The fate of heritage houses

By Jobers R. Bersales January 31,2018
Jobers Bersales

Jobers Bersales

The rash of heritage houses giving way to development — first the Bonpua House in Oslob, then the Suico Mansion in Mandaue and now the Abad House or Villa Eliton in Barili — is neither the beginning nor the last.

They follow a long line of destruction that began decades ago. They are just becoming more noticeable now because we have reached this point in time when so few of them remain.

Thus, for heritage advocates, lamentations and more lamentations.

But alas, lamentations are not enough, alternatives must be found; otherwise, heritage advocates will be painted as anti-development. More to the point, while we all understand the sadness, the condemnation, they will not save the few that remain.

There is, of course, Republic Act 10066, the National Cultural Heritage Law, which mandates the registration and protection of houses and other kinds of edifices of local, provincial, regional and national significance.

But the record shows that, as with so many other laws of the land, implementation remains elusive.

I hear whispers of concern from both the provincial government and some in the local government in Barili, about finding out what ought to be done.

And I would like to give my unsolicited opinion about what indeed ought to happen should inquiries be made about these destructions in order to aid future legislation.

First, ostensibly, given that in this country and in our culture, politics is personal, I would like to get this notion out of the way.

To turn the destruction of these houses — and the planned transfer of the Abad Mansion/Villa Eliton to a nearby barangay — into a political issue will only muddle the more important concerns that ought to be addressed to help both heritage house owners and the public at large.

My take is simple: government must put their money where their mouth is. True, we need to preserve heritage structure. They remind us of our past, our artistry and facets of our humanity. There is no arguing this point. But when owners die and their heirs see money in these houses, especially where second or third generation heirs are not of the same economic means as the first, how can these structures be saved?

The most important case in point for me is the old tile-roofed house of Argao, the only one other than the municipio still standing in the 1980s with its tile roof intact. No less than a former congressman was born, got married, and lived there for a time.

Despite this, however, the house, with its tile roof and distinct Chinese architecture — including two Ming Dynasty deep-blue plates attached to the corners of the roof’s ridge beam — was sold.

The Argao municipal government did not expropriate it and the owner, for some strange reason, allegedly stood by doing nothing, or so I am told, and allowed the building to crumble while drug addicts called it a den and started stealing its huge floorboards.

The October 2013 earthquake finally joined in the fray and toppled the walls down.

Everyone was lamenting the slow death of this previous late 1700s or early 1800 house whose keystone even carried the “IHS” symbol for Christ. Yet no one stood to compel the state through its local instrumentalities to begin expropriation proceedings.

This then is our dilemma: so many of these remaining heritage structures either suffer neglect or are going to be sold to commercial firms who will not shed a tear for heritage as they logically want to recoup their purchase price.

There are so few Jimmy Sys or Aboitizes in our midst who will buy heritage structures to preserve them, no matter the financial loss incurred.

At least on the part of the hitherto so well-preserved albeit altered Abad Mansion, the former owner who sold it to a large department store – owning chain has seen fit to dismantle it and move it to another place a Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar (LCFdA) in Bagac, Bataan.

Its original context may have changed but at least it has not left Barili and become part of the aquarium that is LCFdA.

So then we are back to the dilemma: when private owners sell it because they have no more use of the property or there are too many of them that needs money or they hate the house, or for whatever myriad other reasons, should the State spend funds to go to court and hale the owner/s?

The British found a solution to this dilemma: they established the English Heritage Trust, a quasi-private foundation with the reigning monarch or his/her heir apparent as titular head.

Their main task is to preserve heritage structures, even to the point of buying them, and develop museums and heritage tourism programs out of them.

And boy have they bought so many all over the English countryside. Where the State finds it difficult legally to pursue this line, the private sector has come to the rescue.

Is this a surrender? You may read it as such. But one must recognize that going to court against owners destroying or selling their heritage properties will cost thousands; the more houses, the more funds needed. Thus, the better to buy them outright.

I do not necessarily subscribe to what has happened with Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar but the owner’s retort to people who accused him of destroying the significance and context of buildings like the old Fine Arts school of U.P. by moving them to an alien place called Bagac, was simply to ask why no one looked after these buildings and allowed them to die a slow death?

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Today at 5 pm, Southwall will be launched at Bai Hotel by its publisher, Caroline Tan Porras. It is time the Pinoys and Tsinoys south of Manila will have a voice. Congratulations to Southwall Magazine on its revival!

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