Escolta itself is a street has bore witness and reflected as well the ups and downs Manila’s history: from the glorious past, to the steep decline, to the present struggles and some triumphs of rebirth it is experiencing at the moment.
While we have buildings such as Calvo, Regina, and First United to tell us the resilience of this old commercial and business district in the midst of these shifts in the city history, if you want to learn more about the more tragic side these shifts have caused, we have this particular address in Escolta we will be looking at today.
ACT I: THE CRYSTAL ARCADE
The year was 1932 and Manila was experiencing what’s considered now as the city’s its golden years as the economy was booming and many businesses (both local and foreign) have set shop in the city. Reflecting the progress and optimism of the times was the opening on June 1 that year of a high-class business and commercial establishment right along the city’s prime commercial and business street that was Escolta: the Crystal Arcade.
It was a 3-storey structure designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, son of the famed Filipino painter Juan Luna. Luna de San Pedro envisioned the Crystal Arcade to be a landmark architectural gem, his magnum opus. It could be said that Crystal Arcade was envisioned his Spoliarium in the vein that the painting brought acclaim to his father.
Luna de San Pedro designed the Crystal Palace two prominent elements in mind: art deco style architecture (a popular architectural style of the period) and lots of glass, hence its name the Crystal Arcade. As such, it was a groundbreaking and marvelous piece of architecture. The interiors shared the same grandeur as its facade, as it boasted of being one of the first airconditioned venues in the city and also the first building to have a walkway lead-in to the glass-walled shops on the first floor.
The Crystal Arcade soon became a prime address in the prime Escolta street as many high-end stores opened shop there (think of it as the Ayala Center/Shangri-La Mall of prewar Manila if you will) and the Manila Stock Exchange itself relocated there as well. It was also costly to build, which was not surprising considering the materials and the ornate details that made their way in the building. In fact, the cost was so high that they had to downsize the structure’s height from its original 7 storeys. The original owners of the building did not see some significant returns vis-a-vis the costs incurred constructing, so much so that they eventually sold it to a new owner after a few years’ time.
However, the biggest blow to the Crystal Arcade came during World War II as the Battle of Manila in 1945 caused significant damage to the structure. There were some renovations made but otherwise, no repairs or significant restoration works made as the building was left to rot until it was taken out of its misery by demolition as work was under way for a new structure to rise there.
ACT II: THE PHILIPPINE NATIONAL BANK BUILDING
In 1962, work began on the construction of a new building that would rise on the site of the old Crystal Arcade. This time, a 12-storey high-rise structure would rise in the address, designed by a prominent architect Carlos Arguelles, the same fellow behind the design of the Philamlife Building and the Cathedral of the Holy Child, among other notable postwar landmarks.
The result was the completion of the Philippine National Bank Building in 1965, which served as the headquarters of the then-government owned Philippine National Bank or PNB. Just as the Crystal Arcade was built to the popular architectural style of the era which was Art Deco, the PNB Building was built in the popular postwar architectural style which was the International Style. In fact, the aforementioned Philamlife Building was an International Style architecture building as well.
The presence of the PNB head office somewhat helped keep Escolta’s significance as a commercial and business hub. Unfortunately, PNB moved out of the building by the 1980s-1990s, eventually relocating to its head office at the reclamation area in Pasay. The City of Manila then used the space in the building to be the campus of its then newly-established City Colleges of Manila in 1995. After 10 years however, the college moved into its own space in Mehan Garden and was eventually renamed the Universidad de Manila. (which is not to be confused with the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila which is also a university)
The last 10 years saw the building abandoned mostly, save for some security stationed in the building. In 2015 however, the building suffered significant damage from a fire which razed portions of the building. The edifice still stands, but concerns about the structure’s soundness were raised.
With these concerns raised, the Manila City Government has issued an order for the building’s demolition early January. Naturally, this has triggered an alarm, especially among heritage conservation activists and architects, citing the significance of the structure in the history of Escolta as the historically premier street of Manila.
Thus, what was once the site of the Crystal Arcade and now of the PNB Building may find itself empty once again as the future is uncertain for the structure in question. It remains to be seen whether it will survive or would have to give way to possibly another structure which is hoped at least to continue the history and legacy the structures in that Escolta address have left behind.
Acknowledgements as well to Gerard Lico’s Arkitekturang Filipino, Lou Gopal’s Manila Nostalgia, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer