Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Derelict Seminary of the Dominican Fathers

by Joel Rodriguez Dizon

     I have written about this subject in an earlier post. However, it doesn’t do justice to treat a subject like this in fewer than 500 words, and just a couple of images.
     So I went back to Dominican Hill one balmy Saturday afternoon to try to "soak in" the biggest story ever to be NOT told about Baguio City. If the story had to be told at all, it has to be by a Baguio boy.

The fountains in the inner courtyard must have been a
thing of beauty in the days of their prime. All corridors
had these windows to permit a view of the water casca-
ding through four levels.

     I grew up around the neighborhood of Mirador and Dominican Hills on the northwest edge of the city. This was around the years between 1968 to about 1980, when Baguio’s population was under 250,000. I have always felt, even as a young boy, that there was something more to the phrase "a city close to heaven" than meets the eye. It was a phrase sometimes used to describe Baguio City. It’s an attempt to allegorize the fact that at 5,000 feet above sea level, Baguio City does in fact soar higher in the atmosphere than its lowland neighbors.
     But it was more than metaphor. If you don’t debate the issue too deeply and simply grant that the mere existence of religious institutions in a city says a lot about its spiritual heritage, then Baguio is a very religious town. That is only one step removed from saying it is a town close to God’s heart.
     It has the only authentic Gothic cathedral outside of Manila. Baguio is the educational capital of the North. But it doesn’t only dispense diplomas in the liberal arts and the sciences. What few people realize is that Baguio, too, is a center of biblical study. This was especially true in the early years--like the 70s and 80s.

This used to be a winding staircase with heavy pine
wood bannisters. It landed on the ground floor where a
100-bulb Victorian chandelier used to hang on the
ceiling, not too far from the fireplace in back..

     Back then, as a rule of thumb, the male religious ran seminaries, and the women religious ran convents and retreat houses. So priests ran the Recoletos seminary at the fork of Naguilian and Asin roads, the San Pablo seminary in Crystal Cave subdivision, and the Dominican seminary at the top of the hill named after them.
     The nuns ran the convents of the Pink Sisters near Brent School, Santa Catalina Daughters of St. Paul along Marcos Highway, one in Outlook Drive beside the Mansion House, called the Sisters of the Little Flower Novitiate, Divine Word retreat house in Leonard Wood Rd., and a famous one, Good Shepherd Convent in Gibraltar Road near Mines View Park.
     Presently, a sweeping evangelical revival is buoying up the popularity of pentecostal Christian ministries. This has enhanced the significance of inter-denominational bible schools, the two biggest ones are the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary (PBTS) in Pinsao Road and the Asia Pacific Theological Seminary (PBTS) in Ambuklao Road.

There used to be ornate iron grilles in each of these five-
foot windows. They were a priceless collection of fine
metal art that would be invaluable to any art curator
today. But instead, they were yanked by looters and
sold cheaply as scrap iron. 

     One reputation that Baguio has steadily lost over the years was its distinction as a favorite retreat place. In the 70s, when you talked about "spiritual retreat" the first name that came to your mind was Baguio City. In fact, the peak of tourist arrivals in the city was the annual observance of Lent--more commonly referred to here as "Holy Week."
     That was then. Today, the City Government has all but abandoned Holy Week in its tourism calendar. It frontloads, instead, the monthlong Baguio Flower Festival--or Panagbenga.
Little wonder then that Baguio City is also, ever so subtly, losing its religious heritage. Superficial ritualism remains high, but that’s about all. Churches are packed on Sundays. But the final priestly benediction, "Let us go and serve the Lord," rings hollow today in the face of the continuing erosion of the city’s religious traditions--and the death, or dereliction, of its once-iconic religious institutions.
     Diminishing interest in the orthodox priesthood is depressing enrolment in most seminaries. In the end, some of them simply had to close. This was the fate of the Dominican Hill seminary, which ordained its last young priest in 1977.
A Korean ministry has offered to acquire this property to
turn it into a pilgrimage site or "prayer mountain." But
offers to buy Dominican Hill are stymied by unsettled
issues of which government agency actually holds title
over this land. Some public opinion is against a Korean
buyout simply because they have acquired many more
properties all around Baguio--some say too much.
     I arrived at the site of the old Dominican Hill seminary rather late, around 4:00 p.m. The afternoon sun was beginning to cast long shadows of the few remaining pine trees around. Some local tourists were still sauntering about the yard, taking an obligatory sourvenir shot now and then. But not too soon after, I was alone to contemplate the ruin and emptiness of this once grand and anointed institution.
     It’s a large estate, approximately 5 hectares. The once-stately yard is severely unkempt--live bushes untrimmed, the grass unmowed. As I walked around the crumbling building, I get a chilly and haunting sense of walking after the footsteps of grieving souls, lamenting the derelict state of their "home." I’ve heard stories, as a little boy, that the prayer garden right outside the main building used to be a small cemetery, where old and anonymous priests were buried. It doesn’t sound true, but the eerie silence punctuated by the chirping of birds and the gentle rustle of the wind certainly makes it believable enough.

In the afternoon haze of Baguio's legendary fog, you get
a sense that this place stis on the clouds. A few local
tourists take obligatory sourvenir shots at the black St.
Martin de Porres prayer garden, reputed to be a small
old cemetery before it was transformed into an outdoor
venue for priestly sacraments. This is the main drive-
way leading up to the front of the seminary building.

     The scene is like the setting right out of a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery novel. I was decidedly alone, but sometimes I catch the fleeting shadow of something--or someone--that seems to have just crossed the marbled floor to hide behind another pillar. Inside the building, you could almost hear the reverberating echoes of Gregorian chants being mouthed off by an all-boys choir. All the rooms inside the building have been utterly and totally looted of all window grilles, and bathroom fixtures. Nothing is left inside this building that is made of anything else but concrete. All wood, iron and glass have been removed, stolen by looters.
     I felt a tinge of sadness about this, because I remember the ornate sashwork in these five-foot tall windows. The wrought iron was heated, hammered and brazed to form elaborate depictions of scenes from the bible. For one, the Holy Spirit dove was always at the top form of each window grille, and the cruficix was always built into the motif of every piece of sashwork. They were classical pieces of metal art, invaluable to any art curator today. How could looters only see the value of these ironworks in their actual weight as mere scrap metal?

A glint of Baguio sunset silhouettes the main seminary
building, momentarily concealing its derelict state.
Someday, this place will be revived as a world-class
bible college. God didn't seem to approve its use as a
hotel nor as a host to a high-stakes casino.

     If you study its layout, the building is a squarish ring with an inner courtyard dominated by two round cascading fountains. They must have been a thing of beauty, because every corridor opened to large windows so you could see these fountains with anywhere inside the building. The rooms ring the inner courtyard on three flanks--the front was where the grand main door opened into a panoramic overview of the whole city of Baguio below it.
     These once-stately rooms have seen a string of transformations, from elegant bedrooms of the mostly-Belgian friars of the Dominican order who pioneered its construction in the early 1950s, to classrooms of the seminary years until the late 70s, to 5-star hotel suite when the whole place was converted into the posh but ill-starred Diplomat Hotel, to storage places of debris. Today, they are a mute statement of demise and neglect.
     If you stand in the main hall and close your eyes, you can still imagine how it must have looked like in its prime. Long flowing white stately curtains behind delicately-embroidered heavy drapes, bright glow of its 100-bulb Victorian chandelier, and in the background a warm fire by the hearth as the red cinderblock fireplace burned aromatic pine wood.

The narrow one-lane road leading up to Dominican Hill
looked before like a "highway to heaven" because the
seminary was the only man-made structure atop this
hill. Over the last few years, a telecom antenna farm
has sprouted near its main gate, adding a quaint coun-
terpoint to the traditional "temple-like" atmosphere
of the old Dominican Hill.

     But you open your eyes and all you see is a skeleton of a once theatrical circular stairway going up--now slippery with moss. The windows are bare openings, the hallways are empty labyrinths leading to no place of any real significance.
     In other countries, landmarks are preserved, their aura of mystery carefully nurtured, their saga propagated. I think about the French monastery of Le Mont Saint Michel--today the stuff of legends. It attracts tourists in droves, who want to imbibe the mystery of the place.
     Will this ever happen to Dominican Hill? I have compelling doubts--even though tourists are, for the first time, now free to roam around the place. But the sense of mystery and adventure is quick to fade, once they realize its nothing but an old crumbling building. As propagating legends and nurturing mystery goes, Dominican Hill fared much better when I was a little boy. I could walk up to the compound (there was not even a gate then, there is one now) and actually hear the seminarians singing hymns. But I couldn’t see them. No one was allowed to enter and disturb the cloistered monks.
By most reckoning, it's stil a very beautiful place, espe-
cially for less mundane pursuits like prayerful meditation.
In fact, from a distance, if you defocus your eyes a little,
you would forget that all you are seeing now is just the
empty shell of a once-stately and historic monastery.
     The city government had actually approved legislation declaring Dominican Hill a "heritage site." What they meant to accomplish by that, I’m not so sure. The law didn’t come with any funding to accomplish anything. Instead, it just opened the flood gate for culture vultures to try to find any way of transforming the awareness into measurable gain. More proposals for hotel conversion have been received. Certainly, improvements in transportation, communication and marketing now make this an attractive buy for developers.
     Unofficially, several evangelical Christian ministries have "ordained" the hill as a "prayer mountain." One local ministry dominated by South Koreans is talking about claiming the hill as an inheritance from God--although God would not give them a title or deed. Perhaps the heavens would open and pour out resources to enable them to acquire the property. It would not be the first significant asset that these well-funded Koreans would acquire in the city--nor the last.
     All this is attended by a lot of talk about privatizing the sprawling estate to pave the way for a private purchase. Technically, on record, it is owned by the government--although nobody seems quite sure which government: local or national.
     When Dominican Hill was commercialized and turned into a losing hotel business, it was financed by loans from a national bank, which soon foreclosed on the mortgage. But the inactivity left local taxes unpaid, entitling the local government to a lien over the same asset. The stalemate keeps Dominican Hill in limbo.

Just a strong stone's throw away from Dominican Hill is
its "sister shrine" the Grotto of the Lady of Lourdes. This
too is about to go the same way of neglect and derelic-
tion--unless a serious conservation effort gets underway
soon. The decline in Roman Catholicism under the sur-
ging popularity of evangelical revivalism is a shameful
excuse to simply let once-famous Baguio landmarks
like these fade into oblivion. 

     The high place, the high wind and the cool November afternoon sun can play tricks in your mind. As I continued to walk around and shoot pictures, I see vignettes of the past, and faint forebodings of the future. Only the present looks bleak. Someday, this place will throb with anointed activity once more. History had already shown that God did not prefer to see this place become a brothel or a gambling den (it hosted a casino in the 1980s)--maybe He wants it to be re-dedicated to a nobler pursuit.
     It’s enough to set one’s dreams in motion. One day, if I woke up and I was Bill Gates--if I had a hundred million dollars to throw away--I would lose no time buying this unpromising derelict building and build something out of it. If it were up to me, I would rebuild this place as a bible college, and redeem its proud history as a beacon of spiritual influence to the city it overlooks. Is it at all feasible? Who knows. In the movie Field of Dreams, a man built a baseball park in the middle of a corn field to invite the departed heros of the game to play one last great game. The driving force that compelled him was this admonition: If you build it, they will come...*** jrd

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The vision of Benjamin Salvosa, UC Founder

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon

The former Baguio colleges Foundation (BCF) is now a uni-
versity. The old main building at right is dwarfed by the new
EDS bulding at left. I took this photo from the balcony of SM.
     The first college established in Baguio City was the Baguio Colleges. The year was 1947, the city was virtually still smoldering from the fire and smoke of the Allied carpet-bombing of Baguio in World War II. Baguio was carpet-bombed by the Americans to flush out Japanese Imperial Army holdouts, and force them to surrender. It was a terrible miscalculation based on horrible intelligence-gathering. Their quarry, General Tomoyuki Yamashita who led the retreating Japanese soldiers was ultimately captured in Hapaw, Hungduan, Ifugao--some 500 kilometers away. Talk about missing a "target."
     That mindless Allied strategy--the true forerunner of the Pentagon's "shock and awe" concept--left Baguio City utterly levelled to the ground.
     Shortly before that,  around 1946, a young Manila lawyer named Benjamin Salvosa was diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis and given six months to live. Upon his doctor’s advise, he packed all his books and belongings and migrated to Baguio City, known for its healthful climate.

This is where it all started for Baguio Colleges Foundation
(BCF) which has been renamed University of the Cordilleras
(UC). This is Antipolo Building which now houses the Rural
Bank of Baguio and the famous Teahouse
     When he arrived, he looked around,  saw the utter destruction, and said  "This place will become the Educational Capital of the North." How he came to that absurd prediction is truly amazing. But he set out and established a teachers college in four or five rented rooms in Antipolo Building (now Teahouse) and later on went across the block to rent the Lopez Building (now Mandarin Restaurant). He went on to produce some of the finest local teachers, some of them went on to establish their own schools-- Fernando Bautista, Sr. who started the Baguio Tech (later University of Baguio) and a small diminutive man named Galo Weygan. He established the Baguio School of Business and Technology (BSBT).

     As his hair turned grey, Benjamin Salvosa thought of another absurd idea---he dis-inherited all of his six children and donated all of his assets (meaning the entire school) to a foundation, called Baguio Colleges Foundation (BCF). That way he was assured that even after he died, the school would continue to exist in perpetuity rather than be split apart in what could have been a tense competition among heirs  for inheritance.
     BCF produced some of the finest lawyers, engineers, architects, accountants, journalists, criminologists, computer techies and, of course, teachers. But Benjamin Salvosa’s most cherished dream was to someday see a college of nursing and medicine added to the school. Tragically, he died before the dream came to pass. He was ahead of his time, but his vision was even farther ahead of him.
     Fighting sentimental melancholy all the way, the name BCF was eventually retired. Benjamin Salvosa's baby was all grown up. It is now known as the University of the Cordilleras (UC), with an annex in Legarda Road that houses its Hotel and Restaurant Management and Tourism (HRMT) school. The department  is fondly referred to as the UC Legarda Annex or "UCLA."
     Beside the original main building now stands the modern 10-storey EDS Building (named after Benjamin Salvosa’s wife, Evangeline Domingo). It houses the College of Nursing--the one department the old man wanted to see in his lifetime. It is also the home of the College of Law.
     One of his children once remarked, "I wish Daddy Ben were here today so he could see all of this," referring to the now sprawling modern campus. I’m a close friend of the Salvosa family, and I remarked back, "Actually, Daddy Ben saw all of this before anyone else---way back in 1947."
     Benjamin Salvosa did not die within six months, as decreed by his doctors in 1946. This amused him no end, as he sat in his favorite leather swivel chair, looking out at a typical Baguio sunset from his penthouse (which has since been converted into a Research Center).
     "No doctor's diagnosis  can scare me, I am a collector of incurable diseases," he boasted as he pushed past 70,"the only incurable disease I still don't have is AIDS--but give me time...!" He predicted he would outlive all his doctors. As true as that is, that  prediction is probably his most inaccurate. It was way off.
     He did not only outlive his doctors, he outlived himself. Many years after he died, the legacy of this great man continues to live and breathe in every lawyer, engineer, architect, accountant, teacher and nurse that graduates from the University of the Cordilleras.  They all caught a "pioneering virus" from him. When they go home to their hometowns and see another bleak unpromising frontier, they will see a bright future for these towns as Benjamin Salvosa did for Baguio City in 1947.

The rise and fall of Dominican Hill

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon
This is all that remains today of the once majestic Dominican Seminary
that produced some of the finest priests of the Philippine Roman Church
including, it is believed, two or three who eventually rose to become
bishops. Church records are tightly-guarded as to identities.

     Dominican Hill was named after the Roman Catholic friars of the Dominican Order who built this imposing all-white building on top of one of the highest peaks within Baguio City. The place was always wrapped in mystery because few people were ever allowed inside this seminary built sometime in the 1950s.
     Once or twice a year, the young priests attending this seminary school were let out to interact with the local community--doing mostly cathechismal work. They were notable for their excellent all-male choir. But for the most part, they kept to themselves and cloistered behind the tall wrought-iron gate that guarded this sprawling 5-hectare estate. It fell into disrepair in the late 70s, a victim of the economic depression and diminishing interest in the catholic priesthood. It was sold for an unknown sum to a local millionaire and faith healer Tony Agpaoa. He refurbished the 50-room mansion into an inn and called it the Diplomat Hotel. It slowly foundered into dereliction and by the end of 1981, accumulating taxes on the property remained unpaid. 

Dominican Hill offers the most picturesque bird's-eye-view
of the sprawling city that once looked up to it as beacon
of Roman catholic influence...and the most colorful giant
Christmas light display visible for several kilometers.

Finally, the Government escheated the estate in 1985. It has sat as a veritable white elephant ever since, too expensive for any practical buyer. Looters soon cannibalized the building, reducing it into little more than a crumbling shell of its once glorious self. The huge cross at the top of the building is still visible for kilometers around. In happy Christmases past, it used to hold the largest yuletide display of lights and lanterns.  A giant "Star of Bethlehem"  measuring almost 25 feet across mounted by seminarians in 1978 still holds the local record for the biggest Christmas lantern ever made in the city, unchallenged to this day.

The prayer garden of the black St. Martin de Porres used
to be ringed by tall pine trees. Now a different kind of
"forest" has sprung up behind it---a forest of telecom
antennas that now power the thousands of cellular
phones in the hands of Baguio residents.

     A nearby prayer garden featured the statue of the black Saint Martin de Porres. Several rows of stone pews were once a favorite site for outdoor sacraments, even an occasional garden wedding. Today, the site has been declared a "Heritage Site" by the city government. It’s all just words. In reality, the whole place lies in total ruin. Everytime I come to this place today, my eyes tear up with a profound sadness at how such an iconic place that was so much a part of Baguio City’s history has now become a deathly and mute testimony to the ultimate fate that awaits all men and their institutions---from the height of beauty and splendor to the oblivion of death and destruction.
     Indeed, death and decay comes to us all....

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Don't blink, you may never see the same Baguio city again...!

- by Joel R. Dizon

     If you left Baguio City earlier than 2005, some of the images here will be new. You need to connect these places in your rmemory with these photos to realize that Baguio City is, indeed, changing right before your very eyes.
    Right at the very gateway  to the city, BGH Circle, there is now a two-lane flyover that allows inbound vehicles  to "fly" above the usual traffic bottleneck that builds up in front of the hospital garden. 
     Don't look for the hill where Gasera restaurant used to sit--it has been excavated, flattened and is now the site of the biggest filling station in Baguio, Petron-BGH with 24-pumps. The Treats  convenience store behind it has become a favorite hangout of Baguio motorists, for its excellent coffee and sandwiches. It is open 24-7.
     A few steps above it is a Pancake House outlet, also doing well.
     There is even a 24-hour 7-11 convenience store in this corner now, in the lobby floor of the Starwood Hotel. If you're wondering what keeps business brisk for these establishments, cross over to the expended Baguio General Hospital complex and you'll see the answer. 
     From a cramped 50-room facility, the new BGH with its new annexes constructed on the hill going toward Fil-Am compound now boasts of better than a 500-bed capacity.  The Emergency Room has been transferred from its old site across the Under Five clinic to the  now-bustling West Wing.
     It is not only rooms that have been added to BGH. It has also acquired more modern diagnostics equipment, it is now considered one of the best-equipped hospitals in the entire Philippines.
     The old BGH building is still superbly preserved. The main hall still houses the different major wards (Pediatrics, Medical, Orthopedics, Coronary Care, Surgery and ICU units, Hemodialysis clinic, OB-Gynecology, and others).
     But the most modern operating theaters are now in the Annex building, along with the high-capacity trauma receiving unit. Gone are the days when even emergency cases had to queue for available surgery rooms. In recent major incidents, BGH has had to cope with situations where emergency patients rushed to the ER numbered in the hundreds, just like  the tragic Typhoon Pepeng calamity of 2009.  BGH passed that test with flying colors.  Today, even if a fully-loaded bus fell off a ravine in Kennon or Naguilian Road, BGH doctors and nurses are up to the task both in their number and rising skills.
     On Session road, the most dramatic change is the lower corner where the old DBP building stood for years. In has been replaced by a new six-storey modern office building now dwarfing the adjacent Pines Theater--which, by the way, is no longer a moviehouse but has been converted into a mini shopping arcade.

     Along Harrison Road, the newly-renovated Tion San Harrison Supestore is, perhaps, the only general merchandising establishment in Baguio that is able to cope with the entry of giant SM Supermall. It used to be split into two lots, with the historic Rose Bowl Cafe in between. Fortunately a swapping deal among the adjoining lot owners enabled Tiong San to expand its store to a contiguous area beside it--Rose Bowl restaurant was "bumped off" a few meters to one side to give way to the Tiong San supermarket--and three floors of dazzling electronic appliance displays above it.

Perhaps the most commentable and observable effect of all these new developments is the worsening traffic.  Previously unheard of in Baguio, experiences of getting trapped in gridlock for as long as 30 minutes or even longer during rush hour are now becoming commonplace.  
     Recently, the City government installed new traffic lights--featuring the newest  LED technology.  The changeover cycle is controlled by a computer and right now the jury's still out whether that was a step forward or backward.
    The average commute seems to have lengthened, although gridlocks now  occur "less often" because adjacent traffic lights can now actually coordinate electronically. But it only takes one moron to beat one red light one time--and the limited carrying capacity of Baguio's narrow city streets can get hopelessly clogged..again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Modernism catches up with the Baguio Cathedral, drawing mixed reactions

- by Joel Rodriguez Dizon

     Some people like it, others hate it. But one thing that the "new look" of Baguio Cathedral doesn't do  is leave you without an opinion.  For decades, this Renaissance-era Gothic cathedral has stood as the icon of Old World Gothic architecture in Baguio City. It's stained glass windows depicting many scenes from the bible are a treasured heritage. 
     The distinctive lines of its main structure, and its domed tabernacle, are unmistakably European. Its tall steel pipe organ  is the only one of its kind outside Manila. All the elements that make up the Baguio Cathedral complement each other to produce Baguio City's proudest example of the finest European architecture you can ever find.
     Then suddenly a beehive of work activity enveloped the Baguio cathedral for several months in 2006 and when the scaffolds and blinds came down, out emerged a new, "made over" Cathedral that was an eclectic--some say disturbing--mix of old and avant garde.
     Where there were live cypress bushes and semi-tall trees outside the church's windows before, now there is a cantilevered plastic canopy that wraps completely around the building. Tubular steel and plasticine panes combined to give the Cathedral a look not unlike a modern airport foyer, or shopping mall.  The parking lot on the west side of the church, just above Session Road, is now a rooftop parking lot. Perched above the Puso ng Baguio annex, it is topped by a strangely-shaped (like an ocean wave) steel-and-plastic roof. I saw this same design concept in a motorists' stop in Marilao, bulacan along the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX). While it looked good for a restaurant cluster, I don't know if it works as well embellishing a church.
     The garden in front of the Baguio Cathedral (it used to be called the "Gethsemane") is now a marbled plaza. Lots of benches all around for sitting, an outdoor aviary (although I only saw a few birds) and more of that tubular steel and plastic canopy work. It's now actually possible to make it from the corner of Patria de Baguio to the cathedral's main door in a downpour without getting drenched so much.  You dash  from canopy to canopy and slowly inch your way to the church, passing through what used to be the "Holy Trinity" square. The monuments of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are still there, but the other "Stations of the Cross" are gone.  All around the cathedral, cars now park for a nominal fee (free if sitting less than an hour, P20.00 for every hour after that).  A toll collection gate greets churchgoers driving into the churchyard and--oh, yes--taxis are no longer allowed to go inside the churchyard.
     Although I'm no longer a catholic, having embraced the evangelical tradition, I still frequently go to the Baguio Cathedral. Besides attending the obligatory best friend's wedding, or the baptism of a godchild you will hide from around Christmas time every year, I usually just sit around inside the cavernous chapel area.  I like shooting the stained glass windows from inside--they are really color slides, when you think about it. I've assembled a few shots here, see if they trigger some memories. They are quite tricky to shoot. You know how you're not supposed to shoot "against the light?" Well, when you shoot stained glass windows, you have no choice but to compensate for the bluish color shift and the expected overexposure.
     But my favorite spot inside the Baguio Cathedral is the front-left apse, where you can find the La Pieta--still probably by far the most moving sculpture by Michelangelo depicting Mary's deep agony at the death of the Lord Jesus after He had been hauled down from the cross. This is just a plaster replica, mind you, but if I raise the money and find the time, it's one of the first sculptures I would love to visit at the Vatican City in Rome.

     The left apse and the tabernacle have remained unchanged and still evoke a powerful spiritual experience everytime.
     Below are some of the stained glass windows of the Baguio Cathedral. Vandals have tried to destroy some of them in the past, hurling objects at them from a distance to test if the brass fittings are really as sturdy as thought by some. To be sure, the glass is fragile and the dyes used in the staining process have taken some beatng from the sun, rain and wind.  To help preserve them, wire screens were installed on the exterior side, causing a little bit of disturbance to the ornate design--but a price well paid to keep a treasured heritage intact 

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Session Road got its curious name

-by Joel Rodriguez Dizon

     The name is intriguing except, maybe,  to oldtimers. Session Road got its name from the fact that members of the First Philippine Commission--the forerunner of the first post-war independent Philippine Government--passed through this main thoroughfare on their way to attend their plenary sessions at the Commission's headquarters located near the top of this uphill road. No great mystery or legend there, really.
     But over the years, the name "Session Road" began to acquire different dimensions of meaning. Cityfolk gathered at the many cafes and restaurants lining this road to catch up on the latest news, share sports insights, talk about business, school, politics--anything under the sun. In other words, cityfolk would hold all kinds of "sessions"--the sociable way of experiencing the community life--while sitting around the shops or strolling up and down this fairly short stretch of four-lanes.
     It is virtually impossible to walk this road without having to greet someone. If you're looking for somebody and don't have any idea where he might be, it's a fair bet you'll run into him if you just walk around Session Road on any given afternoon. So you basically stayed away from Session Road if you're trying to duck a credtitor or somebody else trying to kill you. This road brings the community together..or apart. But  when Baguio folk leave the city for greener pastures abroad, memories of this road bring them home regularly.
     When I shot these photos, I knew these were not Pulitzer prize material. They are plain street photography. But if you were born in this city, or grew up here, or lived here for any significant
period of time, these photos will trigger a flood of sepia-colored memories. Skyworld Condominium, that 12-storey tall apartment building across Tea House has been gone since the 1990 earthquake. But the Puso ng Baguio acorss Laperal buildings still houses cafes, bookstores, restaurants and these days the ubiquitous internet shop. The Baguio Vicariate owns and operates the Porta Vaga, which is the upscale extension development of Patria de Baguio. It houses boutiqes, Bruce Sorisantos' MusicWorld, an upscale gymn, dental clinics--truly an eclectic mix.
     On most days traffic along this road is fairly light. But progress has caught up with this city, too,  and it now has to regulate traffic to keep the air quality breathable. A number-coding system is not in place. A car whose license plate number ends in 1 or 2 must stay off Session Road on Mondays. Those ending in 3 or 4 on Tuesdays and so on.  On weekends, the road is open to general traffic. An attempt to introduce payparking in 2001 ran into a stiff wall of public opposition and was abandoned.
     For four days a year this road is completely closed to traffic, to give way to a street bazaar, coinciding with the annual celebration of the Baguio Flower Festival ("Panagbenga") around February. If you are a Baguio oldtimer, this is one fact of community life you need to update in your mind. The peak tourist arrival in Baguio is no longer during Holy Week--it has been surpassed by the Panagbenga. If you'e heard of the Ati-atihan of Kalibo, Aklan, or the Moriones Festival of Marinduque--Panagbenga is Baguio's own version of a tourist festival. It replaced the unsuccessful Grand Caniao of the late 70s and early 80s and now ranks as one of the most notable Philippine tourism festivals.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wright Park: need some quiet time?

Wright Park: echoes of a bygone genteel era
- by Joel R. Dizon
     In 1909 when Baguio City was established as the first chartered city outside of the Philippine capital of Manila, airconditioning had not yet been invented. The summer heat in this equatorial country is oppressive. The American colonial administrators of the Philippines found a retreat in this cool mountain city situated 5,000 feet above sea level, which offered an uncanny subtropical climate many first thought could never exist in the tropics.

The wrought iron gate of the "Mansion House", official
summer residence of the President of the Philippines, was
inspired by the gate of Buckingham Palace in London.
      They brought in Chicago urban designer and architect Daniel Burnham to draw up plans for a Summer Capital. The idea was to duplicate the offices of all national administrative agencies operating in Manila and providing functional retreat houses for them in Baguio. That way, during the hottest summer months of the year between March and June, these perspiring bureaucrats can escape the searing heat of lowland Manila and carry on their work in Baguio. By the onset of the annual rainy season around June, they would repair back to Manila totally rejuvenated--and not beset by any backlog at work.
     The official residence of the American governor-general in Baguio became known as the "Mansion House"--an intentional redundancy of terms to highlight the sheer expansiveness and luxury of this 30-bedroom estate. Fronting the "Mansion House" was a quarter-mile reflecting pool, stocked with tropical fish, ringed by a jogging lane, the better to loosen limbs stiffened by the cold evenings. 
     At the other end of this reflecting pool is a romantic kiosk, restored in 1991 after extensive earthquake damage left it derelict the year before.  It did not have a roof, only an eight-sided lattice work that held ivy  whose thick leaves closed the overhead gap to serve as the roof.  Underneath,  this kiosk many colonial era administrators took their oaths of office, including William Howard Taft, the only US President ever to have set foot on Baguio soil---as governor-general of the Philippines in 1910. He went on to become US president when he returned to the States.
     Today, the kiosk is a favorite site for garden wedding rituals and other more-socially oriented functions. Its simple geometry, moss-covered stonework and surrounding pine tree cover makes for a very interestking play of lights and shadow that photography buffs love.  Even a simple framing of its stonesteps in high contrast, like the shot I took on the right, makes for a very neat but intriguing study of shape, volume and light.
     The reflecting pool in front of the presidential Mansion along Leonard Wood Rd., Baguio City used to serve a double purpose. Beside presenting itself as an aesthetic feature of Wright Park, it quenched the thirst of the American-era horses that were the main form of transportation in this city at the turn of the century.

Descendants of US Cavalry steeds that were a hybrid cross
between the Wyoming wild horse and the native American
pinto, these Baguio-bred ponies are an endangered species
and no one realizes it. Inbreeding has weakened the gene
pool and unless restocked with new animals this small local
equine population could be wiped out in as little as ten years.
      Descendants of those US cavalry horses still thrive in the city. Horses are not native to Baguio. In fact, wild horses were never known to be part of the Philippine fauna. These ponies are 10th generation foals of the standard US Infantry steeds believed to be a hybrid cross between the Wyoming wild horse and the native American indian  pintados.  They are not particularly tall, far from racing thoroughbreds, but short, stocky and hardy survivors of the tropical climate they were not originally from.
     Today these US cavalry-pedigreed ponies number less than 300. It is estimated that at the turn of the century, when American soldiers  made these horses the main form of land transportation in these mountains, they thrived in numbers well over 15,000. In-breeding has weakened the gene pool over the years and many of these ponies today are sickly.  Unfortunately, horses are too familiar animals it is difficult to convey to the public mind that these decidedly Baguio-bred horses are  actually an endangered speciesThey are a far cry from the robust beasts of burden they once were. 
     One anecdote is told about how the American Governor-General William Howard Taft, a hefty man of 300 pounds, finally made it to Baguio by horseback on one of his annual summer retreats around 1911. He sent a crude telegraph message back to his Manila office some 250 milometers south, "Finally made it to Baguio on horseback!"  Knowing the difficult terrain, but more concerned about its hefty passenger, his staff wired back, "How is horse?"  
     But true to their undying utility, every Baguio pony that dies leaves behind a lasting legacy: One must-buy souvenir item for tourists coming to  Baguio is an authentic horse leather belt, which can be bought at various curio shops around Wright Park.   (all photos copyright 2010 Joel R. Dizon)

SM Supermall redefines 21st century Baguio

Built where Pines Hotel used to be, SM is Baguio's top tourist sight today
by Joel R. Dizon
     It's considered by many to be the most beautiful and scenic mall in the entire Philippines. For one, it has Baguio City's patented "centralized natural air-conditioning." The year-round subtropical climate of Baguio makes this mall the most comfortable to roam around in. Wraparound verandahs on all floors aboveground give you a seamless view of Baguio City's central business district (CBD), but the view of the surrounding suburbs if unobstructed as well. If you are from Baguio, then you know that this site (Luneta Hill) used to be the location of Pines Hotel (which burned down in 1984).  It's the highest point in downtown Baguio, even higher than the Baguio Cathedral which it now overlooks.
     The shopping is great--as in any SM mall--but perhaps SM Baguio is one of only a few shopping malls where you won't feel so bad even if you coudln't find anything interesting to buy. The outdoor cafes scattered around the verandahs are wonderful places to catch up with stories about the old neighborhood. Because, now, the first place that most residents and tourists go to get a taste of the Baguio community life is SM.
     What sets this mall apart is its use of a radical roof design. Instead of a rigid roof, architects stretched a specially-designed tarpaulin across the topfloor area, suspending it on reinforced tubular frames and stretching it taut with a complicated system of pulleys and guyropes. At night, the tarpaulin gets lit from underneath bythe ambient light of the mall interiors. During the daytime, its light color reflects the sun's heat, keeping  the temperature inside the mall a balmy 24 degrees Celsius regardless of the weather outside.  It is only five storeys tall--two of which are basement floors housing the indoor parking lot. A central scenic elevator serves aesthetic purposes more than transportation (the elevator car holds only 20 people). But getting to the upper floors is not a problem, thanks to five flights of escalators and a scenic semi-spiralling staircase on the opposite end.   The mall boasts of globally-recognizable franchises--McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks, ACE Hardware, Watson's--just  to name a few--mixed in with some very successful local  shops. Its supermarket is world-class. Its four moviehouses are equipped with the latest big-screen imaging technology and chest-thumping Dolby sound systems. James Cameron's Oscar-winning "Avatar" was the first 3D movie screened here just a few months ago.   As you can see from the panoramic photos of the Baguio landscape (below) the view from the west verandah of SM mall is truly captivarting.  The landscape is expectedly dominated by Burnham Park, on the far horizon is Quirino Hill. One can walk around the whole perimeter of the mall on any floor above ground and get a seamless vista of Baguio from all angles. At night, the view is even more exhilirating, with a thousand points of light illuminating the mountainscape, and the perennial Baguio fog reflecting some of that light to blanket the city with a gentle wispy, almost ethereal aura of mystery. It is tricky to capture even with advanced digital camera equipment, one has to remember some the old-film basics on color shifts and reciprocity adjustments.
     Before this mall opened, it is estimated that the population of the city was only around 400,000. Since this mall opened in 2003, that population is now estimated to swell as high as 600,000 on weekends. Foreign and local tourists pour in from the surrounding provinces, from Manila and other points south, to experience shopping in this unique mall. It is also estimated that the downline employment generated by the mall's operation probably spawned another 10,000-15,000 new permanent residents, finding work in the mall and its many smaller  concessionaires.
     One thing local photographers appreciate about SM is its strong support for the local arts community. It regularly hosts photo exhibits  and other art events in its spacious premonades and foyers. In fact, its upper basement foyer serves as a year-round venue for art exhibits. (all photos copyright 2010 Joel R. Dizon)