Photos by Sonny Espiritu
“Picture yourself on boat on a river,” as a psychedelic Beatles song begins, but this time, passing by the most beautiful old Filipino houses on both banks, each with an intriguing history narrated by your guide…
This voluptuous ride on a balsa, a native raft used during the Spanish times in the waterways of Manila, is the latest attraction of Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan—“a heritage resort” by the West Philippine Sea, built by New San Jose Builders Inc. (NSJBI). Your raft slowly glides on the Umagol River and passes under the Tulay ni Lola Basyang, a replica of the landmark Jones Bridge. Then it turns back towards a narrow strip of water flanked by restored houses from all over the country, with the most intricate wooden architecture and carvings made famous by rural artisans.
Las Casas (“casa” is the Spanish word for “house”) was built by Jose Rizalino “Jerry” Acuzar, a self-made tycoon who, during his visits to heritage sites abroad, conceived of a seaside resort that would showcase his passion for collecting and restoring vintage Filipino houses that have been callously neglected or left to be inhabited by squatters.
The Standard was invited by NSJBI to experience Filipino classic architecture by the sea, prior to the public launch of the Balsa River Tour in July. We were toured and taken inside select houses whose secrets, some dark and tragic, were related by our guide.
The first stop of our tour was the majestic Hotel de Oriente convention center, whose exterior design was inspired by photographs of the original Hotel de Oriente in Binondo—the first premier hotel in the country and the second building in the Philippines to have a telephone. (Malacañang was the first.) The replica in Las Casas was built in 2013 and was finished in time for the Bataan leg of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit last year. It has two large halls that can accommodate 1,000 persons and four function rooms named after locales of Old Manila—Azcarraga (now Claro M. Recto), Avenida Rizal, Blumentritt and Sta. Cruz. The skilled workers and laborers who built it were local natives; the wood mosaics and ceiling murals based on famous paintings, such as the Spoliarium of Juan Luna and the works of Carlos “Botong” Francisco, were made by unemployed women from Bagac and nearby towns; and the precisely detailed wood carvings in the walls, pillars, ceilings and even the exteriors were chiseled by anonymous artists from Paete, Laguna and Betis, Pampanga. It is home to Café Marivent (“mar” is Catalan for sea and "vent” is wind) that serves Filipino and Spanish cuisine.
The first house we visited was Casa Hagonoy, transplanted from Bulacan. Unad, our guide, said a vain wife who prided herself in jewelry and a beautiful house owned it. Her proud excesses drove her descendants to become priests and nuns.
Casa Biñan’s history throws shade on the mother of Jose Rizal, Teodoro Alonzo, whose mother was the second wife of the third-generation scion, Don Lorenzo Alberto Alonzo, of the family who owned the house. Don Lorenzo Alberto’s son Jose Alberto became a Philippine ambassador to Spain, and his long absences drove his wife Teodora Formoso to have an affair with the captain of the Guardia Civil. When her husband found this out, he came home and locked her in their bedroom, and Rizal’s mother was tasked to bring her food everyday. Formoso wrote in a letter, which she threw out of the window, that Rizal’s mother was slowly poisoning her. The letter reached the captain and some say this was the true reason Teodora Alonzo was imprisoned.
Many generations and vicissitudes later, the unhappy house served as a movie house that got burned, a supermarket, a bank, a private office and a store of goto (rice porridge). Las Casas is turning it into a Rizal museum and it houses an Italian restaurant called La Bella Teodora.
The original Casa Baliuag, also from Bulacan, was built in 1898 in front of the Baliuag Church. It features the highly floral motif in fashion at that time. The owner also married for the second time after his first wife died. All in all he had 21 children, but otherwise their life was uneventful. The lower part of the house became known as “luwasan” because it was where people waited for their ride to Manila.
Casa Lubao, the youngest of the houses in the resort, was built in 1920 by Valentin Arrastria and Francisca Salgado, who came down in history as the couple who put the late President Diosdado Macapagal, whose parents could not afford a uniform and shoes, through school. In return, Macapagal’s mother became the couple’s wet nurse and laundrywoman. Before the Philippines fell to the Japanese, a colonel who was a spy from Japan served as their family driver and was treated as one of the family. Because of their kindness, the house was spared from burning after it was used as a garrison during the Occupation.
The house includes carved “calados” between the walls and ceilings. A reproduction of Luna’s España y Filipinas hangs on a wall and quaint knee-high chairs for the short legs of Filipinos are in the living room. It also features ventanillas or openings under windows to let the air in.
Next on our itinerary was Paseo de Escolta, a copy of a hotel in Manila in the 1900s. It serves as the hotel in Las Casas. It replicates the statues of men and women in the old hotel that served as posts to hold up that building. Each male statue is called an “ätlantis” and each female figure was a “caryatid” if her hands are raised and “canephora” when her hands are down. It houses a bakery, a store of organic beauty products, a photo shop where you can pose in Filipino costumes, an antique shop and a souvenir store.
Casa Unisan was the first concrete house built in Quezon Province. It has a secret passage that the family used to escape attacking bandits, who found and killed them anyway.
Casa Mexico from Pampanga was dismantled and de Azucar found its parts in a junk shop. He pieced together the present building based on the only surviving photograph of the original.
Casa Cagayan is unique in being a house of ordinary Filipinos. It is elevated since it was built near a river. The floor has spaces between the slats through which the owners threw leftover food to be eaten by their domestic animals. The present structure has rooms for rent.
Casa Luna is named in honor of the Luna brothers Juan and Antonio. The US troops used it as a hideout where they planned the ambush of Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita. In 1970, a convention was held there with then President Ferdinand Marcos as guest of honor. It has a “volada,” a separate passage for “aliping sagigilid” who were lower in rank than the “aliping namamahay” or house servants. Now it houses the Las Casas antique collection.
Casa San Miguel from Bulacan when it was relocated to Las Casas, the rear part of the house was moved to the front to show the beauty of the stairway. At present it has six rooms for the resort’s guests, who can play mahjong, billiards and chess.
The penultimate house we visited was Casa Byzantina, the first three-story building in Binondo. The first story is made of adobe stones and bricks and the two upper stories are of sturdy wood. The roof is galvanized iron because in those times, many people died during earthquakes when heavy roofs crashed on their heads. For five years it was the Instituto de Manila, an elementary and high school that later transferred and became the University of Manila. The house was badly neglected and was inhabited by informal settlers. Las Casas discovered real gold leaf in the architecture of the third story but badly damaged. The house is now a first class hotel that can accommodate 16 people.
Our last stop was Casa Quiapo, the biggest and most elegant house on Hidalgo Street in 1867. From 1908-1926, it served as the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts, whose first director was the owner of the house, Don Rafael Enriquez. It was where Fernando Amorsolo and Botong Francisco honed their painting skills. When the school moved to Padre Faura, the house fell into disrepute—first serving as a bowling alley, then as a coed dormitory, a venue for live sex shows and an abortion clinic. It has two gates, a large one for carriages and a smaller one for visitors. The floor is made from stones from China. Now it is the Las Casas museum, named La Escuela de Bellas Artes Contemporary Art and Space.
There are many more Filipino residences—including the Casa Maranaw, a datu’s house—that we did not visit, as a day tour cannot cover them all. That is why, many of Las Casas guests stay for two to three days or longer to roam at their own leisurely pace, enjoy the beach, the tranvia ride, the balsa tour and the varied cuisine in the restaurants.
Las Casas opens its doors to weddings, debuts, baptisms, children’s parties, group tours and has special packages such as the Water Adventure (with jetski, waterboarding, banana boat and a flying fish ride) and the Sunset Cocktail River Cruise.
The front office is now in La Puesta del Sol along Estero de Binondo facing the beach because it’s bigger and can accommodate more guests coming in. The main entrance was moved to Gate 5 in line with NSJBI’s expansion plan this year.
Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar provides Shuttle service to and from Metro Manila. The shuttles pick up guests at the New World Hotel in Makati and the Astoria Plaza in The Ortigas Center.
Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar. Pride in the past and hope for the future.
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