Grace Park belongs to another space and time. It was an industrialists’ enclave established in the 1930s and it rose once again after being ravaged by World War II. This area in Caloocan had its own busy airfield and was planned out in a New York-style grid of avenues and streets. Factories and mansions dotted the locale.
“Grace Park was not a white, picket-fence type of a neighborhood,” wrote Letty Jacinto-Lopez in an essay for the Philippine Star. “It was a misnomer in fact for we had no parks or picnic grounds; only factories, foundries and warehouses with rows upon rows of corrugated roof and plywood structures to house the hardworking daily wage earners.”
Grace Park was the place to manufacture “everything that was essential to life and commerce,” added Lopez, including “tin, aluminum, rubber, kapok, foam, white appliances, plastic ware, balloons, candies, kropek, vegetable oil, etc.” And the industrialists who owned these factories thought it wiser to move to the area so they can be closer to their businesses.
One of Grace Park’s most famous addresses was the Elpo Compound. Elpo was short for ‘El Porvenir’ or ‘The Future’. It was also the country’s first rubber manufacturing company, which started in the making of tires but whose most successful product were the country’s first-ever rubber shoes.
Elpo was established by Don Tomas Geronimo who clustered his children and their families in one vast property in seven different homes at Grace Park. The compound famously had an Olympic-size swimming pool and an enormous entertainment pavilion. One of Don Tomas’ daughters was Angela ‘Angie’ Geronimo who later wed José Forés; their son Raul, who would become one of the country’s most respected doctors would, in turn, later marry Baby Araneta.
Raul and Baby’s daughter, the chef and restaurateur Margarita Forés, would lovingly memorialize the halcyon days of the Elpo compound by naming one of her many popular restaurants ‘Grace Park.’
Margarita has wonderful memories of visiting Elpo Compound as a young girl in the 60s. “My father wanted us to spend time with his side of the famly every Sunday,” she recalls. “Grace Park was a regular part of our Sunday lunch. We would go to Caloocan, visit my grandmother—my Lola Angie— who was the oldest of the Geronimo sisters.”
These lunches, says Margarita, always led to dancing sessions, hence the family was called The Dancing Geronimos. “Our Lolo Vicente Geronimo used to teach everybody how to dance,” the chef recalls. Hollywood stars like Cyd Charisse and various celebrities who would perform at the Araneta Coliseum would afterwards let their hair down at the glittering Elpo Compound parties.
Margarita still remembers the very 1950s home her Lola Angie decorated. It was larger than life. A three-storey structure with a winding staircase, a bar, and a dinner table with just enough chairs for the older people (everyone else had to squeeze into the nearby cubbyhole sofa). She was a lover of things grand and this extended to the food she served, from her chicken breast with Champagne cream sauce and green grapes to her pasta dome—both of which Margarita has adapted in the menu of her restaurant Lusso.
Indeed, Elpo remains very close to the chef’s heart. She even recalls how her Lola Angie would call the Forés kids of Cubao’s Bahay na Puti for their orders of custom Elpo rubber shoes. “We would always tell her, ‘Pwede ba doble suwelas, Wawa, para matagal ang buhay?’”
Another Geronimo daughter would marry the dashing architect Leopoldo L. Coronel, Jr., a popular member of Manila’s 400. He counted among his friends Alfonso Yuchengco, Carlos Palanca, Luis Araneta, Manny de Leon, and a then-20 something Lee Aguinaldo. Leo Coronel was also a close friend of President Ramon Magsaysay and was particularly proud of the painting that hung prominently for many years in his office, also at the Elpo Compound: Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s Egg Vendors. The 1955 painting is going up for bids this September 11 at the The Magnificent September Auction.
It was Leo who was most involved in planning the parties that usually wound up in the society pages. There were tales of the gatherings that typically featured two live bands that would ensure the night was filled with non-stop music. The festive evenings would have different themes, much like today’s events, ranging from black-tie, Hawaiian, toga parties where people came dressed like the court of Julius Caesar, and even a ‘shorts-only’ picnic. Leo drew caricatures of his guests and decorated the walls of the pavilion to their collective delight.
Grace Park thus belonged to an era energized by a pro-Filipino movement and the optimistic impetus to re-build after the War. The Anita Magsaysay-Ho masterpiece Egg Vendors richly symbolizes that time and place.
With interview by Jerome Gomez
[The Magnificent September Auction is happening on September 11 beginning at 2PM. Check out the e-catalogue and auction offerings by going to leon-gallery.com or click on this link. The event is presented by the country’s premiere auction house Leon Gallery together with ANCX.ph, the urban man's guide to culture and style, the lifestyle website of ANC, the ABS-CBN News Channel.]