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A walking tour of Escolta

I HAVE been dying to do a walking tour of Escolta, Manila’s historic version of High Street. The name of this short (less than a kilometer long) stretch was derived from the Spanish word escortar, meaning “to escort.” From the early 1900s to the 1960s, Escolta was the country’s premier shopping mecca. With the emergence of the commercial and business districts of Makati and Quezon City, the prestige of Escolta gradually faded. On a shopping assignment along nearby Soler Street, I decided to include a visit to Escolta in my itinerary.

Upon getting there, the first notable piece of architecture I encountered was the Neo Classical-style Don Roman R. Santos Building, fronting Plaza Lacson (formerly Plaza Goiti). During World War II, only three of its five floors were finished. Luckily, it survived and the building was finished in 1957. The building once housed the headquarters of two banks (Monte de Piedad and Prudential Bank) and a shopping mall (South Super Mart) before Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) took over the building.

Both ends of Escolta open into impressive open spaces (Plaza Santa Cruz and Plaza Moraga). Though no longer the premier shopping district it used to be, strolling along Escolta is still a rewarding experience as one could still find traces of its glorious past (though marred by entangled electrical cables). The pink-and-white First United Building, formerly the Perez-Samanillo Building, is one of the few surviving examples of the Art Deco architectural style in Manila. Built in 1928 by Andres Luna de San Pedro (Juan Luna’s son), this building, with its awesome façade, was once described as Manila’s foremost business address, taking pride with providing maximized space, abundant lighting and ventilation to its tenants.

The graceful, white Neo Classical-style Regina Building, built in 1934, its design (with traces of Renaissance Revival) also attributed to Luna de San Pedro, was originally designed as a three-story commercial building. A fourth floor was added by Arch. Fernando H. Ocampo when the de Leon family bought the building from the Roxases.

Further out is the Burke Building, with its simple balance lines. Built in 1919, it was named after the cardiologist William J. Burke who introduced and installed the first electrocardiograph in the country. Also a philanthropist, he donated the land for the street (Calle David, renamed W. Burke Street in 1990). The first Otis elevator in the Philippines was installed in this building. The charming, Beaux Arts-style Natividad Building, one of the most beautiful landmarks in the area, is one of the oldest buildings along Escolta. It was burned during the 1945 Battle of Manila (leaving only its exterior shell) and was later restored. In the 1950s, this building housed the office of the Insurance Commission.

Its alluring, ivory and white-colored facade, evocative of a French café in a Parisian neighborhood, has four levels alternately decorated with arched and square windows with cornices with tooth-like dentils underneath it.

The stunning, Beaux Arts-style Calvo Building, with its richly-decorated facade at the second level, was built in 1938 by Edificio Calvo and was also designed by Ocampo. This four-story building once housed the Philippine Bank of Commerce, the popular MV Villar Records Store, and the original radio station of Robert “Uncle Bob” Stewart’s Channel 7. On its roof deck was Luisa, a popular soda fountain. Today, Mercury Drug and Tropical Hut flank the entrance to the building, with Wah Yuen Hot Pot and Seafood Restaurant in its Calle Soda side. Its mezzanine is home to the little-known Escolta Museum.

Across the street from the Calvo Building is the decaying and dilapidated shell of the once-majestic, Mesopotanian-inspired Art Deco-style Capitol Theater. Built in 1935, this theater, designed by National Artist Arch. Juan Nakpil, had a seating capacity of 800 and an unusual double balcony. Its lobby once mounted a beautiful wall mural by the late Filipino modernist and National Artist Victorio C. Edades. Now abandoned, it ceased operations in the late 1980s.

On the face of its western tower were bas-reliefs, evocative of Art Deco lines and curves, showing Filipino women (one holding a mask and another holding a lyre) in traje de mestiza frame and set in a tropical landscape, attributed to the Italian atelier of Francesco Ricardo Monti. The bigger, 1600-pax Lyric Theater, another Art Deco masterpiece designed by Modernist Arch. Pablo S. Antonio, was demolished in the early 1980s.

In Photo: The Calvo Building and the Natividad Building. 






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