Introduction and Interview Gabrielle de la Cruz
Images Patrick Kasingsing
For nearly a century, the Manila Post Office building has preserved the age-old practice of sending and receiving letters and parcels by serving as the headquarters of the Philippine Postal Corporation. The neoclassical structure was first constructed in 1926 and was designed by architects Juan Arellano and Tomas Mapua. It is considered among both architects’ most prominent works and remains a symbol of their contribution to Philippine architecture. The building’s Ionic columns and notable form have graced many a Pasig river photo, surviving wars and the onslaught of the digital age where mail has made the transition from paper to screen.
Images by Ramil Tibayan
On May 21, 2023, a massive fire sadly hit the Post Office building. Reports say that the fire started around 11:00 PM and originated from the General Services Office in the basement, spreading to the building’s floors. With over 80 firetrucks arriving, it was only around 6:30 on the morning of May 23 that the fire was completely put out. The damages are estimated to be worth P300 million as of writing. Postmaster General Luis Carlos said that the building’s ceiling had fallen down and that letters, parcels, and the stamp collection have been destroyed. The fire’s origin is still unknown and the future of the currently devastated structure remains at risk. What is next for the grand old dame of the Pasig River?
To further heighten public awareness of the importance of the Manila Post Office and to help stir conversations on the structure’s rebirth early, we invited architectural conservators and heritage advocates to share their two cents on the building’s present situation and suggest measures that are vital to keeping the landmark alive.
Kanto: What are your thoughts on the recent Post Office fire?
Erik Akpedonu, Trustee/Treasurer, ICOMOS Philippines: The Manila Post Office fire is another major disaster to hit Manila heritage. After demolitions (for redevelopment), fires are the second most common cause of heritage loss in Metro Manila!
In recent years, fires have destroyed many heritage houses in San Nicolas and Quiapo. Recent losses due to conflagrations include the Ilustre Mansion, Quiapo (December 2022), the former Pacific Commercial Building (2018), and the Bureau of Customs (2019). In 1979, the Spanish-era Aduana Building in Intramuros was destroyed by fire when it housed the COMELEC offices, possibly due to arson.
This one is particularly tragic, as the Manila Post office is perhaps the largest and most impressive heritage building from the American era in the Philippines.
Tina Paterno, President of ICOMOS Philippines: I think Erik has answered most of what I would have said, and I agree with him. Just to add, electrical upgrades, especially in already neglected buildings, are so rare, and fires are so frequent.
The Manila Post Office building was declared an “important cultural property” (ICP) by the National Museum of the Philippines in 2018. This designation means the structure has “exceptional cultural, artistic, and historical significance to the Philippines”, and is to receive government funding for its protection, conservation, and restoration.
What makes the Post Office Building an irreplaceable landmark, aside from the fact that it is already considered an Important Cultural Property?
Akpedonu: There Post Office is the largest and, again, arguably the most important heritage building from the American Era. This neoclassical masterpiece was designed by Filipino master architect Juan Arellano and is part of the grandiose terminus of Taft Avenue.
Together, the Liwasang Bonifacio and the Post Office form the most beautiful and impressive urban space in the City of Manila. The view of the Post Office from Jones Bridge and from Binondo (Muelle de la Industria) across the Pasig River is also one of the (few) remaining iconic vistas of the city.
What immediate steps need to be pursued after the fire?
Akpedonu: Here are my suggested steps:
1. Structural safety analysis by architects and structural engineers with experience with heritage structures.
2. Temporary shoring, if found necessary in the course of the structural analysis.
3. Temporary emergency roof: Walls, floors, columns, and beams damaged and cracked by the fire must be protected from rainwater penetration which will cause further permanent damage.
4. Sealing of compound to prevent unauthorized access. Permanent security guards on site.
5. Timely release of government funding for restoration and adaptive reuse.
6. The building should be declared a National Cultural Treasure.
Paterno: In addition, there is a need to work with the safety groups to ensure debris is not cleared immediately but set aside. It is also important to obtain previous documentation on the building, such as the conservation management plan that was recently conducted. Document and inventory the site; account for all defining elements that were previously noted in past documentation.
What can be done to prevent disastrous events like fires that often afflict built heritage?
Akpedonu: Many heritage structures in the Philippines are in a poor state of preservation, which facilitates disasters such as this. We do not know yet what exactly caused the fire in this case, but poor building and electrical maintenance are often to blame for similar fires. Even though the Post office looked okay from the front and inside, the rear portion was quite dilapidated and the site was subject to flooding, causing further damage (the fire did, in fact, start in the basement).
A very efficient way to extinguish a fire at an early stage is by using sprinkler systems, which, however, are costly. I do not know whether the Post Office Building was equipped with sprinklers throughout.
The best other safeguards apply to heritage buildings as much as to modern ones are installation and frequent servicing of fire alarms and fire extinguishers, fire drills; and keeping buildings in good repair and maintenance, in particular electrical wires, installations, and equipment.
P.S. Kanto will continue to share insights and suggestions from the architecture, design, and heritage conservation community. The fight goes on. The story of the Manila Post Office continues. •
Gabrielle de la Cruz started writing about architecture and design in 2019. She previously wrote for BluPrint magazine and was trained under the leadership of then editor-in-chief Judith Torres and previous creative director Patrick Kasingsing. Read more of her work here and follow her on Instagram @gabbie.delacruz.