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Once upon a time, Philippines ancestral houses stood with glory

Ancestral homes play a vital role in exploring Philippine history as its walls are embodiments of the time that once was.

Ancestral houses are pivotal to the identity of the Filipino. Each of them is a witness to history, standing as a remnant from their own bygone eras. The walls of these homes tell many tales—from the people who lived in them, to the features that stood against the passing of time and progress, and the inklings of what society was like a long time ago.

One such place is hidden in the heart of Quiapo, Manila where the century-old Bahay Nakpil-Bautista still stands. Built in 1914 and designed by Arcadio Arellano in the prevailing bahay na bato at kahoy style of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is the ancestral home of the Nakpil-Bautista clan, whose family members were artists, musicians, and members of the Katipunan.

Since the 1960s, its residents have since moved out, and the house now stands as a community center and museum, with exhibits dedicated to the history of Quiapo, the clan, its matriarch Gregoria de Jesus, and the Katipunan. “We show what is Filipino by enhancing the existing structures and [adapting] it to the present day, which is what is being done with Bahay Nakpil-Bautista,” says cultural heritage advocate Asst. Prof. Mary Ann Venturina Bulanadi, Ph.D., who currently volunteers as its curator.

It has always been Bulanadi’s advocacy to keep the existing buildings usable in this generation, noting that by adaptively repurposing Bahay Nakpil-Bautista as a heritage museum, they have preserved and highlighted the Filipino craftsmanship and artistry of the house. As one of many still-standing ancestral homes, “Present day visitors and the Nakpil-Bautista clan can use it as a space to gather and learn from our history and heritage in this part of Quiapo,” she says.

A house built on identity

But not all ancestral homes entertain the idea of adaptive reuse, as others continue to serve as homes. Up the Pasig River, another ancestral home tells a different tale: the Guerrero Heritage House, built in 1938 along a paved road on desolate grassfields, known today as N. Domingo Street in San Juan City.

Carlo María Guerrero—great grandson of writer, lawyer, and La Independencia editor Fernando María Guerrero—still lives in the house with his family, alternating between San Juan and their home in Fairview, Quezon City. Built and designed by Fernando’s sons, the house is an inseparable part of their family. As he notes, it is also where he and his brothers grew up. “We have a lot of memories here, so part of it is us not wanting to let go of our past,” he elaborates.

The Guerreros use the house as a “gateway” for their marketing business and their hobbies and interests, allowing them to preserve their family identity while creating new legacies through their own pursuits. “Of course, if you transfer us to some other house, it’s still [going to] be us, right?” he quips. “[But] what ties [us] together is the house,” emphasizing the stories and experiences they hold within the house that have influenced their works.

Against the elements

With the passage of time and the onslaught of fickle weather, prevailing issues regarding the costs and difficulty to maintain the original designs of the house plague ancestral homes. Guerrero wants to maintain the look and feel of the house by using period-accurate materials for repairs. “Of course, you can’t really find any of those nowadays. So the house is slowly deteriorating,” he laments.

But the Guerreros are still dedicated to doing repairs, such as replacing roof beams with more modern material to maintain the house’s original beauty.

Similar efforts are also being made for Bahay Nakpil-Bautista. Bobbi Santos-Viola, current president of the home-turned-heritage-site, reveals that short and long-term preventive maintenance have allowed them to preserve the house’s functionality and structural integrity. Still, the 107-year old house is surrounded by closely constructed neighboring houses and faces other threats—hawkers and small eateries narrow the streets, motorbikes and cars crowd the area, and rapidly increasing high-rise buildings fill the place.

As for the government’s part in addressing these concerns, Santos-Viola declares, “Despite reaching out for assistance, these threats remain unsolved.” Although the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009 mandates the State to “protect, preserve, conserve and promote the nation’s cultural heritage, its property and histories,” little tangible action is felt. This also rings true for the Guerrero Heritage House. “We haven’t really seen any help from the government in maintaining some historical places,” says the great grandson. While preserving these houses is already a daunting task, doing so in environments unfavorable to them and relying solely on one’s efforts is even more challenging.

Peering into the future

Still, these homeowners and caretakers remain resolute in their cause. For them, looking after ancestral houses is a commitment born not just out of obligation, but also of deep respect for culture and history. “[It] gives a sense of time [and] place. It builds a love of neighbor and love of country, a definite sense of identity,” Santos-Viola shares. Likewise, Bulanadi expresses, “Restoring heritage sites can help us establish the identity of our country…[Their] tangible and intangible values tell us something about who we are as [Filipinos].”

For Guerrero, meanwhile, the motivations are more personal, albeit just as meaningful. “You’re looking at what the Guerreros are,” he says, as he conveys his family’s identity in the arts—with the ancestral house as the perfect conduit in all of it. “Physically, the house has allowed us to do a lot of things. So that’s another reason why this means a lot to us,” he explains.

So while commercial sprawls rise along the old town road, he is comfortable right where their ancestral home is. “You have history around you [and] it feels good,” Guerrero says. Now, his family is trying to do everything they can to hold on to their residence for as long as they can, “because I don’t think we’ll be able to do that forever.”

Perhaps such is the crux of keeping these structures standing strong—knowing that, at one point, it was the very heart of history. And for the years to come, it will continue to bear witness to more monumental moments.

By Matthew Gan

By Juliana March Mendoza

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