Old bones, new face: Juan Luna Street's Grand 1991 Cafe. Photograph by Jilson Tiu
Culture Spotlight

Binondo's heritage jewel has been transformed into a grand café

The HSBC Building, feared to be the next casualty in heritage knockdowns, surprises everyone with a new café that repurposes the almost century-old edifice
Isidra Reyes | Nov 09 2018

The last time the Binondo heritage district was in the news was May this year, when early morning fire hit three significant heritage buildings from the American Colonial Era: the former Insular Life Building (1930), which housed the Land Management Bureau; the BPI Building at Plaza Cervantes; and the former Pacific Commercial Co./International Banking Corporation/First National City Bank Building, currently known as the Juan Luna E-Services Building, which, among others, housed some offices of the National Archives. What made the fire more alarming was the possibility of losing not only the fire-hit buildings but two other heritage jewels which were just right across the street: the El Hogar Filipino Building (1914) and the former HSBC Building (1922). 

Good news to Manila's heritage champions

The Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), which established its first branch in Rosario Street, Binondo on 11 November 1875, is the oldest foreign bank in Manila and was very much a vital force in the Philippine economy, helping finance the sugar industry, and the building of railways, among others. The HSBC Building—its former main office was at Juan Luna St. cor. Callejon San Gabriel (now Valentin St.)—is situated just before the El Hogar Filipino Building at Juan Luna Street going towards the Pasig River. Built from 1921 to 1922, the building was inaugurated on 22 September 1922 with Acting Governor General of the Philippines Charles Emmett Yeater doing the honors.

Architectural rendering of the HSBC Building, Juan Luna Street, Binondo, Manila. G.H. Hayward, 1922.

The five-storey concrete-encased steel structure was designed by Architect G.H. Hayward and built by contractor Oscar F. Campbell in the then prevailing Neoclassical Revival Style seen in many office buildings of the era.  Its unique double finial architectural feature, which highlights its corner main entrance, has been compared by Paulo Alcazaren to Sir Edward Lutyens' British Colonial Era buildings in the Indian Subcontinent. The building also had 20-inch armored concrete walls reinforced by two networks of twisted steel bars and treasury vaults with forty-inch thick encasing walls. The ground floor ceilings were 23-feet high with upper floors having ceilings as high as 16 feet. The lower floors were occupied by HSBC, while the upper floors were leased out to Smith Bell & Co. Ltd., representative of Sun Life Insurance of Canada, among others.  After WWII, the building housed the British Consulate (1946-1960s) and the William H. Quasha Law Office. Thereafter, HSBC vacated the building, just as Citibank moved its business from the FNCB Building and moved them to Makati. 

For many years, the former HSBC Building was in a state of neglect after the bank moved to Makati in 1971. Renamed the Hamilton Building, it was for many years the bodega of a lighting fixtures supplier, its facade dingy with almost a century’s worth of grime and gunk, its main entrance door blocked by street people who seemed to have camped in the premises. Then the El Hogar Filipino Building next door was sold by the Fernandez heirs and the building’s tenants were ordered to vacate the structure by February 2014. Thereafter, sounds coming from inside the El Hogar Filipino Building ignited fears that the building was being gutted from the inside. On July 6, 2014, the magnificent grillework of the building’s grand staircase were seen being loaded to a truck belonging to a building contractor. By November 2014, G.I. sheets fenced up the El Hogar Building, seemingly being prepared for demolition. On the same month, Noble Place broke ground adjacent to the former HSBC Building, and it seemed like the decaying, former HSBC Building was next.

Heritage advocates and associations such as the ECAI, Heritage Conservation Society, HCS-Youth, and the ICOMOS continued their protests via Carlos Celdran’s Love Parade, through print, broadcast, and social media coverage, and by constant monitoring of the area, always on the lookout for further signs of demolition. The protests and media coverage seemed to have abated the demolition of the El Hogar until one fine morning in  March last year when the conservation groups were alerted that the windows of the former HSBC Building were being removed.  

After some discreet investigation and networking with other heritage advocates, we learned that the former HSBC Building had a new owner who gave the assurance that he appreciated heritage buildings and would not demolish the edifice. He revealed his plans to adaptively reuse the structure: partly as a restaurant on the ground floor, and the rest of the floors will be office spaces for lease. The owner seemed media-shy and refused help from heritage groups. He simply asked that those concerned wait and see.

The interiors of 1919 Grand Cafe

It was a pleasant surprise then to see the photos posted by Anson Yu, Stephen John Pamorada, and Lloyd Rt in their FB timelines and in the group Manila Nostalgia last 31 October of he newly opened 1919 Grand Cafe at the ground floor of the former HSBC Building at 117 Juan Luna Street. The interiors, including the furniture and the lighting fixtures, look very contemporary, with elements that connect to the building’s original structure and its storied past. 

The 23-foot high ceiling of the bank’s former lobby has been retained, as well as the intricately grille windows and the columns’ Corinthian capitals. Same with what looks like a replica of the commemorative plaque originally found at the building’s main entrance—which has been enhanced in polychrome—and the scrubbed up and repainted Neoclassical facade which lends an air of timeless elegance to the building’s exterior. Here and there are enlarged reproductions of vintage photos of Old Manila which remind us of the building’s historical milieu.

Like its interiors, the menu is a melange of the old and the new, the East and the West.  While there are varied offerings of soup, salad, pasta, pizza, wagyu steak, and seafood paella, there is also a selection of dimsum, as well as a variety of Chinese main courses. For dessert, there is a wide assortment of cakes as well as coffee and beverages.                 

Click on the image below for slideshow


1919 Grand Cafe overlooks Plaza Cervantes now dominated by Megaworld's Noble Place.


Replica of HSBC Commemorative Plaque in polychrome.


Vintage photos of Old Manila take back diners to Manila's storied past and the original building's historical milieu.


The second level dining area.


The interiors of 1919 Grand Cafe and its 23-foot ceiling.


The bar


The building's original architectural details, such as the Corinthian Style capital and the precast panel provide stark contrast to the restaurant's largely modern interiors.


The building's original architectural details, such as the Corinthian Style capital and the precast panel provide stark contrast to the restaurant's largely modern interiors.


Commemorative plaque originally found in the Main Entrance of the HSBC Building. Inscribed on the plaque is: "Georgius V D G Britt et Terra Transmar Qvae In Dit Sunt Britt: Rex F.D.: Ind Imp Hong Kong." The English translation reads thus: "George the Fifth, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland, and the Lands Across the Sea, Which Are in the British Dominion, King Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India." Source: Mike Lu 


Corner view of the HSBC Building, Juan Luna Street corner Valentin Street, Binondo, Manila.


HSBC Building, 117 Juan Luna Street corner Callejon San Gabriel (now Valentin Street), Binondo, Manila. The five-storey building was designed by G. H. Hayward and built by contractor, Oscar F. Campbell, from 1921-1922.  Source: Arkitekturang Filipino


El Hogar Filipino Building (1914) designed by Ramon Irrureta Goyena, was built to commemorate the marriage of insurance pioneer, Don Antonio Melian y Pavia, to Doña Margarita Zobel. The building's tenants included El Hogar Filipino Sociedad Mutua de Construccion y Prestamos, Smith Bell & Co., Warner Barnes, Ayala Cia., Lizarraga Hermanos, and several other prominent firms of the time. The El Hogar Filipino Building is adjacent to the HSBC Building along Juan Luna Street.


HSBC Building in decline, 2014. Photo posted by Architect Dominic Galicia in Manila Nostalgia.


HSBC Building facade, circa 2014.


El Hogar Filipino Building in decline. Photo by Isidra Reyes, 9 November 2014.


Photo showing the dismantling of window frames from the former HSBC Building dated 14 March 2017.  Photo by David Montasco


Photo showing the renovation of the former HSBC Building shaping up, 1 August 2017. Photo by David Montasco.


Photo showing the demolition of the interiors of the ground floor of the former HSBC Building. Photo by David Montasco.


Photo showing the demolition of the interiors of the ground floor of the former HSBC Building. Photo by David Montasco.


The Binondo fire of 28 May 2018 which damaged significant heritage buildings like the former Insular Life Building and the Juan Luna E-Services Building.


CStaircase grillework from the El Hogar Filipino Building's grand staircase removed in July 2015. Source: Stephen John Pamorada


No to demolition! Save El Hogar! Heritage advocates bring their protest to the streets, 9 November 2014.

As much as heritage advocates would like to preserve the original structures of our heritage buildings, adaptive reuse is, in most cases, a more viable option. The passing of ownership to heirs, the rising maintenance costs, the high rate of real property and estate taxes, the changing neighborhoods, and the lack of government incentives have rendered the preservation of our heritage structures truly challenging. Not to mention the rise in the prices of prime real estate, lack of cooperation of LGUs, corruption, and the inconsistent enforcement of our heritage law and zoning ordinances. It is also far easier and less costly to demolish an old structure and build a new one rather than go through the more laborious and costlier process of restoration.

For these reasons, it is indeed laudable for the HSBC Building's property owner to retrofit and repurpose an almost century-old structure and reinvent it as the 1919 Grand Cafe. Hopefully, the public, especially heritage lovers give back the love by showing their patronage of the cafe. The City of Manila and our government cultural agencies should take note of such efforts and extend to  them the necessary support and incentives so as to encourage more heritage property owners to trek the same  path.


Currently, the 1919 Grand Cafe is open from 11 AM-11 PM and will soon be open as early as 6 AM.  For reservations, please call 4297068.  Thanks to Mr. Anson Yu for his invaluable assistance and Ms. Rochelee Barlan for permission to photograph the building.


1919 Grand Cafe photographs by Jilson Tiu