NOT everything that we borrowed from the West is foreign, especially if we appropriated it and it gave us a positive experience as a people. There are also buildings which can encapsulate a lot of important historical things that happened in our past.
Such is the importance of the Luneta Hotel since it opened in 1918. Situated near the historic Luneta de Bagumbayan field, some of the windows of its 60 hotel rooms overlook the site where the national hero José Rizal was martyred by the Spanish colonizers in 1898; his grave, the Rizal National Monument called the “Motto Stella” or guiding star, Manila’s foremost landmark; and the historic walled city of Intramuros.
According to architect John Joseph Fernandez, the hotel building was designed by the Spaniard Salvador Farre, who was actually an engineer who designed the Montalban Dam. His design is classified as belonging to the French Renaissance style incorporating Filipino stylized Beaux Arts. It is the kind of architecture that proliferated at the time, particularly in other Escolta buildings, giving Manila some kind of Parisian feel. The confluence of designs made the Luneta Hotel a truly Filipino architecture adhering to the spirit of the bahay kubo of giving “kaginhawaan” to its occupants with its large windows.
Because of its elegance and proximity to the harbor, it became a favorite place for sailors and merchants. Also of foreign dignitaries such as Dwight Eisenhower, the chief military aide of Field Marshal Douglas MacArthur. He lived in the hotel from 1935 to 1939 and had this to say: “This Luneta was for more than four years the scene of my habitual evening walks. To this day it lives in memory as one of the most pleasant, indeed even one of the most romantic spots, I have known in this entire world. Leaving the front entrance of the Luneta Hotel in the evening, I could walk to the right to view the busy docks where Philippine commerce with the world was loaded and unloaded. From the hotel, looking across the peaceful waters of Manila Bay, I could see the gorgeous sunsets over Mariveles and looking down toward the city itself, I nearly always paused for a moment before the statue of the great José Rizal before returning to my quarters.” Dwight Eisenhower was eventually inaugurated as 34th President of the United States of America in 1953.
In 1937, the hotel became the official residence of the delegates of the historic 33rd Eucharistic Congress; its final Mass was held at the Luneta.
The hotel survived World War 2, after being used as prison by the Japanese and housing for non-commissioned officers of the United States Army. During the Battle for Manila in 1945, it became a refuge of the Red Cross.
But the hotel has lost its former luster. It changed owners over time, was given to a Marcos crony and fell into disuse after being sequestered in 1986. This is despite the fact that in Chuck Norris’ famous film, you will see a cameo of the building as a Vietnam War hotel with a signage “Lun Ta Hotel,” and that in celebration of the Philippine Centennial of 1998, it was declared by the state as a National Historical Landmark.
Cipriano Lacson of Malabon bought the hotel in 2008, seeing its potential. After years of restoration approved by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, the hotel reopened in 2014 and is now being managed by Jennifer S. Lacson. It is not just a window to the past, adorning its walls are modern paintings by Aljo Pingol, a painter from Valenzuela City.
After the centennial celebrations last Monday, to which I was invited, amidst the original walls of the building that remained, I told the journalist Epi Fabonan 3rd that the war destroyed not just buildings in Manila, but our culture, our spirit and our kabutihang loob. This made us lose interest in preserving what remained, unlike in Paris where these kinds of structures will be taken care of. But here, pinababayaan.
Luneta Hotel’s was a great story. It is a story of survival, of everlasting beauty despite disuse. What the Lacsons have done demonstrate the importance of the private sector in taking care of our heritage because government care of heritage depends on who are sitting in charge of the local government. They did not demolish it, but maintained its façade so as to preserve its spirit and elegance, so as to continue appreciating its place in the history of Philippine architecture. There are many new hotels in Manila, but the Luneta Hotel Manila will continue to be unique. It stands as a testament to our cultural recovery and rising spirit, reliving Manila’s place as one of the shining cities of Southeast Asia during the time when we were still emerging as a nation.