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What We Lost In The Fire: Notes On Our Archives, And The Buildings That House Them

Early last week, panic swept through the heritage conservation set, the culturati, historians and concerned citizens of Facebook, as news broke that our National Archives was on fire.

That it was the building that was burning, and not all the documentation housed inside it, came almost as an afterthought. The news spread the way it does on social media: like wildfire across so much forest shrubbery. Which is to say very, very fast. So fast that what passed for truth was still unverified fact.

The structure mentioned above is the Juan Luna E-Services Building in Binondo, Manila—a historic space that occupies two streets, Juan Luna and Muelle Dela Industria. It’s situated like a faded Venetian palazzo along the Pasig River, or like a grand old dame that’s somehow fallen into genteel poverty.

As an edifice, an architectural style, and a local address, the Juan Luna Building carries with it almost the entire sweep of Philippine colonial history: it’s an American building named for the most important revolution-era painter in the Philippines. It’s situated on a street named after the painter himself—an icon with his own merits, but also the brother of the revolution’s most iconic general. Both artist and brother were known visionaries and hotheads, prone to fits of anger, players of fire. Had this been the Spanish colonial age, you could say they might have started the fire themselves.

Our collective hearts broke when we heard that documents relating to our colonial past—records and plans from the Spanish and American periods, as well as a huge chunk of the Katipunan records and the Philippine Declaration of Independence—were either up in flames or were about to be engulfed. It was later revealed that only the NAP’s administrative offices were housed in the building, and that our historical documents were happily collecting dust in the National Library on Kalaw Street. 

This overshadowed the damage done to the Juan Luna building—which, by itself, is a kind of national archive. It’s a glorious remnant of our American Colonial past, and was built during Manila’s golden era. I say “golden” in a nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek way, given that our economic upswing occurred during another era of western conquest.

Still, we were once called the “Paris of the east.” Alternately, we were also the “pearl of the Orient—” we even made a marching hymn out of that one. Our buildings were emblematic of the time and our great-grandparents found American entertainments in our booming industrial centers. They traipsed down boulevards to catch our famous Manila sunsets. They didn’t so much walk as promenade.

A true product of its time, the Juan Luna building was designed in the Beaux-Arts fashion by the American firm Murphy McGill and Hamlin. The style followed the manner of French neo-classical buildings that also drew on Gothic and Renaissance influences. In the book Arkitekturang Filipino, UP Professor Gerard Licos describes the original structure as a sweeping edifice “made up of a row of colossal columns.” The ground floor had “arched openings, with fanlights emphasized by stones forming around the arch.” Its main doors were adorned with “lintels resting on consoles.” The higher our eyes drew up the building, we would have seen its higher storeys embraced by Ionic columns. It was also one of the few structures that survived the Battle of Manila in 1945, which lends its arches and columns a certain proud mystique. It has dodged bullets and ruin with sheer luck, not unlike a hero sweeping past the enemy armed only with a talisman.

The building has seen several incarnations: first as the Pacific Commercial Company in the 1920’s, the First City National Bank in the 30’s, and the Ayala Building in the 1940’s.

Originally called Pacific Commercial Company, the building holds pride of place in this postcard of Plaza Lawton believed to be from the '40s

Landing on the cover of the American Chamber of Commerce Journal

It was only in the first decade of the millennium that the building was renamed the Juan Luna E-Services Building. This christening came after Carlos Araneta purchased the building in 2009—he had meant to lease the building to emerging BPOs, but its now-seedy and gritty location proved unappealing to investors. Building lessor Christopher Hagedorn was able to find some lessees, however—among them the National Archives.

But fire found the building on the morning of May 28 as it spread from the BPI Plaza Cervantes Building, to the Land Management Bureau, and then on to the Juan Luna Building. All three can be found on the same block, bounded by Juan Luna St., Muelle Dela Industria, Plaza Moraga, and Plaza Cervantes.

While our ties to our history—and our buildings—are literally burning, one wonders if a larger metaphor can apply to our country. Perhaps we’re figuratively burning down a grand old house that’s fallen on hard times.

On a last note, had the national archives actually been housed in the Luna building, it would have counted as a greater loss, but it might have been felt equally.