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)


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