A New Life to Old Buildings

By Anson YuApril 16, 2017

Slowly but surely, conservationists are getting heard and noticed for their work on preserving and integrating old buildings into our city


In November 2016, heritage advocates and conservationists were jolted with the news that the pre-war Rizal Memorial Sports Complex would be converted into yet another shopping mall.

The Rizal Memorial’s significance is indisputable. Built in 1934, the Art Deco marvel by architect Juan Arellano has hosted several national and international events. Surely, there must be a way other than putting yet another shopping complex in its place.

While preserving an old building is no easy task—the amount of money needed for maintenance and repair can be substantial, for one—tearing down a building isn’t the only solution. One of the best ways to protect old houses and buildings from demolition is to find new uses for them, tapping new sources of revenue and finding new relevance within the local community.

Among heritage conservationists and advocates, this move is known as “adaptive reuse.”


“It refers to a sense of respect for an old or existing space [by giving it] a new purpose on account of the needs of the current time,” says Mary Ann Venturina-Bulanadi, a cultural heritage worker and member of the faculty of the UST School of Interior Design. “[The Building] may also serve the same purpose or an additional purpose, but because the perspective is through present-day user’s eyes, there may be adjustments.”


It is not exactly a new concept. In 1982, Chef Gene Gonzalez turned a private residence on P. Guevarra Street in the city of San Juan into a restaurant, Café Ysabel. Together with the food he served, the beautiful structure, its dramatic interiors, and overall architecture helped turn Café Ysabel into an icon.

And then there’s Manila’s former central train station Tutuban, which in the ‘90s was repurposed into a very popular shopping mall.

But not all adaptive reuses are exemplary. Cases in point: The Joy Cinema in Libertad and the Bellevue Cinema in Paco have now been repurposed into clothing stores. While that surely is acceptable, nothing was done to clean up the exterior of the building or highlight its architectural details.


For adaptive reuse to be effective, it needs to remind the community of two things. First, its significance, especially to the people in the neighborhood, and second, the role that the structure used to perform.

Take for instance Makati’s Nielson Tower. Built in 1937, it is the only reminder we have left of the era when the Ayala Business Center was the site of the country’s first civilian airport.

Since the end of World War 2, the tower has served several purposes: It was once turned into a police station, into a library, and finally, in 2012, into a fine-dining restaurant by Colin Mackay who offered to have the tower redeveloped. Mackay then dubbed it the Black Bird, after one of the fastest planes ever built. It has since become one of more well-known examples of adaptive reuse.

And then there’s the Quezon Vacation Home, which was relocated from New Manila to the Quezon Memorial Circle. Former President Manuel L. Quezon built the house on Gilmore Street in 1927. While it was supposed to be a rest house, many significant things have happened here, such as the founding of the Philippine Red Cross in 1947.

When the house was disassembled from Gilmore and then reassembled at the Quezon Memorial Circle, a lot of conservationists did not approve of physically moving a heritage structure out of its original location. But because the house was moved not that far from its original location, and it became a great gateway to learn about the former president, the Quezon Vacation Home sits without incidences at its new site.

Venturina-Bulanadi cites the Bahay Nakpil-Bautista in Quiapo, for which she serves as a volunteer curator, as one of the best examples of good adaptive reuse in Metro Manila. This lovely wooden house, built in 1914 by Dr. Ariston Bautista, was for his wife, Petronas Nakpil.

She mentions that among the house’s more famous occupants was Gregoria de Jesus, the lakambini or the muse of the Philippine Revolution. Aside from being the second wife of Andres Bonifacio, she was the one who hid the secret codes and seals of the revolutionary movement. She moved into this house after she remarried Dr. Bautista’s brother-in-law, Julio Nakpil.

The house still remains in the hands of the Nakpil clan. It is now managed by a private foundation that they have set up.


“It is not an easy task to maintain this 103-year-old wooden house as we don’t receive a government grant. But we are motivated by the need to continue the legacy started by our famous forefather,” says Bobbi Nakpil Santos, who sits as president of the foundation.


Aside from being a museum, the house tries to reach out and serve the community around it by providing free weekly acupuncture services to the people.


But adaptive reuse isn’t limited to historical buildings. Down in Pasay City, there is The Henry Manila, a unique hotel built from a compound that was once the home of a wealthy Chinese-Filipino family.

Built in 1948, it consisted of two palatial homes and 21 wood-and-concrete villas. The future of the compound was in doubt after the patriarch of the clan passed away and members of the family began moving elsewhere. The clan could have earned a huge fortune had they decided to sell the land to a developer.

A member of the family, Fred Chung, approached businessman, Hanky Lee, who was looking for a unique property for the first Manila location of his hotel chain. Upon seeing the property, Lee declared that he had found what he was looking for.

It opened in 2014 and since then, The Henry has gained wide acclaim as one of the most distinctive hotels in the city. The hotel’s manager Miguel Calixto Tria Capistrano III, finds it inspiring and engaging to be working in a place like The Henry Manila.

“It gives you a sense of pride knowing that you are helping preserve this for the country and for the next generation,” the manager says.


If there is one area in Metro Manila that would be deemed as crucial to conservationists, it would be Binondo, said to be the oldest Chinatown in the world. The district has a number of office and commercial buildings built in the early to mid-20th century that are still standing.

Despite some setbacks, there are a few success stories of adaptive reuse here. One of the better-known ones is the former Perez-Samarillo Building, built in 1928.

Its ground floor was once the site of one of Manila’s earliest department stores, Berg. The building was then sold to Jose Cojuangco in 1968, who renamed it the First United Building.

Later, in 1979, he resold it to businessman Sy Lian Teng, after whose passing, the stewardship of the building was passed on to his son, Roberto Sylianteng.

In 2013, Sylianteng began collaborating with the art collective 98B COLLABoratory to find ways to bring new life to the building. From holding markets on Saturdays, the First United Building now hosts Hub: Make Lab, an incubation space for small businesses on the first floor, a community museum on the second floor, a touring company Manila Who on the fifth floor, where a co-working space is being planned—that’s apart from the many businesses scattered on all five levels.

What is interesting, however, is how in the last few years the concept of adaptive reuse has been filtering through all levels of society. It is not only the rich developers doing it but small entrepreneurs as well. One of the more interesting examples is in the Sta. Ana district of Manila where a restaurant now stands in the small two-storey mid-20th century house that belonged to Teodora Reantaso.

She did not fight against invaders or created landmark pieces of art, she was simply beloved by the people in her neighborhood for her cooking. So when her grandson, Orlando, decided to open a restaurant in her honor, it was only proper that he did so in her house. While Orlando had to update and expand the interiors to accommodate a bigger dining area and kitchen, you could still sense the house’s original purpose. It is a template that could be adopted by other entrepreneurs across the metro.

Admittedly, adaptive reuse is not the solution for every old buildings. Sometimes a building is not structurally safe anymore and poses a hazard to the occupants inside. According to EA Sembrano, a freelance writer who specializes in topics related to culture and conservation, “experts from the cultural agencies would need to agree that the building is safe, then it is okay for it to be adaptively reused.”

Still, there is a growing number of developers and businessmen who are now opting adaptive reuse. There are the art gallery space and ethnic art purveyors at 1335 Mabini in Malate. Then there is the former Citibank head office in Binondo, which has now been refurbished and renamed as the Juan Luna Place. Another is the Samuel J. Wilson building in Binondo that was brought by Co Ban Kiat Inc. and repurposed into their corporate offices. There is also an old wooden house from Caloocan that was transferred to Makati, where it has been transformed into an upscale bed and breakfast known as La Casita Mercedes.

But the battle for conservation is far from over. Many old buildings and houses across the city are in danger of being demolished and turned into a mall. Thankfully, more and more people are turning creative, resorting to adaptive reuse and eager to give history its equal billing in this city.