Through the embers, the legacy of the Manila Central Post Office lives on

Severely damaged by the fire, the majestic building serves as a reminder to honor the Filipino cultural heritage before it fades away with time.

The City of Manila has been home to centuries’ worth of history. From the vast lore uncovered from the walls of Intramuros to the bright colors of the Philippine flag as it soars proudly above Luneta Park—the country’s capital teems with rich Filipino heritage through the several age-old sites around the city. Among these, one key structure stands before the square of Liwasang Bonifacio.

The Manila Central Post Office is a prominent landmark that stands before Liwasang Bonifacio at the center of the urban sprawls of Manila. To this day, it remains a functional unit of city administration that manages to reflect its rich and vibrant past.

But as a fateful fire struck it last May, a revisit to the ashes of what once stood serves as a gateway to memories that remain for both Manileños and organizations who have made it their mandate to restore these cultural institutions to their former glory.

With its tall, white Ionic columns now blackened by the fire, the Post Office still stands with its future uncertain.

A stamped story

The origins of a postal system in the Philippines can be traced back to the 1600s; by adopting the systems of empires past, the country eventually found a way to deliver mail throughout the barrios and towns in the country.

Current acting chief of the Philippine Postal Corporation’s Corporate Communications Division Antonio “Alvin” Enolva Fidelson recalls the humble beginnings of the Central Post Office under Spanish rule. He describes the origins of a post office date way back to 1660 when it was established by Charles II of England under the guise of the General Post Office. In the Philippines, the first post office was established in the City of Manila under a new postal district of Spain. Badageros—horseback-drawn letter carriers—were then dispatched to deliver mail.

The iconic exterior of the Manila Central Post Office did not take shape until 1926. Designed by architectural giants Juan Arellano and Tomas Mapua, the tall Ionic columns in the facade evoke the neoclassical styling that was the forte of its designers. Unfortunately, the constant artillery barrages and bombings that occurred during the latter half of World War II caused severe destruction to the Post Office. It was only in 1946 that the Philippine government greenlit its reconstruction project in order to preserve the beauty and sanctity of the administrative building.

Currently, the building is designated as an “important cultural property” by the National Museum of the Philippines, which means that it “possesses exceptional cultural, artistic, and historical significance,” Such honor allowed the building to receive government funding for its protection, conservation, and restoration.

Towering mementos

Despite being the central hub of parcels and mail across the Greater Manila area, the great Post Office began to show signs of old age amid the rise of newer courier services and instant messaging. Diego Gabriel Torres, the current president of heritage organization Renacimiento Manila, illustrates the process of using telegraphs in the 90s. Messages were not directly delivered to the receiver’s residence; instead, mailmen went to houses telling the receivers that a message was waiting for them at their local post office. But Torres establishes, “By 2013, we closed telegraph [services] in the Philippines once and for all, after 150 years.” With the development of long-distance telephony and in more recent years, cellular technology, technological prosperity has transformed the systems used by the Post Office.

Among the wealth of innovations throughout its history, what truly cements the legacy of the Post Office are the intangible connections it has created—those who have lived to see it and futures that have been manifested because of it. “Generally, [these] heritage structures in Manila [and] across the country are the physical manifestations of our past. There are connections to stories in the past,” Torres expounds.

The establishment remains a vital part of Philippine identity, serving as a doorway to the experiences of entire generations which have led to societal developments enjoyed now and hopefully in the future. “When we lose them, we lose a piece of ourselves. We lose a piece of our community,” he says further.

The essence of identity is often connected to cultural monuments, or in the case of Fidelson, a very dear friend. “If the Post Office would disappear, someone dear to our country would be lost. For our family, the Postal Service is like a trusted member. [A] part of our identity as a Filipino will be gone,” he laments.

Melancholy made palpable

The fall of the Manila Central Post Office hit like the loss of a distant loved one: we typically spend most days without them in mind, but once the reality of what had occurred truly sinks in, we rue all the time spent in blissful ignorance. Such a monumental piece of history was ravaged in the blink of an eye; now, the harrowing state of the mighty structure’s familiar presence quietly and mournfully serves as a reminder to appreciate the cultural treasures that surround us before they’re gone.

The loss is a call for the average Juan and Juana to make an effort to be more aware of our heritage. Of course, maintaining a healthy relationship with one’s heritage is easier said than done, especially for our country’s most powerful. Torres divulges that there is an existing disconnect between government officials and the actual engineers on the ground. He shares, “The government suddenly [says]…that’s a historical site, but there’s still the city engineer who always says that the structure is weakened, it’s been condemned.” It is not enough to recognize that a heritage structure must be restored and end it at that. Actual preservation efforts must be applied, and the sooner they are done, the better.

If the government could treat institutions such as the Manila Central Post Office with the reverence and respect they deserve, it could revive a tangible connection with our history. We have already achieved the restoration of other historical sites, such as Fort Santiago, the Manila Cathedral, and even La Loma Cemetery—the Post Office must join this list. Thankfully, the efforts by institutions such as Renacimiento Manila to keep officials on their toes are unwavering. “As advocates, we never sit down and just take their word for granted. We’re always there as watchdogs to ensure that…these structures will actually be preserved and restored,” Torres says.

For some, seeing the Manila Central Post Office in its current state on their daily commute is still a bit of a shock. Its future is uncertain, and the government has yet to announce any formal start to the restoration of the building.

The Post Office stands, blackened by the fire that devoured it last May, as an eye-opener on how the city’s rich tapestry of history and heritage is far from just being objects from the past. Without efforts to safeguard and honor these, our stories recede into obscurity, transforming our heritage into empty edifices of a culture forgotten.

Aaron Gomez

By Aaron Gomez

Marie Angeli Peña

By Marie Angeli Peña

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