they are tearing it down,” he recalls. “Now all we have are memories.”
Lorenzo Leviste, who visited the building in the past, remembers it as “very haunted, especially the elevator” with “child ghosts… who knock on your door… doorbells rung.” A tenant, who had not so good memories of his family’s stay in the building, mentioned the structure’s tilt which, according to the property owner in his letter to the Manila City Office of the Building Official last 18 October 2018, was “caused by the ravage of World War II.” Said tilt, which started as “very slight” after the second World War, became even more pronounced after “excavation and sheet pile driving works on the side of (the) property for the Admiral Grandsuites Project” which is just adjacent to the property.
Notwithstanding the haunted elevator, child ghosts, and the tilt, Angela Apartments’ significance was its architecture. According to the late renowned heritage conservation advocate and practitioner Architect Augusto F. Villalon, in his 2002 article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Angela Apartments was a Manila landmark not only because it was one of the first multi-level residential structures in Manila, but also because it was one of the first to have an elevator integrated into its design. And contrary to the disgruntled former resident’s complaint about the building’s “sloppy construction,” Villalon stated the structure was “built to last because of the best materials used in its construction.”
There were likewise provisions in the building’s design to make sure it was suited to the country’s tropical climate: the cantilevered eyebrows over the windows, which served as shades against strong sunlight and rain entering the windows, ceilings three meters high with each unit provided with enough windows to allow ample natural light and ventilation. “The building, by all accounts,” wrote Villalon, “is one of Manila’s heritage buildings… a building of pedigree… and deserves to reclaim its heritage status.”
It was with the noble intention of restoring and putting the Angela Apartments to adaptive reuse as an exclusive and state of the art luxury residential condominium building that spouses Manuel and Lilia Coromina acquired the property in 2009. Previously, the property was foreclosed by Union Bank and vacated by its tenants since 2006. As envisioned by the Corominas and the developer, Art Deco Property Management, “The Angela Apartments will be restored to its former glory and yet imbued with a new life that is sure to add value to contemporary Manila, while preserving what little remains of its heritage. A total of only 44 elegant and stylish apartments making for a very exclusive, low density property.”
To finance the project, the spouses got a P 32-M loan from Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) in 2010. In their letter to the National Commission on Culture & the Arts dated September 18, 2018, the property owners recounted that they “spent years and money restoring and even trying to draw in financially capable investors interested in heritage conservation, to invest in our project. Windows and doors were removed as well as some walls in order to lighten the building for retrofitting of the foundations.”
But money ran out. In the same document, the Corominas stated, “Without enough investors and buyers to infuse capital, the project eventually ran out of funds and redevelopment and retrofitting were stalled. With the passage of time, some portions of the facade were damaged. Most of the steel bars were corroded and (have) long been exposed to higher salinity rate of rain water due to (the building’s) proximity to Manila Bay.”
For many years, the Angela Apartments was abandoned and uninhabitable, while the owners, at the same time, were burdened with having to pay loan amortizations, interest, and penalty from their own hard-earned funds.
Based on my inquiries, none of the cultural agencies involved—the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the National Heritage Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) and the National Museum (NM)—gave clearances to the property owner allowing the demolition of Angela Apartments.
The property owner was well aware that Angela Apartments was Presumed Important Cultural Property and filed a petition for a lifting of presumption of Important Cultural Property with the NCCA, pushing for its delisting due to financial reasons, and in order to make the property more marketable. The NCCA then referred the matter to NHCP and the NM. The petition was still pending with the government cultural office when the property owner wrote the Manila City Building Official and filed an application for demolition permit with said office. It is not for certain if the NCCA, NHCP, and NM were coordinating with the Manila City Building Official regarding the pending application for lifting filed by the property owner. What is definite is that the Manila City Building Official issued not only a Demolition Permit but also a Demolition Order which in effect condemned the Angela Apartments building as unsafe, and ordered its immediate demolition. While the NCCA was in communication with MTCAB, the Manila City Building Official chose to ignore Angela Apartments’ status as presumed Important Cultural Property, despite having a copy of the property owner’s letter petition for lifting of presumption with the NCCA in its files.
When interviewed about it, the Office of the Building Official focused on the “dangerous precarious state” of the building arguing that if anything untoward happens, they would be blamed for negligence. According to them, it was up to the government cultural agencies to “work out” or coordinate with them regarding heritage buildings which should be protected, saying Angela Apartments was only “presumed” and that NHCP or other cultural agencies can still issue CDOs.
To avoid this uncertainty, it is high time that the City of Manila and other LGUs be compelled to submit their master list of heritage properties for evaluation and inclusion in the Philippine Registry of Cultural Property (PRECUP) list and make sure that the City Building Official has a copy for red-flagging. Moreover, there is nothing indicated in the Application for Demolition Permit form currently being used by the building officials of LGUs which requires submission of clearances from the government cultural agencies.
Perhaps it is time to amend said form to include requirement of clearances for heritage buildings. Also to avoid the delays caused in determining who has jurisdiction over specific heritage buildings, it is perhaps better if RA 10066—which cites that all buildings at least 50 years old are presumed Important Cultural Property and are exploited against exportation, modification and revision—is amended by creating one dedicated office to handle declarations and liftings of presumptions of heritage buildings, the issuance of CDOs, monitoring of and coordination with LGU building offices, and everything in connection with the protection of heritage buildings. And it is likewise important that all those who violate R.A. 10066 be penalized to the fullest extent of the law.
It is the weak and uneven enforcement of this law which emboldens property owners, developers, and errant building officials to devise ways to get around the law, leading to more loss of our precious heritage buildings. Moreover, property owners like the Coromina couple who wish to put to adaptive reuse their heritage buildings should be given financial incentives and proper guidance not only in carrying out conservation procedures but in making their projects viable. If only the adaptive reuse of Angela Apartments was a success like the Henry Hotel and the Orchid Garden Suites, more such projects would follow. The sudden and complete loss of Angela Apartments “while we were sleeping” should be a wake-up call to heritage advocates and our government cultural agencies that reforms have to be done the soonest before we lose our remaining built heritage to oblivion.
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