Why Manila’s San Nicolas district must be saved

“If you are looking for beautiful 19th century houses, you can find them in the neighborhood of San Nicolas [in Manila]says heritage conservation advocate Dr. Fernando Zialcita. He speaks in particular of those built at the end of the 19th century. “It was a boom that involved not only Chinese mestizos but also the Filipino bourgeoisie.”

Vigan may be known for its grand Spanish colonial homes, but when it comes to fine detail, in terms of woodwork and exquisite grilling, San Nicolas is unbeatable in Zialcita’s book. “In fact, the houses there are nicer than anywhere else in the Philippines, because that’s the capital we’re talking about.”

Many very old houses in San Nicolas survived the bombings of World War II. In photo: the Ang house

The structures that come to mind are General Antonio Luna’s ancestral homes along Urbiztondo Street and the Sunicos’ ancestral home on the corner of Jaboneros and Barcelona streets. Dr Jose Rizal’s family once lived in a house along Estraude, but this was destroyed by fire.

Many wealthy Chinese families lived in Binondo or San Nicolas, so their influence can also be found in some houses in the neighborhood. “In the 19th century, when the Chinese were finally allowed to live in any part of the archipelago without restrictions, they began to dominate local industries like the coconut and abaca industry. The district marks the pinnacle of Chinese fortunes in the Philippines,” Dr Zialcita told ANCX.

What’s more interesting about the neighborhood, says the anthropology professor, is that many of its very old houses survived the bombings of World War II, including structures built after 1863. “Rows and rows of houses arranged in a checkerboard pattern,” adds the cultural historian.

Cham Samco and Sons Inc.
A construction and hardware company along Sto. Cristo Street.

Historic District

Besides beautiful houses, important public buildings are also found in San Nicolas. Along Calle Asuncion was the Casa Tribunal de Naturales, which was once the courthouse that served the people of the district. Affairs were then presided over by a local gobernadorcillo, and a well-known San Nicolas gobernadorcillo was the 19th-century blacksmith and bell-founder Hilario Sunico.

The district has also witnessed important historical events of a nation. Katipunan’s newspaper, Ang Kalayaan, for its part, was founded in a house along Calle Levesares. The structure, however, has been demolished and only a marker of the house exists on site.

Meanwhile, on the northern outskirts of San Nicolas – on Azcarraga Street (now Recto Avenue) near Elcano Street – is the site of the house where the Katipunan was founded on the night of July 7 1892. “The Katipunan was not founded in Tondo,” clarifies Dr. Zialcita. “It was founded in San Nicolas.”

Saint-Nicolas district
The Katipunan historical marker on Azcarraga Street (now Recto Avenue).

Why we must save

Unfortunately, few people know the neighborhood of San Nicolas. Or that San Nicolas and Binondo were actually part of a single district during the Spanish period. It was divided into separate quarters at the beginning of the 20th century.

“It has the largest collection of houses from the end of the 19th century. But they disappear quickly,” observes Zialcita. Over the years, the neighborhood has become increasingly commercial, and many houses have been demolished and turned into high-rise buildings.

This is why Erik Akpendonu, professor of architecture at Zialcita University and Ateneo de Manila, devoted an entire chapter to San Nicolas in the first book “Endangered Splendor: Manila’s Architectural Heritage, 1571-1960, Volume 1”.

Elcano St.
Elcano St. formerly called Calle Salinas

Saving the neighborhood needs the concerted efforts of the city government and its residents, says Dr. Zialcita. “You can’t have a city no panay Skyscraper lang lahat. You need a livable city.

To raise awareness of the historical and heritage value of San Nicolas, the Instituto Cervantes de Manila, led by its director Javier Galvan, recently organized a round table attended by historians, architects, urban planners, businessmen , local residents and the general public. The discussion reflected on the value of the San Nicolas neighborhood, explored its potential as a historic site, and brainstormed ideas on how to conserve it.

Saint Nicolas
One of the main corner houses of San Nicolas. In photo: Mañalac house

Zialcita is aware that it will be difficult to save the whole neighborhood, so what he proposes is to save at least some streets of San Nicolas, citing as an example what has been done in Macao. “They saved at least a block and then they let the skyscrapers spring up. It would be a good compromise,” said the heritage conservation advocate, referring to the Portuguese colony, which is now a popular tourist attraction in Macau.

He proposes to restore several blocks of houses and maintain their beautiful facades. They can use the ground floors as shops, restaurants and galleries, and the second floors as residences.

To hear him say it, there’s a bigger message here. “Kung ang pag-ibig is wala, ang mga bayan is dili magtatagal,” he said, quoting a line from Emilio Jacinto’s poem, “Liwanag in Dilim.”

Saint Nicolas
In terms of exquisite woodwork and grillwork, San Nicolas homes can’t be beat, at least in Zialcita’s book.

” He is right ! If we don’t love our city, or our country for that matter, we won’t survive,” says the cultural historian. “And the way to survive is to know the stories related to our city. Visit the neighborhoods of our city, visit the different structures, know their stories. This is how you develop love. As they say, ‘Kung walang kuwento, walang kuwenta.'”

[Photos courtesy of Javier Galvan/Instituto Cervantes]

Edward K. Thompson