To stroll down Escolta Street is to walk through another era.
It’s the oldest street in Manila and despite the city’s surrender to modernity’s assault and its citizens’ appetite for laptops and cellular phones, there still exists a vague European feel to Escolta’s surroundings.
Escolta Street is an east-west thoroughfare located in Binondo running parallel to the Pasig River from Plaza Sta. Cruz to Plaza Moraga and Quentin Paredes Street. It is 1.159 kilometers long.
It was where the British Commander-in-Chief and other government officials passed on their way to Intramuros in the 1760s during the occupation of Manila with full escort. Hence, its name “Escolta” was derived from the Spanish word “to escort”.
Calle de la Escolta or Escolta was the principal business and commercial center of Manila from the 1800s to the late 1990s. The street was home to several excellent examples of early skyscrapers in the Philippines.
The Burke Building, named after William J. Burke, had the first elevator in the country when it was built in the 1920s. It was designed by Tomas Arguelles. Tenants included movie production offices of Fernando Poe, Jr. and Joseph Estrada.
In 1935, the Capitol Theater was built. It was in the Art Deco style designed by National Artist for Architecture Juan Nakpil. Occupying an area of 1,100 square meters, the theater had 800 seats. A bas-relief designed by Francesco Monti was on the building façade with the Muse of Tragedy on the left side and the Muse of Comedy on the right. National Artists for Painting Victorio Edades, Galo Ocampo, and Botong Francisco created the mural on the theater lobby called “Rising Philippines”. It was allegedly destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945.
The Don Roman Santos Building was built in 1894 following the design of Juan Hervas. Initially occupied by Monte de Piedad, the first savings bank in the Philippines, the building currently houses the Bank of the Philippine Islands Sta. Cruz branch.
The structure is an augmentation of an original design by Andres Luna de San Pedro, the son of painter Juan Luna, in 1937 and was done in neoclassical style. It became a Red Cross hospital during World War II. In 1952, it served as the headquarters of the Prudential Bank and was named after its president, Don Ramon Santos.
The El Hogar was inaugurated in 1914 and was designed by Ramon Irrureta Goyena and Francisco Perez-Muñoz. It was in the Beaux-Arts style with a liberal mix of reliefs and sculptures. The building was commissioned by Spanish Count Don Antonio Melian as a wedding gift to his wife, Margarita Zobel de Ayala.
The old Perez-Samanillo Building was built in 1928 in the Art Deco style. It was designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro and housed the Manila Post Office during the Spanish time. In 1968 it became the First United Building. It was the site of the Berg’s Department Store. Its tenants included the offices of Nora Aunor and Dolphy. It was also where the Lyric Music House was. Over at P.E. Domingo piano store, a young Imelda Romualdez worked and sang to attract customers.
The Uy-Chaco Building was designed by American architect Samuel Rowell for Mariano Uy-Chaco in 1914 in the Art Noveau style. The Regina Building, originally known as the Roxas Building, was designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro in the neoclassical style and was completed in 1915.
The Calvo Museum, built in 1938, houses vintage pieces and memorabilia of Old Manila. The Heacock’s Department Store, the Walk-Over Shoe Store, Botica Boie, La Estrella del Norte, Lyric Music House, Syvel’s, and Aguinaldo’s were some of the popular stores on Escolta.
Most of the buildings have amazingly withstood the passage of time and the inclement harshness of the past wars. They were built and fortified so that they do not look as if they may collapse and turn themselves into mangled rebar and concrete.
When we speak of relics of the past, a Sunday walk along Escolta can be a truly essential experience – a trip back to some decades ago, squeezing your way among a crowd of people stopping on their tracks and gawking at some kind of a different antiquity.
There are presently a jumble of small shops selling fried chicken, hamburgers, pizza, doughnuts, ice cream, and coffee – a pleasant intrusion of modernity among antiquities.
Inside the First United Building is a coffeehouse-cum-bistro with a band playing jive to start Sunday mornings and help erase the weariness of a hard six-day workweek.
Between gulps of coffee, eyes meet and heads nod every now and then. And don’t forget the camaraderie among kindred souls similarly getting in touch with the Escolta spirit, a collection of gentlemen stripped off their big league airs and cologne. Nothing fancy here, no guys in corporate ties.
On Sundays, vintage cars and motorcycles are parked neatly by the roadside. Take a single look and everything in you grinds to a halt. Remarkably, like Escolta, these cars and motorcycles have aged well, boasting their rugged vintage appeal – decades old, yet the ancient character still clings.
Escolta has become trendy despite its being rooted to a rich past. Some touches of recent developments have slightly altered its face. There sprouted imposing skyscrapers along the street, like new teeth coming in behind the baby teeth, and an essence of rebirth glides along it to sponge out old scars.
Escolta is a history lesson, a commemoration of rich heritage and endurance. Spend a Sunday wandering around the street, eerily hearing footsteps echoing the cadences of regiments of foreign colonizers and the clip-clops of horse-drawn carromatas.
A walk through Escolta ought to be on top of your Sunday to-do list.
Photos by Diana Noche