The furniture empire of Guagua’s pioneer industrialist 2
Don Gonzalo Puyat in his Escolta Office, ca. 1960; A Puyat billiard table, 1920s. Photos courtesy of Leon Gallery
Culture

The Don Gonzalo Puyat story: How one discarded billiard table led to a Filipino furniture empire

And how two of its earliest works, a narra altar originally made for the Betis Church, made its way back to the family
ANCX Staff | Oct 11 2021

The Municipality of Guagua in Pampanga is home to several of the country's national cultural treasures and historical landmarks. Among these are Saint James the Apostle Parish Church, the Lopez Mansion, and the Goseco Ancestral House, to name only a few. But only one man can claim the honor of being the embodiment of the town's rich cultural heritage – Don Gonzalo Puyat. 

Don Gonzalo Puyat was born on September 20, 1878. At the turn of the century, the young Gonzalo worked as a farm boy and learned carpentry as a trade. During this time, he married Nicasia Juco (1877 – 1946), also a native of Guagua. Gonzalo and Nicasia were blessed with four sons: Gil (1907 – 1981), Sandalio (1908- deceased), Jose (1914 – 1947), and Eugenio (1916 – 1968) and five daughters: Virginia (1900 – 1948), Puring (deceased), Leoncia (1910 – 2007), Juanita (1912 – deceased), and Maria Luz Nicasia (1924 – deceased). 

A Puyat billiard table, 1920s
A Puyat billiard table, 1920s (Sold at Leon Gallery’s The Kingly Treasures Auction 2016)

With their well-earned savings, the 28-year old Gonzalo left his hometown for Manila with his wife and their then-two children to try and toss their luck for a better life in the capital. In 1907, he earned a living for his family by working in a billiard hall in Quiapo from 6 am to 12 midnight, making a scanty 18 pesos per month. After his work, the Puyats would sleep in the lobby of the billiard hall, which the family rented for 5 pesos a month. 

 

Billiard hall years 

Gonzalo's services and loyalty caught the attention of his employer Jose Martin, the Spanish owner of the billiard hall. In return, Martin increased Gonzalo's salary to 25 pesos, from which the latter managed to save a peso monthly. In 1907, Martin decided to lease the billiard hall to Gonzalo as a form of gratitude and expression of indebtedness to his employee. 

As the tides of history would dictate, this would signal the genesis of Don Gonzalo's prolific career and business. 

Marker Plate of Gonzalo Puyat & Sons, Inc.
Marker Plate of Gonzalo Puyat & Sons, Inc.

In 1909, Gonzalo learned to repair billiard tables by taking them apart and skillfully replicating them. He bought a hammer, a plane, a chisel, and a file with his additional savings. Eventually, Gonzalo set up his own repair shop. One day, he bought a billiard table discarded by an American from Fort William McKinley. Gonzalo attempted to repair and sell it, which unfortunately turned without success. He then converted the table into a smaller utility table that he succeeded in selling. This marked the beginning of his furniture business – the House of Puyat. In 1912, he exhibited his own billiard table at the First Industrial Exposition at the Manila Carnival, where he won a Gold Medal. 

In 1918, Gonzalo ventured into business expansion by constructing bowling alleys and crafting classic and modern furniture pieces. In 1924, he incorporated into his business his sons Gil (who would eventually become a distinguished senator and his father's successor) and Eugenio and grandson Jose. By 1938, the company had already commenced the manufacturing of parquet floorings, doors, windows, decorative wood panels, and galvanized iron sheets with imported Japanese materials. 

A print advertisement for Puyat-made billiard tables
A print advertisement for Puyat-made billiard tables

The most coveted 

The House of Puyat would secure its continuing legacy on its "well-crafted, proudly Filipino-made furniture." From the 1920s to the 1960s, the most coveted furniture pieces in the Philippines were crafted by the House of Puyat. The holdings and assets of the family business grew in abundance, expanding to lumber, vinyl, and steel manufacturing. 

With their merited success, the furniture empire set up its factory in a one-and-a-half-hectare property on Rodriquez Arias Street in San Miguel, Manila. Don Gonzalo and his sons managed their business from their 7-story building formerly occupied by the Heacock's Department Store in Escolta Street. By 1960, the House of Puyat had become the most lucrative furniture company in the East, employing 350 woodworkers and obtaining a regular supply of fine woods from Surigao and Mindoro. 

A Pre-War Narra Altar
A Pre-War Narra Altar (one of Gonzalo Puyat’s earliest works). Altar: 157” x 98 1/2” x 36” (399 cm x 250 cm x 91 cm)

The company's furniture pieces were virtually found in every corner of the country – from low-cost residences, lavish mansions, the Malacañang Palace, and even in national heritage sites.

Among the earliest works of the House of Puyat were two narra altars formerly housed in the St. James the Apostle Parish Church. Also known as Betis Church, the structure is designed in the Earthquake Baroque style and declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines and the NCCA. The altars are up for bids on Day 3 of the upcoming León Exchange 21st Online Auction.  

A Pre-War Narra Altar
A Pre-War Narra Altar (one of Gonzalo Puyat’s earliest works) Altar: 161” x 98 1/2” x 34 1/2” (409 cm x 250 cm x 88 cm)

The two altars 

The altars were crafted for the Betis Church by the House of Puyat during its early years. In 1984, the altars were returned to the Puyat family through the efforts of the townspeople of Betis. 

According to Anna Lourdes Puyat-Lacson, Don Gonzalo's great-granddaughter, the Betis locals aided in the “homecoming" of the altars to the Puyat household.

"Our mother, Milagros came into possession of them through individuals from Betis, who were selling the old Church furniture to give way to the renovation of its interior and exterior by the town's Fiesta Committee in 1984. Enterprising, they decided that the pieces might be best returned to their maker, members of the Puyat family in Manila," narrated Puyat-Lacson.

Anna Lourdes can still vividly remember how the altars were delivered to their home. 

Comparative scale figure between a human and the two altars (taken from the Leon Exchange 21st Online Auction catalog)
Comparative scale figure between a human and the two altars (taken from the Leon Exchange 21st Online Auction catalog)

"As our father's name, Antonio, began with the letter "A," his number was the first one they called in the phone book. Had it been my father who had answered their phone call, they might not have come to our family. But our mother was receptive to this call from strangers who promised to send the pieces to our family home in Mandaluyong, from Betis. We can still recall the 6-wheeler truck that was loaded to the top in altars, statuary, bishop's chairs, and the like pulling up into our driveway."

The two altars possess three gradas (levels) comprising the base, the middle, and the pediment. The middle part consists of eight Corinthian columns and three compartments. Its central section is reserved for the Crucifix or an image of a saint to whom principal devotion is dedicated. The pediments are decorated with vine and C-scrolls and floral engravings. On the other hand, the base is consecrated by the Christogram, a traditional religious symbol in Christianity. 

"They have blessed our home for the past 37 years. We hope that the craftsmanship of our great-grandfather's company will, in turn, find a new home," Don Gonzalo's great-granddaughter said.

The altars not only symbolize Don Gonzalo Puyat's commitment to his craft but, more importantly, his dedication to producing proudly Filipino-made furniture. As a pioneer Filipino industrialist, Don Gonzalo's perseverance and hard work will continue to be the hallmarks of his indelible contributions to the Philippine furniture industry. 

Catch a preview of these exquisite altars from October 9 to 14, Saturday to Friday, from 9 am to 7 pm, at Warehouse 14, La Fuerza Compound, Don Chino Roces Avenue, Barangay San Lorenzo, Makati City. The León Exchange 21st Online Auction will be held from October 15 to 17, Saturday to Sunday. All three days' worth of virtual treasure hunting begins at 11:00 am. All bidding will be online at www.leonexchange.com

To browse the León Exchange 21st Online Auction catalog, visit https://leon-gallery.com. For further inquiries, email info@leon-gallery.com or contact +632 8856 2781/+639985172010. For updates, follow León Gallery on their social media pages: Facebook - www.facebook.com/leongallerymakati and Instagram @leongallerymakati.

[Photos courtesy of Leon Gallery]