City of Manila

The Ocampo Pagoda Unveils its Secrets

Ever since I learned about the existence of this structure and read a bit more about it in the excellent, though sadly out of print, book “Quiapo: Heart of Manila”, the Ocampo Pagoda has long been a subject of fascination for the Urban Roamer. I eventually came to write about it back in 2013, though not as extensive as I wanted given the scant information available at that time. Though it was enough to warrant a short feature in Coconuts Manila.

More than a decade later, the storied structure is beginning to open its doors to the greater public, albeit not yet full-blown, so to speak. And the Urban Roamer was fortunate to be among those who saw a glimpse of what it is like inside, thanks to the efforts of the Quiapo-based heritage group Quiapo ng Puso Ko, which has been spearheading the efforts in preserving and promoting the district’s unique heritage.

Design and Features

First things first, the Ocampo Pagoda is not exactly a pagoda, which is a Buddhist temple, although there was an actual pagoda located within the property the Pagoda stands on. Strictly speaking, the “Pagoda” is actually a three-storey residence built for Jose Mariano Ocampo, a Catholic and a prominent realtor based in Quiapo, which explains how he was able to build such a massive structure. And even if you forget the owner’s name, the fact that you’ll see his name throughout the property will ensure you remember him.

While the Ocampo Pagoda has been described as being influenced by Japanese architecture, the structure bears a mix of other architectural styles and influences, particularly Chinese and Tibeto-Mongolian elements from the dragon sculptures adorning the lower roofs to the stupas adorning the end of the stair handles. There are also European influences as well, the most notable being its seven-storey tower, an element that is not present in Asian architecture but more of a feature of European castles that was given an Asian look. I can imagine some purists might recoil in horror seeing such a crazy mix of architectural styles that might not be compatible with each other, but it’s exactly what makes this structure even more fascinating after learning more about it.

There are also some paintings found throughout the house, though the ones on display is just a fraction of the vast collection the Ocampo patriarch collected throughout his lifetime. The paintings mainly depict various biblical, mythical, and historical events done by painters who are yet to be identified.

History

It is said that the inspiration for building this temple-inspired house came to Ocampo upon seeing the Japanese consulate in Manila which at the time was located in Quiapo. The consulate itself had been around since around the 1870s when Japan reestablished diplomatic ties with the then-Spanish colony after over 300 years of isolation in response to the “incursions” of Spanish and Filipino Christian missionaries, among other foreigners to the country. In particular, Ocampo came to admire the Japanese for the progress they had made since it reopened to the world and the rise of the more open Meiji era in 1868 and figured that Filipinos can learn a lot from them.

Out of this admiration came the idea of building a house inspired by Japanese architecture, partly at least. So in 1935, sought to build a massive house for himself and his family as the centerpiece of this large piece of Quiapo property that he owned. While not an architect by education or profession, Ocampo was said to be very particular of every design element in the house and insisted that his specifications are met to the exact detail, regardless of the builders’ protestations.

When the house was completed in 1941, it became a major attraction throughout Quiapo for its size and design which was unlike any other. But the Ocampo family barely got to enjoy the newly-completed house when World War II broke out and Manila, as well as the rest of the Philippines, was occupied by Japanese forces. At the onset of the occupation, the Japanese would usually commandeer large houses to be headquarters of their troops and drive away the occupants in the process. The Ocampo Pagoda was fortunate to have escaped this fate by the ingenious move of the Ocampo patriarch to invite many families to stay in their massive house, which would have given the Japanese second thoughts on taking over the house and driving away that many families already living there.

The house would survive the war, including the bombings during the Battle of Manila but the Ocampo Pagoda would face another threat in the 1970s, as then First Lady Imelda Marcos was said to be eyeing the property after having bought the various houses in San Miguel near Malacañang Palace. The old Ocampo patriarch was resistant to the idea so he decided to have the area surrounding the house which was part of the vast Ocampo property subdivided and sold to the poor families in Quiapo at affordable prices, which made the property less “desirable” for purchase, thus losing the gardens, the lagoon, and the pagoda structure that had adorned the house’s surroundings for years.

Another challenge that befell the house came during the Luzon earthquake in 1990, which caused an Intensity VI earthquake in Manila. This caused one of the towers of the Pagoda to collapse and hit a vehicle parked below it, though no one was hurt in that instance. Urban decay also became an issue as the heirs had already left the house. Fortunately, the Ocampo Pagoda managed to survive by converting the area into a boarding house that catered to sailors who were looking for a place to stay before they would board their ships or go elsewhere.

A Gradual Opening

Because of its status as a private residence and then as boarding quarters, outsiders never really had been able to see up close the grandeur of the Ocampo Pagoda and had to content themselves marveling at its facade. Fortunately, in recent years there has been a gradual move towards a more public appreciation of this landmark. For one, the Ocampo heirs (at least the ones looking after the structure) purchased a nearby lot (or more accurately, repurchased since the lot in question was originally part of the family property) where the seamen’s quarters will be eventually relocated. Then there was the first-ever tour inside the Ocampo Pagoda held in June this year, the first time such a public tour was done.

Still there is still much work that needs to be done, particularly repairing portions of the house that had long been neglected, renovating some areas to bring back what they once looked like. Some details need to be ironed out as well for future Ocampo Pagoda tours so if you are keen to visit the Ocampo Pagoda in the future, refer to the Facebook page of Quiapo ng Puso Ko and Kapitbahayan sa Kalye Bautista for future updates.

In the midst of the continuing changes in the urban landscape, oftentimes for the worse, here’s hoping that the Ocampo Pagoda will continue to live on as an iconic Quiapo landmark and the people behind it and the individuals and groups supporting it will not waver in preserving and promoting this gem of our heritage in this historic and beloved city.

My 2013 Coconuts Manila piece on the Ocampo Pagoda can be read here.

Acknowledgements as well to Quiapo ng Puso Ko and the “The Unbelievable Pagoda of Quiapo…As It Was” by Bessy Ocampo-Buencamino

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