The great American writer Ernest Hemingway once said "It is a good story if it's like Manila Hotel.”  Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the Grand Dame.  All things considered, her story has been epic.   

The story of Manila Hotel begins with the American architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, author of the 1905 City Beautiful plan for Manila.  At the heart of his proposal was a government center, a broad lawn or mall that extended from a radial cluster of buildings towards a park that faced the sea.  In order to strengthen the park’s connection to the sea, Burnham’s plan called for land to be reclaimed from the sea, so that nearby South Harbor would not sully views of the sunset. 

Conceptually, this plan organized Intramuros, the emerging suburbs, and the crescent shaped coastline into a poetic composition that marked a city’s—and a people’s—connection to the sea.

The coastline was to be marked by a new shore road —first called Coastal, then Dewey, then Roxas—that would intersect the mall.  At this juncture would stand an honor guard of two important buildings, what would become the Army Navy Club and Manila Hotel.


It was not an easy search, but Burnham eventually found the man to implement his plan for Manila and design its buildings, a young architect whose credentials impressed him.  William E. Parsons was as well-educated as any American architect could hope to be.  Yale 1895, Columbia 1898, followed by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Parsons then worked at the New York Office of John Galen Howard. Howard, who himself was trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, was supervising architect at the Berkeley campus of the University of California.  It is possible that some of the California Mission Revival Style that informs Berkeley’s architecture may have also traveled to Manila Hotel via the Howard office.

The owners of Manila’s existing hotels did not sympathize with the government’s plan to help the Manila Hotel Company raise P900,000 of the hotel’s  P1,000,000 construction budget.  They met regularly at the Hotel Metropole near Santa Cruz Church to plot their opposition.  But the Manila Hotel Company triumphed, and US Secretary of War Jacob M. Dickinson laid the cornerstone on September 1, 1910. 

The original plan of Manila hotel is the classic H, as if the introverted courtyard plan that was common within the walls of Intramuros became an extrovert just outside the walls.  “The 'H' configuration and the single-loaded building typology come from Parson's experience with the design of the Philippine General Hospital complex started a few years earlier,“ says  Paulo Alcazaren, landscape architect and BluPrint editor-in-chief. “The 'H' became a template for tropical hospitals that Parsons would design for Panama - they were building the canal then - after his stint in the Philippines ...and the building type became the model for other hospitals in Asia and China.” 

The five-story structure occupied less than a third of roughly three hectares of reclaimed land. The rest of the property was given over to landscaped gardens, enabling the building to maximize the intake of breezes from all directions. 

Ventilation and protection from rain and sun were essential tenets of Parsons design.  Corridors were single-loaded, so that breezes could cross from exterior windows to transoms above doors in the corridors.  Broad windows with sliding capiz panels and canopies above created the horizontal banding of the exterior elevations.  During construction, Parsons added a roof garden that was not part of the original design.  (In democratic fashion, the same tropical design intelligence and attention to detail that Parsons employed at this swankiest of projects was also used for the 15 Gabaldon schoolhouse prototypes that he designed for the rest of the archipelago.)

The predominant material was reinforced concrete, which was new to the Philippines at the time and which Parsons championed, considering the termites, earthquakes, and cheap unskilled labor in the country.   

As the prominent Chicago architect Andrew Rebori would report in Architectural Record, 1917, “In general, both the exterior and the interior of the Manila Hotel are remarkably well handled, and considering the limitations of the material employed in its construction the building is unusually imposing.“  When Parsons returned to the US in 1914, his Philippine experience—including Philippine General Hospital, Philippine Normal College, and his last project here, Paco Station—would serve him in good stead.  He went on to design high-profile projects like the Federal Trade Commission building and the United States Botanical Gardens in Washington DC.


In 1935, Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon, having just negotiated with General Douglas Macarthur to organize the Philippine military, consulted with one of the most prominent architects of the day, like Parsons a graduate of Ecole des Beaux-Arts.   As historian Teodoro Agoncillo wrote in his 1984 book Burden of Proof, “Quezon took immediate steps to provide MacArthur with quarters fit for a king.  He chose Andres Luna de San Pedro, Juan Luna’s son, to take charge of the plans for the quarters that could rival the elegance and facilities of Malakanyang.  Luna looked about him and found that Manila Hotel’s top floor, if remodeled properly, would do justice to any extravagant king.  He reported his findings to Quezon, who approved his plan to remodel the top floor of the Manila Hotel in such a way as to make it a sort of Malakanyang-by-the-Bay.  Luna then proceeded to convert it into an elegant and beautiful penthouse.  It took him one year to perform the miracle.”

1935 was also the year that saw the inauguration of the first trans-Pacific Clipper flight, with Martin seaplanes berthing at South Harbor, a stone’s throw away from Manila Hotel.  It is likely then that both Macarthur and the China Clipper prompted the Manila Hotel Company’s decision to expand.  Luna de San Pedro was also brought in to expand the west wing northward – creating the air-conditioned annex - and design some of the key public rooms, such as the Fiesta Pavilion.

As described in Manila Hotel’s guidebook published in 1939, just two years before Pearl Harbor, the Fiesta Pavilion was “one of the finest and most beautiful ballrooms in the world, surrounded by a wide terrace filled with dining tables.  It has neither doors nor windows, only a high domed roof supported by giant columns.  As you dine, you look out over the fascinating harbor…The Pavilion is open on all sides and the verdant gardens and the blue bay glimpsed thru the coconut palms, form a unique setting ...”

The air-conditioned annex was an ingenious exercise in creating a new face to the world.  Entirely respectful of the Parsons original, it allowed the Parsons original to continue being the hotel’s aspect to the city and Burnham’s Luneta, while it became the hotel’s new face, greeting travelers as their Pan Am Clipper seaplanes taxied at South Harbor.

Unfortunately, none of the Luna de San Pedro intervention is apparent today.  Like the rest of the hotel, it survived the war, but not the renovation that took place in the 70s, which was in all aspects superb, except for its inability to maintain the Luna de San Pedro component.

In October 1974, the Bulletin Today reported that “the state-owned, five-story 265-room hotel with its distinctive white-washed walls and green roof has been going to seed in recent years, crowded out of the steadily-growing tourist trade by such new hotels as the Hilton, Hyatt and Intercontinental.”  The article suggested that change was on the way, and it came in January 1975 in the form of President Ferdinand Marcos signing Presidential Decree No. 645, “AUTHORIZING THE GOVERNMENT SERVICE INSURANCE SYSTEM TO ASSIST IN THE CONSTRUCTION, DEVELOPMENT, AND/OR OPERATION OF A NEW MANILA HOTEL AND DISSOLVING THE EXISTING MANILA HOTEL COMPANY.”  The Preamble explained:  “WHEREAS, the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development have selected Manila as the venue for their annual conference in September, 1976, and a large number… are expected to converge in Manila on that occasion, thus making it a matter of national priority to complete the new Manila Hotel by that time.”

The redevelopment team was led by the late National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin, aided by   National Artist for Landscape Architecture IP Santos.  On May 15, 1975, First Lady Imelda Marcos lowered the time capsule, and work began on the renovation of the old five-story wing, and the construction of the new tower.

Locsin’s orientation of the new tower – perpendicular to the old wing - was a brilliant move, an act of exceptional elegance.  The tower re-established the relationship of Manila Hotel to a now much larger Metro Manila.  From a distance, the tower called your attention, but receded as you approached the entrance, such that when you entered the driveway, the tower rose narrowly and practically disappeared, and the Parsons Manila Hotel reestablished its prominence. 

Patricia Keller, partner in the international interior design firm of Dale Keller & Associates, worked with Locsin on the renovation.  She had also collaborated with him on the Hyatt (now Midas) in 1965 and on the Philippine Plaza.  For all these projects, she studied Philippine culture and crafts to generate concepts.  It was an auspicious partnership, as both employed understatement in their artistry.

In 1982, Manila Hotel was ranked # 21 by “Institutional Investor” magazine, ahead of the Pierre in New York (# 28), the George V in Paris (# 29), and the Savoy in London (# 39).  Ten years later, in 1992, “Institutional Investor” ranked Manila Hotel #1, the world's best hotel. 

Unfortunately, two years later, an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer would report that “the hotel has been plagued by low occupancy because of competition from newer and strategically situated Makati hotels.  The worsening traffic situation exacerbated the hotel’s distance from Makati, which has displaced Manila as the country’s business capital.”  The GSIS wanted to sell the hotel with the hope that the prospective buyer’s “strong marketing link overseas, plus fresh capital to fund a possible redevelopment plan, will help arrest the slide in the hotel’s occupancy rates.”


The transfer of ownership was not without its controversy.  Renong Berhad, a leading Malaysian conglomerate, won the bidding and was ready to take over, teamed up with ITT Sheraton, one of the world’s leading international hotel companies.   The only rival bidder did not sympathize with the government’s plan to transfer ownership to a foreign entity, and exercised its opposition all the way to the Supreme Court.

Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon once said "I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than a country run like heaven by the Americans.”  The Manila Hotel of a decade ago seemed to illustrate that.  In his regular column, the country’s most eminent heritage conservationist described Manila Hotel as a “Grande Dame now decked out like a floozy…tarted up with paste diamonds set in thin sheets of gold-colored brass.”  Those were Augusto Villalon’s words published on June 16, 2003 in the  Daily Inquirer, in an article titled Our Manila Hotel Goes Down the Drain.

Four years later, were things looking up?  On Oct. 6, 2007, the Manila Bulletin editorial carried the headline:  “The historic landmark Manila Hotel the Grand Dame of Hotels continues its tradition of excellence as it celebrates its 95th Anniversary October 6, 2007”.

The editorial went into detail:  “To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Philippine independence proclaimed on June 12, 1898, the Manila Hotel in 1998 constructed the Centennial Hall with a 1,250 guests capacity.  Then in 2000, it constructed the Millennium Hall which can accommodate 1,000 guests.  These are sites for big conferences and grand receptions…For meetings and other occasions, the hotel offers eight function rooms, including the grand Fiesta Pavilion and Maynila ballrooms that can accommodate up to 2,500 and 750 guests, respectively, and others that can accommodate 150 to 300 guests, fully equipped with modern meeting and presentation facilities.   By next month, the hotel will have the Manila Hotel Tent City, a new function hall with a seating capacity of 2,500.”

As it turned out, Tent City may not have been the most providential thing to happen to Manila Hotel.  First is the name Tent City, which suggests refugee relocation sites.  Second is the loss of the garden, considering that Manila Hotel has always been about a structure in a landscaped setting, and the hotel now had practically no garden.


On a recent visit, we were able to note some cause for hope.  Recent renovations of the Locsin tower rooms demonstrate a willingness to invest resources.   Their standard of finish reminds one of the new and glitzy Macau hotels, though not of the understatement of Locsin and Keller.   It was good to see that many things from the Locsin renovation were maintained, such as the decoration of the Parsons Wing rooms and the Tap Room Bar’s Tiffany glass. 

In many places, especially the lobby, the high-gloss finish of ceilings and woodwork causes light to reflect stridently.  This is in contrast with the understated satin finish of wood surfaces in the photographs of Manila Hotel in Nicholas Polites’ 1977 book The Architecture of Leandro Locsin.

Some areas, particularly the path leading towards Fiesta Pavilion and Centennial, Millennium and other halls, show a predilection for cold fluorescent lighting, foil-like signage, and uncoordinated marble flooring.  This again contrasts with the subtle variations in color that Patricia Keller brought to the marble flooring of the Locsin renovation.

Over-all, what is apparent is that things are no longer apparent, as far as the ground floor plan is concerned.  The plan clarity that was present in the days of Parsons, Luna de San Pedro, and Locsin is not so present today.  Of course, the path from entrance to Lobby remains clear, and grand, and impressive.  But the path to Fiesta Pavilion et al seems like a maze.  Locsin used single-loaded corridors with views of landscaped open spaces to take us to Fiesta Pavilion and Maynila.  Today, those open spaces are supplanted by a spree of banquet halls, and that sense of orientation is gone.

The fresh air that brings hope to Manila Hotel can also bring with it an understanding of how the structure relates to the city.  We are informed that this process of understanding is underway, and there is some hope for the eventual removal of the over-sized “Manila Hotel” signage on the entrance canopy and the tower roof.  More eloquently than any headline, the removal of that signage will announce to the city that the Manila Hotel we knew is on its way back.   


Nothing is arbitrary, and everything we do participates in a larger vision, a sapient reading of universal patterns.    Great planning and architecture are not impositions but interpretations.  From Burnham to Locsin, Manila Hotel has been a story of masterful interventions.  Burnham read the relationship of Luneta Park to the sea and the existing city.  Parsons read the relationship of the new hotel to Luneta Park.  Luna de San Pedro read the relationship of his annex to the sea and to the world with the advent of the Clipper.  Locsin read the relationship of his tower to the Parsons wing, and to the city.  Present in all these interventions is a deep respect for context and for history, and the heavens seem pleased and reward this respect with the felicitous ability to implement.

What we do today acts as a tribute and a remembrance to those that preceded us.  Individual memory becomes communal memory, which acts as a stepping stone towards future achievement.  We are grateful that Manila Hotel continues to survive time and its vicissitudes, with patience and forbearance, tolerating us, as we who are her stewards today now struggle to understand her story.  In 1903, Burnham gave us a hint:  “I appeal for an ideal thing, for the establishment of a beauty that shall be ever present to do its pure and noble work among us forever…”

(written April 2011)