Yesterday is today at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, P. 2

October 27, 2017

On Part 1, I showed some photos taken from the walking tour, but also took the liberty to include a few photos from the Hotel de Oriente. The sequel covers the other sights of interest within Las Casas, with some relevant information added, including my thoughts about the entire establishment. Nevertheless, my family and I were there on a rainy weekend, and my chronic frustration was the poor and fluctuating lighting that provided me with photos that were far from what I was expecting to obtain.


Photo below shows the bridge where guests enter and leave, with the parking space beyond it.



This is the Casa New Manila, where both the reception area and Cafe Marivent are also located.



Casa Maranao, a pair of huge torogan houses that is still off limits to visitors. The photo was taken from Plaza Vergara. These types were used by Maranao sultans and datus, and I hope Las Casas includes more such structures from the southern islands.




The rear of Las Casas' place of worship, the Sanctuario de San Jose.




Houses in progress:



I reckon this to be the Casa Majayjay, originally referred to as the Ordoveza house. Some furor ensued after it was demolished last year from its location to be transferred here at Las Casas.



Tram tracks still in the process of completion:



One of the houses in progress, up close:




This one is almost completely done and is notable for its opulent wood works. At the time of writing, I have not been able to find out what the name of the house is. 



Savor the exquisite details in wood:



The elegant Casa Ladrillo. I may have taken more photos of this than of any other structure within the complex.



 Casa Ladrillo (again), the only all-brick structure along the Estero de Binondo. This belongs to Las Casas' category of Archival Houses, or those whose owners, architect, or builder were unknown.





Casa Terraza.





The Estero de Binondo:




Casa Tuguegarao:







Casa Sta. Rita is said to be the largest house in Sta. Rita, Pampanga during its time. The original had roofing made from nipa until it was destroyed in the Second World War and was replaced with G.I. roofing. There is a concealed room inside the house to serve as hiding place from the New People's Army. Eventually, due to its proximity to the river and because of the frequency of floods, the owners sold the house. Here at Las Casas it serves as Las Casas' Tapas bar, the Cafe del Rio. It was not opened yet when I took photos, however. Note the caryatids on the house's upper level. Caryatids are also found in structures along Paseo de Escolta.



Casa San Luis. This house was originally constructed in Pulilan, Bulacan by Francisco Elizalde for his second wife, but eventually dismantled and brought to San Luis, Pampanga. From the dining area is a concealed hatch that leads to an underground staircase, used as a hiding place from the Japanese troops, and later, from the Huks, the Communist rebel group organized and led by Luis Taruc.



The gabled Casa Hagonoy, built in 1936 by Engr. Tomas Santos. In 1943, the Municipal Council was pressuring him to replace the mayor, who was abducted by the Hukbalahap. Santos staunchly refused to work with the Japanese invaders, and on the day of his supposed inauguration, he had a heated argument with the Municipal Council and had a heart attack. On its balcony was where his widowed wife Consuelo kept on waiting for him to return from the grave, fueling wild stories of ghosts among the neighbors. It was moved to Las Casas in 2014. 




Estero de Binondo as seen from the bridge near island 2.



These houses are off limits to casual visitors. From left to right: Casa Irosin, Casa Balanga, and Casa Gapan. Casa Irosin was the only house left standing after the Second World War in Irosin, after a Japanese officer ordered the entire neighborhood to be razed to the ground except for this one, whose owner was found wearing a kimono. Casa Balanga was used as headquarters by the kempetai during WWII. Emilio Aguinaldo happened to be one of the guests of this house during the course of its history. Casa Gapan was almost burned down by its owner, Hospicio Garcia, after learning that his eldest child Henoveva, eloped with an American, Raymond Miller. His fit of rage was tempered by his brother-in-law who scolded and told him to just sleep it off.



From Puesta del Sol, the road facing the sea, is this series of large houses referred to as 'Accesorias'. An Accesoria is a building where the ground floor is used in the manufacturing of goods, while the second floor serve as apartments for the workers that were brought from other provinces, and the uppermost levels as living quarters for the owners. It has been said that accesorias began during the economic boon at the height of the tobacco monopoly, but if I remember it correctly, it was conceptualized by Chinese settlers who were moved out from Rajah Soliman's Maynila (the precursor of today's Intramuros) during the early phases of the Spanish conquest due to the Spaniards' fear of a Chinese uprising from the colonizers, who were direly out-numbered. When the Chinese were moved to the Parian- I believe it encompassed at least three locations, but not at once- they found the new settlements insufficient in land area and so had to find another way to create space for business and habitation. The solution was to go vertical, thus the accesorias. There are seven accesorias in this stretch: the Don Hilario Sunico; the Tribunal de Naturales; the Doña Luisa Alvarez (this occupies Accesorias 2 and 6); the Don Severino Alberto; the Doña Sotera Borromeo; and the Don Francisco Osorio. 



Casa Jaen I, the residence of Hilarion Santiago Esquivel. Another mayor, Jose Carlos, resided here. An assassination was attempted to him in this house, and the bullet holes were left unpatched. Jose Carlos survived by jumping from one room to another and waving a white flag in an act of surrender.



Casa Luna, as seen from the lower ground of Casa Jaen I:



A pool fronting La Parilla:



La Bella Teodora is an Italian restaurant located within Casa Biñan (also known as Casa Alberto).


I found the restaurant rather charming, with all the period knick-knacks displayed here and there. A live band was playing classical music almost non-stop, enhancing the ambiance. 







After dinner we strolled back to our hotel room. It was pleasant and breezy, and it would not be so difficult for anyone to drift off into nostalgia without even trying. Modernity is tolerated at Las Casas, yet restrained. Hotel de Oriente shimmers at night:



The following day, I finally got to see some sun and went out to shoot more photos with more enthusiasm. But after a few shots, it rained down. Again. Oh well...



Paseo Escolta is the commercial area of Las Casas. Along its length are establishments like La Panaderia; Tess the Farmer (a shop offering organically grown goods including  body nourishment products); La Tiendecitas (a souvenir shop); Musika, Kwerdas, at Gitara; Antiquadas (selling various antique items); and Napiya Spa.



La Panaderia is where one buys bread and other foodstuffs. Behind is Casa Bizantina.



Ionic columns reflected on the pools left by rain:



Casa Mexico. On its right is Plaza Belmonte and on the left is Plaza Atienza, where Casa Bizantina is also located. Casa Jaen II is behind Casa Mexico, though not visible from this vantage point.



Casa San Miguel is on the northeastern most portion of the resort and is adjacent to Casa Bizantina, providing a more subtle contrast to its stately neighbor. The area beyond the stone arch is off limits to visitors, and there is nothing to see there anyway, at least to guests. 



 Casa San Miguel, taken from near the arch. Beyond it is Casa Mexico, its facade facing Plaza Atienza.



A replica of the Tranvia, whose Manila terminal used to be located in Tutuban in Divisoria. To its right is Casa Tondo, and further up on the street is Casa Quiapo, which is easily identifiable by its alternating brick and adobe columns. Beyond it is Casa Baliuag I, the weekend residence of the Acuzars.



I reckon this to be Casa Binondo I.



This is from the ground floor of Casa Unisan, which is steeped with a sad history. Below is an excerpt from the book Philippine Heritage Homes:


"The house was built by Don Antonio Maxino in 1839 and is claimed to be the first bahay na bato of Unisan, Quezon (formerly the town of Kalilayan in Tayabas province). Bandits (tulisan) once roamed the area and the house was built with escape routes. One evening, bandits surrounded the house and the family tried to flee. Unfortunately, the bandits were aware of the hidden exits and massacred the entire family, not noticing only a little girl trembling inside a used clothes hamper. It was the same little girl, already an old lady, who decided to sell the already half-ruined home to Jose L. Acuzar in 2007."





Along Parque de Manila, taken from outside Casa Unisan, which is on the right. Further it is Casa Meycauayan, and on its immediate left is Casa Lubao, where indoor games can be enjoyed by guests. 



Hotel de Oriente, as seen from Casa Lubao, immediately before one reaches the bridge.



Sanctuario de San Jose is a replica of the Diocesan Shrine and Cathedral Parish of St. Joseph, located in Balanga, also in Bataan, and used by the Japanese forces to pummel Mt. Samat, the last stand of the combined Philippine-American forces during the early phases of the Second World War in the Philippines. I have misgivings though on how this replica was constructed, which to me looked staid compared to the original. If you look around for some photos of the real deal, you will probably see what I mean.



A gazebo at Paseo de Escolta. Behind is Casa Luna.



Getting there


My family and I had a private vehicle when we went there, so if you will be using public transport to get there, I really cannot give you an idea as to the exact fare you will be likely to spend. However, there are buses that ply the route from Manila to Bataan, and you can inquire about their fare prices. Relevant bus companies include Genesis Bus Company and Bataan Transit, and they have terminals in Pasay City, Sta. Cruz in Manila, and Cubao in Quezon City. On average, travel time is a little over 3 hours. From the main road, you can hire tricycles to get you to Las Casas.


If you will be going there with your own car, take the NLEX-SCTEX (North Luzon Expressway-Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway) and exit at Dinalupihan Toll Plaza. From there, turn right to Pilar; a Total Gas station to your left serves as your landmark. Drive straight towards Bagac then turn left when you see a fork at the Filipino-Japanese Friendship Tower. When you reach another fork, drive to the left at J.P. Rizal St. This will lead you straight to Las Casas.




This is of course only a rough guide, so do not take this as you would read Scriptures. Room rates are available at their website, as is their walking tour rates for walk-in visitors.


If you wish to enter Hotel de Oriente, note that a guided tour there is separate from entrance fees. This costs 200 pesos per head, although when we were there, we were told that the fee is 150 pesos. Either the rates have changed or the rates differ from if you were a casual day visitor. A tour there includes a photo op at its hall and an opportunity to see its exhibits featuring Filipino artworks and crafts.


If the weather allows, you can get yourselves wet and try their watersport activities. Renting a jetski will cost you 4500 pesos per hour, or 2500 for 30 minutes. Wakeboarding will set you back 2500 pesos per 30 minutes. A banana boat costs 2800 pesos and each can carry up to 8 persons. So assuming that there’s 8 people in your group, each will have to dish out 350 pesos to get on a banana boat. Flying fish costs 2400 pesos per ride, and this is good for 6 persons at once. Though technically not a watersport, they do offer a Balsa River Cruise for 250 pesos per person, although I am not sure if this offer still stands at the time of this writing.


If you are not much into walking, you can opt to rent a golf cart for 650 pesos per hour. A 15-minute calesa ride is priced at 75 pesos per person, and a bicycle rent is pegged at 150 pesos per hour.


If you are keen on having your photos taken in a very nostalgic way, then proceed at Fotografia dela Escolta. You’ll get to have yourselves dressed as Filipinos would in the old times, and you have two options: Souvenir photos (‘Si Tasyo: pilosopo o baliw’), or Photobook printing (‘Mga alaala’).



If relaxing in a spa is your thing, then you can go to Napiya Spa, which is also located along Escolta.



La Panaderia carries some food stuffs, but there is not much variety in their breads, which also happens to be pricey. A piece of medium sized ensaymada and Spanish bread is roughly 25 pesos each. An ice cream cone that typically costs 20 to 25 pesos elsewhere is here offered for 55 pesos. Small cup noodles are 25 pesos apiece, but hot water is not available- at least when we were there. There are a few shops adjacent to La Panaderia, but expect to be greeted by rather stratospheric prices too. However, at La Tiendecitas I found myself unable to resist the temptation to purchase the book Philippine Heritage Homes by Jaime C. Laya, Ma. Cristina V. Turalba, and Martin L. Tinio Jr. These tsokolateras are also from La Tiendecitas:



There are 6 cafes and restaurants at Las Casas: Café Marivent, which is at the Reception Area; La Bella Teodora at Casa Biñan; Cucina ni Nanay Maria at Casa Unisan; La Parilla near Casa Jaen I; a Beach Bar and Café del Rio situated at the Estero. The last two mentioned weren’t open at the time we were there. Nevertheless, a decent meal for a family of seven (like ours) will set you back around 4000 pesos. Per meal, mind you. By the way, a scoop of ice cream at Café Marivent is priced at 50 (or 55 pesos), but it’s 35 pesos if you get it at La Parilla. The ice cream is good though.


Some thoughts...   


Las Casas is essentially an open air museum, and frankly, nothing within the country is quite like it. At roughly 400 hectares in total land area of which about only 26 hectares have been developed so far, there is quite literally much room for further development, although at this stage, it is already rather impressive. Since its inception, Las Casas has generated quite a deal of discussion, mostly in the form of contentious debates particularly among heritage advocates. In this regard, permit me to bring forward the points that are frequently discussed from opposite sides of the table, so that whatever standpoint you may eventually conceive will, at the very least, be informed and balanced.


Heritage conservation is in dire need of attention in the Philippines. All around the country, the number of colonial era houses have been dwindling fast, mainly due to apathy from both the local government and their respective owners who do not even have a sense of history and understanding of these houses’ value. Very few cities and towns realize the significance of these architectural examples from decades past to actually appropriate funds for their upkeep- the cities of Cebu and Vigan, and the towns of Pila, Taal, and Talisay and Silay and Negros are good examples. But elsewhere, many of these said houses are just rotting away, with parts being sold off to antique dealers and collectors or even on roadside junk shops, even by their owners. Abandoned ones are often occupied by squatters whose often inconsiderate deeds accelerate further deterioration. Conservation of these reliquaries exist on paper, but not on the consciousness at the national level and there is very little implementation from relevant agencies. Local governments as a whole aren’t too helpful either; consider the track record of a former Metro Manila mayor when it comes to the demolition of long-standing structures, and his policy of tolerating squatters to occupy even landmarks of historical significance, if only to guarantee their support come election time. By the time these officials have vacated their positions, whether voted out or otherwise, the damage would already have been done.


The Acuzars have evidently taken to great lengths the restoration and conservation of heritage houses of note, and have even instituted efforts to further visitors’ perception and experience through the production of cultural dances and musicals, although it should be mentioned here that based from current knowledge, ‘Sa aking mga kabata (To my fellow youth)’, with its immortal lines of ‘ang hindi magmahal sa sariling wika ay masahol pa sa malansa at mabahong isda (whosoever does not love his native tongue is worse than a fish)’ cannot be attributed to Jose Rizal anymore. Nevertheless, Las Casas has also provided refuge to artists; an exhibit by Polish sculptor Pawel Althamer was on display at Casa Quiapo, and an exhibition commemorating the Bataan Death March can be observed on the ground floor of Casa Candaba; on its second floor is an exhibit featuring old churches. The latter two were made possible by the combined efforts of the Acuzar family and the Ortigas Foundation.


However, the asking prices for those who want to see and experience these are steep. Visitors are compelled to dine only within the premises, but the food pricing is also exceptionally expensive. Going out to eat elsewhere is possible but is not without some hassles- at the registration center you can ask them to summon a tricycle for you, but the distance of Las Casas to the town proper means that you may need to make arrangements for almost about an hour before your intended time of dinner. One way tricycle ride from Las Casas to somewhere in Bagac will set you back 50 pesos, probably higher if you are going out alone or with companions so few you wouldn’t even fill in the entire tricycle; in many parts of the country, tricycle drivers charge on a trip to trip basis particularly if the distance to be covered is long. Thus, a tricycle operator or a driver who thinks that 300 pesos is fair for a one-way trip, then 6 people will each have to pay 50 pesos to meet the 300 peso quota. If you're all by yourself, then you have no choice but to pay 300 pesos. Additionally, should you decide to take a late lunch for example, you will be unpleasantly surprised to discover that Las Casas' restaurants only operate at fixed hours during the course of day. If you choose to just stay within the vicinity, you will only have two options: grab some bread at La Panaderia at Escolta, or have merienda at their Pica-pica (La Parilla), where, as my sister exasperatingly pointed out, the street food prices are out of reach by street children. A bowl of Arroz Caldo costs 120 pesos. Nothing comes by cheap at Las Casas. Still, we might as well consider the amount of resources needed to fuel and maintain a vision as grand as Las Casas. An expensive undertaking calls for roughly the same amount of money for its upkeep, and we are not yet even putting the business side to the equation- although to my eyes, whatever revenues that Las Casas obtains are barely enough to cover maintenance costs. From what I understand, some of the old houses were already there on site before the place was opened to the public. That Las Casas would operate as a resort came as an afterthought after it became clear that maintaining such houses would require more than personal funds. What the owners are doing are in stark divergence to other ventures that are essentially profit-driven. One can even classify this enterprise as passion-driven first and foremost. In this sense, I would be remiss to not mention one of the lengths that the Acuzars go to for Las Casas: they manufacture their own clay bricks, shingles, callado, plaster embellishments, and others. And they do employ local artisans for these purposes. So it is a business venture where the locals also benefit. And yet, there is no hiding the fact that a stay at Las Casas calls for some pretty considerable amount of money, especially for a typical Juan. Suffice to say, visitors at Las Casas are essentially filtered out based by their economic capabilities. Which brings us to an essential point: all this enterprise is commendable for its sheer will to awaken people’s interest in our heritage, but this awareness should not be limited to people who can afford a stay at Las Casas. A grass roots approach goes a long way toward a better consciousness for our embattled structures.


And this ushers us to another, more provocative point: the removal of old houses from their original locations, to be reconstructed at a seaside resort in Bataan. Heritage advocates raise alarm- often in vitriolic tones- over such actions, arguing that doing so only saves the structure, but its context within the community gets invariably lost. The Acuzars have countered that there is little point in conserving houses from their original locations if these same locations have become highly urbanized, with all its attendant chaos and pollution. To illustrate, Casa Alberto in Biñan has a Jollibee fast food chain in front of it, and let’s admit it, much of Biñan has become a blighted enclave masquerading as a modern city. However, the Ordoveza house in Majayjay, Laguna was torn down and dismantled last year and is now being currently rebuilt at Las Casas as Casa Majayjay. If you do visit Majayjay, you will see that it is minimally developed, and the old town’s provincial charm is still quite intact. Perhaps drawing the line wouldn’t be so difficult, but we live in the real world where collectors covet and investors have to earn. But to be fair, the Acuzars have managed to save some of these old houses from certain demolition, among these is Casa Candaba. Casa Candaba in its former location has significantly declined in the past few decades with garbage heaping around it during market days. It has been said too that the owner’s wife found a jar of gold and jewelry on its floor, sold these off and went abroad with her children. The husband hoped to find more of these jars which explains the number of holes around the ground floor. Many of its parts have been sold to an antique dealer in Mabini in Manila. In 2005 the half-demolished house was bought by Jose Acuzar where it now stands at Las Casas, albeit the decorative details cannot be restored due to lack of references. Casa Candaba is currently being put to good use as an exhibit hall. Similarly, The Enriquez Mansion used to be one of old Manila’s grandest architectural examples with its distinctive Ionic columns, but after the Second World War, things went downhill until the Enriquez family sold the house in the 1970’s. When the house was purchased by Acuzar, it was already in a very sorry state. Reconstruction had to be very painstaking, although there is only so much one can do about it. Today it is known in Las Casas as Casa Quiapo, or Casa Hidalgo, after the street where it used to stand. Casa Quiapo is, as mentioned before, the present venue of Polish sculptor Pawel Althamer’s works when my family and I were there. Casa Sta. Rita, as mentioned above, was at risk from constant flooding until the owners sold the house to the Acuzars. One can only guess about the fate of the house were it not passed to a different owner and transferred someplace else.  


Another criticism frequently presented against Las Casas is that these old houses are built not far from the sea, exposing the precious structures to saline breezes. If you take another look at some of the photos I have taken, you will notice that windows and facades have plastic coverings; I have noticed that these plastic covers are employed if the structure is facing towards the sea, so I guess the management is well aware of this and is doing something to at least lessen the effects the sea has on these delicate constructions.


On our second night at the resort, my mind wandered off and began to assume what I would do if I had the same resources as the management. It did not take me long to figure things out: conserve those houses right in their original location and go the route of adaptive reuse by turning them into a museum or a restaurant, maybe even lease those to interested business outfits. I can recoup my investments and earn some decent money in the long run. But more importantly, I get the fleeting opportunity to convey to the community that such houses are part of their local identity and that such structures' usefulness does not diminish with age. Who knows if a few among these residents eventually become heritage advocates or even artists after years of getting inspired by what they are seeing right within their communities? Houses that are so dilapidated in neighborhoods that have deteriorated so much that there isn’t much that can be done can be dismantled and moved someplace else; instead of high rise buildings, why not have bahay na bato structures that people can rent (perhaps even purchase) like they would an apartment or condominium? This is what I have noticed at Las Casas: the vista is grand, but it’s sterile. There isn’t a functioning community there like in, let’s say, Vigan or Pila- although one can argue that such a comparison is unwarranted because, lest we forget, Las Casas is after all a resort. Then again, houses should not be mere houses. These should be homes above anything else. Imagine if you will, a community lined with old architecture- whether these are renovated or just replicas does not really matter- and people are encouraged to make a living out of making crafts or other enterprises like the extraction of essential oils or wine-making, but of course with ample support from either the developer (that would be me) or the local government (preferably both) so that their businesses can prosper and go on indefinitely. Proper zoning will dictate those areas that cannot be touched by the likes of fast food chains or those hideous, run-of-the-mill computer shops. And of course, absolutely no videokes. And while I’m at it, I might as well revert the street names to their former epithets, with a presentable marker detailing the background of those names. I’ll go even further: how about including in their respective schools’ curriculum a history of their town? History as it is being taught nowadays are but washed, wrung, and sterilized versions that students have a hard time having connections with. With some slight tweaking of how we approach history and historical sites and artifacts, we may well finally begin to have a national consciousness for heritage sites and structures that a forgetful people such as us so badly need. Should be quite nice, don’t you think? Then again, I am only a blogger, not a tycoon.

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