Capitol Theater in November last year. Photograph by Joel Vivero Rico
Culture Spotlight

Is there a chance we can save what remains of Capitol Theater?

Just recently, we heard a hint of good news about this once glorious edifice that embodied an era of glamour in the heart of Manila
Isidra Reyes | Mar 31 2019

Last September 11, 2017, it was reported that the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, the National Museum and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts have given their go-signal for the demolishing of the Capitol Theater. This was after the developer, who was to build a highrise residential edifice, presented to the three cultural agencies the "in situ methodology for the preservation of the tower and façade” of the Capitol. More than a year later, however, in November 2018, a Facebook post by Joel Vivero Rico that featured a photograph of the partly destroyed structure opened up old wounds among heritage conservationists. Shared more than 500 times online, it was reality slapping one in the face. Will this really be goodbye? 

Originally built in 1935 and designed by National Artist for Architecture Juan F. Nakpil in the then fashionable Art Deco Style, Capitol Theater for many years was one of the architectural and entertainment landmarks of the city. Situated near the corner of Yuchengco St. (formerly Nueva Street) and Escolta, it was erected on the site of the Barretto Building (later known as Tuason Building after it was acquired by Don Demetrio Tuason), another architectural landmark built circa 1870 by pioneering Filipino architect Félix Roxas y Arroyo.

Capitol Theater (1935) designed by National Artist Juan F. Nakpil, Escolta, Manila.

The Barretto structure was a beautiful three-storey commercial Neoclassical Revival building. It was adorned with rows of Ionic columns on its ground floor, balconies on its second floor, and canephoras—figures of maidens bearing  baskets of offerings—on Its third floor. The building housed shops, photographers’ studios, and company offices. But it burned down in the Escolta fire of December 31, 1917. It was, however, rebuilt right after.

20 Million Sweethearts (1934), the first movie shown at the Capitol Theater on January 1935. Photo courtesy of IMDb

In 1934, the Eastern Theatrical Enterprises Co., Inc., a corporation owned by the heirs of Demetrio Tuason and the Rufino family, commissioned Architect Juan F. Nakpil to build Capitol Theater, “Manila’s Most Modern Theater” and “The Showplace of the Nation.” Inaugurated on January 9, 1935 with the showing of the Hollywood musical film, 20 Million Sweethearts (1934), the ziggurat-topped structure was symmetrically balanced with a recessed central tower ornamented with geometric Art Deco grillwork. Composed of squares overlapped with circles, this grillwork was framed by large square pillars. On the vertical planes flanking the central grillwork were bas relief sculptures by the renowned Italian artist Francesco Riccardo Monti featuring stylized, modernist figures of Filipinas clad in baro’t saya carrying the symbols of cinema and sound. The central design motif of the interiors was the National Flower, the Sampaguita, which can be seen adorning the wrought iron grills of the stairs, lobby, and foyer and the center of the proscenium arch.

Original Art Deco Style lobby of the Capitol Theater, circa 1940. Photo courtesy of Baul ni Juan
Photo of the Capitol Theater lobby showing the mural, "The Rising New Philippines" (1935) created by the Triumvirate, Galo B. Ocampo, Victorio C. Edades, and Carlos "Botong" V. Francisco, shown here with Architect Juan F. Nakpil and sculptor, Severino Fabie, who created the Art Deco Style sculptures flanking the mural. Photo courtesy of Edades, National Artist

The highlight of the Pre-War Capitol Theater lobby was the mural entitled “The Rising New Philippines” (1935), a collaborative work by the “Triumvirate,” a group made up of Galo B. Ocampo, Victorio Edades, and Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco. In the mural, the New Philippines was represented by a Filipino woman with a stretched arm rising above and through the clouds after being born of the combined civilizations of the Orient, of Spain, and of America.  Unfortunately, this mural, along with the Capitol Theater’s beautiful Art Deco interiors, were destroyed during World War II. All that survive for posterity are a photo of its lobby with Architect Juan F. Nakpil, sculptor Severino Fabie, and the abovementioned Triumvirate—plus another photo showing the mural in detail, published in Zoilo M. Galang’s Encyclopedia of the Philippines, Vol. IV-Art. For a time, immediately after WWII, the ruins of the Capitol Theater were used to house the Silver Slipper Club, a nightspot which catered largely to American soldiers out for a night of fun.

The Ruins of the Capitol Theater Post-WWII occupied by thr Silver Slipper Club, a nightspot catering mostly to U.S. servicemen. Photo courtesy of Ben Ramos

Along with the Lyric Theater, also in Escolta, the Capitol Theater was rebuilt Post-War by contractor A. M. Oreta & Co. with a mid-century modern vibe. Capitol continued to be a first-run movie theater run by the Rufino family, showing both Hollywood and Filipino films, until viewership in stand-alone theaters suffered a slump with the coming of free and cable television, video piracy, and mall cinemas. With the decline in viewership came the shift of the country’s economic and commercial hub from the Escolta-Binondo area in Manila to Makati, Ortigas Center, and the Bonifacio Global City. Some stand-alone cinemas were reduced to showing double programs which included porn and even live sex shows.  

Interiors of Capitol Theater, circa late 1950s-early 1960s, renovated by Juan Nakpil & Sons with A.M. Oreta & Co., Inc. as contractor. Photo courtesy by A.M. Oreta & Co., Inc. courtesy of Lou Gopal, Manila Nostalgia

With the increase in real estate prices, more and more of our former movie palaces were sold by their original owners, cut up into rental spaces, and ultimately demolished. The formerly posh Capitol Theater suffered a similar fate when it began to show double programs and second-run Chinese action movies. It was at one time a resto-bar and in recent years was acquired by a businessman who partnered with developer, Ascott Resources Development Corporation (ARDC),  to redevelop the property into a high-rise building.

NCCA Letters RE: Capitol Theater Redevelopment

As the Capitol Theater was designed by a National Artist for Architecture and is now over 50 years old, it is protected from summary demolition by R.A. 10066, or the Philippine Heritage Act of 2009. According to said law, no demolition permit shall be issued by the local government unit's building offices without securing clearances from the Tripartite Cultural Agencies: the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), and the National Museum (NM).  After consultation between ARDC and the Tripartite Working Committee (TWC) of the Tripartite Cultural Agencies, in their letter to ARDC dated 26 April 2017, “the Tripartite Cultural Agencies consensually agreed to adopt the in-situ (bracing) methodology exterior perspective design version (for the tower relic) submitted by the consultancy firm B. Cabebe Engineering & Consulting Services.”

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However, after the in-situ bracing methodology was agreed upon, ARDC proposed yet another methodology of “dismantling, preserving, and installation of the ‘tower relic’ which the Tripartite Agencies did not approve as per letter signed by NCCA Chairman, Virgilio S. Almario dated 12 March 2018, reiterating the previously agreed upon in-situ bracing methodology. Another strongly-worded letter, also signed by Almario, reiterated the same. However the photo posted by Architect Joel Vivero Rico on 22 November 2018 showed the almost completely gutted interior of the Capitol Theater without any trace of the in-situ bracing methodology on the tower relic and facade.

Capitol Theater Condemned & Demolished. Screengrab from Joel Vivero Rico's Facebook post

Seeing no apparent attempt to protect the remains of the tower relic and the facade, several heritage advocates have expressed their concerns. No explanation/s have been forthcoming from the Tripartite Agencies and the developer, ARDC. While the NCCA had previously assured International Council on Monuments and Sites' (ICOMOS) former president Dominic Galicia that ARDC had sought approval of their proposals from the Tripartite Agencies—and that these agencies had approved the in-situ methodology for the conservation of the tower relic— compliance by ARDC remains in question as it has continuously insisted on their own methodology which deviates from the approved in-situ methodology

Our government cultural agencies, in partnership with LGUs and heritage advocates, should act fast to save and protect our remaining built heritage by strict and consistent enforcement of the law. Asked for an update on the redevelopment of the Capitol Theater, Presidential Heritage Consultant Vivero Rico informed us that it was “on hold as per NHCP.” We asked if there was an official document to that effect but none was sent us to date.  

When we asked NCCA Head of Public Affairs and  Information Office Rene Napenas for an update, we were referred to their online Heritage Bulletin. The latest communication there between NCCA and the developer, Mr. Bennie B. Cuason, CEO of Ascott Resources and Development Corp., is a letter dated 7 June 2018 which in sum informed the developer “that (NCCA) does not approve any new proposed design or methodology for the conservation of the ‘tower relic and facade of the CTB (Capitol Theater Building)” and reiterated that “the previously agreed in situ bracing methodology is the best approach to preserve the facade of the tower relic.” 

The same letter required the developer to submit (1) the as-built plans of the entire original building facade facing Escolta Street and (2) the integrated development plan...showing the existing structure and the new development.” It also reminded the developer that the Technical Working Committee (TWC) had advised them “to revisit (their) design and/ or methodology (architectural and structural) to adapt with the existing structure.”

Asked if there were further developments, NCCA’s Napenas referred us to Charles Salazar, Head of NCCA’s Heritage Section. We E-mailed Mr. Salazar our query but have not received a reply to date. There is, moreover, no communication from the developer nor NCCA posted in the online Heritage Bulletin that the developer has complied with the requirements they were asked to submit by the NCCA.

The developer having secured a demolition permit and demolition order from the Manila City Building Official, we fear that without constant monitoring from the NCCA, NHCP, and the NM, the Capitol Theater Building may go the way of the Admiral Hotel, the old MERALCO Building, the Angela Apartments, the Carlos Palanca Mansion, and other significant heritage buildings which disappeared with the twinkling of an eye, notwithstanding that they were supposedly protected by the Heritage Act of 2009, cease and desist orders, and/or declarations by our government cultural agencies.  

When will this carnage of our built heritage ever stop?