It started off as a passing conversation between Dumaguete mayor Felipe “Ipe” Remollo, and Jeremy Barns, director of the National Museum of the Philippines, who was visiting the city — how about a museum in the capital of Negros Oriental? It was 2016, and the casual chat quickly blew the dust off an heirloom from the Department of Public Works and Highways’ treasure chest: the old City Hall known as Old Presidencia. Built in 1935 in the Mission Revival style by the late Juan M. Arellano, a leading light in early 20th-century Philippine architecture, it had long been eyed by Remollo as a repository for the city’s cultural property.
Two years later, the long-awaited satellite museum of the National Museum, set to open in February 2019, may be the high point of the city’s quiet crusade in recent years to preserve its historical assets. The campaign is being shepherded by a powerhouse line-up in the newly formed City Heritage Council which includes Dr Earl Jude Cleope, a professor and historian at Silliman University, and Dr Angel Alcala, the Philippines’ pre-eminent marine biologist and revered National Scientist. Old Presidencia is now being downsized after years of office use — four active departments have been moved out, partitions torn down and entire areas closed off — to reveal Arellano’s simpler two-storey structure, overlooking the well-manicured Quezon Park from the balcony.
The unconventionally modish Arellano, who also designed Manila’s Metropolitan Theater and National Museum of Fine Arts, was trained in the Beaux Arts architectural style and shifted constantly from Neoclassical to Gothic to Art Deco, despite the fact that many found his vision too costly. Heritage hunters still can’t trace how exactly the celebrated architect and painter came to design Dumaguete’s City Hall, but they all agree that the structure should be revived according to Arellano’s original plans.
Even before the restoration has been completed, there are high expectations for this new attraction. “We’re hoping the museum will add another day in the tourist’s itinerary,” says Jacqueline Veloso Antonio, head of Dumaguete’s City Tourism Office.
As commercial arcades mushroom all over the city, heritage buildings set themselves apart by showing off good bones and a bit of history to go with them. It’s an underlying business philosophy of the Flying Fish Hostel, a boutique hostel along Hibbard Avenue, near Silliman University. Adrian Tan, the owner, took a refreshing approach: instead of destroying old structures, why not make them the selling point? The hostel’s look and feel are a hit among what has been labeled the hipster, “neo-nostalgic generation”, with its newfound love of vinyl records, retro board games and chic Mid-Century Modern furniture.
In a quieter part of Barangay Bantayan, Flying Fish Hostel is named after the local bangsi, a fish that’s luminous in the water and scrumptious on the plate. Adrian, a Malaysian who had spent 16 years in advertising, moved to Dumaguete to retire. “That point in my life made me rethink: do we really need all this crap? I traveled and came to the Philippines, and seeing the way of life in rural areas here inspired me to merge nature and structure.”
Adrian’s love for old homes and preference for utilizing existing resources eventually led him to the ancestral home of the Villegas clan. “Like millions of jigsaw puzzles assembled to complete a picture,” he recounts, “reusing materials to form something new is more tedious than building from ground zero.”
But that’s exactly what he did, using as much hardwood from the old structure as he could. The wooden stairway, windows and patterned flooring were stripped down and reinstalled as soon as the house had sturdier columns. The result is an oversized treehouse with hammocks strapped between arching trunks, geometric light installations on high ceilings and a curtain of greenery that brings the outdoors in.
“It’s tragic how properties today need to account for every square meter with monetary return, leaving no trace of the past behind,” says Adrian. “This is what makes us different. We want to coexist with the trees and with the past rather than remove them.”
Not far from Flying Fish, the brick-finished CAP Building along Rizal Boulevard, once the satellite office of an insurance company, now sports a trendier interior — industrial-style bare ceilings and colorful murals — as part of a boutique sanctuary simply named the Bricks Hotel. It comes with its own in-house restaurant called Caña, which means “cane” or “a pint of cerveza”, or beer, in Spanish. On the menu are Filipino favorites such as lechon kawali (pork belly), crispy tadyang (beef ribs) and the eatery’s own version of sinuglaw, the combination of grilled pork belly and fish ceviche doused in vinegar.
The 27-room hotel and its restaurant are the newest arrivals to the city’s main entertainment strip, which was once lined by the vacation homes of sugar barons who sought a change of scenery from the haciendas where they lived for most of the planting season. Repurposing old vacation homes along the prime seafront district with a dramatic vista — in this case, the sea and Siquijor island in the distance — is nothing new. The former residence of sugar baron Manuel Teves, midway down Rizal Boulevard, has long been converted into a dessert shop, Sans Rival, which sells the city’s buttery signature cookie, the silvana, a biscuit equivalent of the sans rival cake.
Taking its cue from Rizal Boulevard, Hibbard Avenue — with its line of whitewashed 1950s residences, sprawling gardens and courtyards — is now peppered with makeshift front-yard restos and hole-in-the-wall cafés like Esturya Tapas & Bar and Kape Lucio.
Among the most popular is Casa Arrieta, a new hostel in the former Arrieta residence. The boarding house has kept much of the original structure, and the capiz windows and cerulean façade reveal its age, as does the exposed staircase to the second floor. Celi Arrieta Santo Domingo used to help her father, Miguel, dry silkscreen calendars on the ground floor. The front garden, too, still grows the rain lilies and rosal planted by the family matriarch, Aurora.
Like many ancestral homes, the house was unoccupied for a time when the children moved to the US. Its fate was undecided until a third-generation Arrieta — 39-year-old Mae — visited Dumaguete and saw backpackers casually strolling around what used to be a quiet suburban area. That’s when she saw the potential of their well-preserved WWII home.
“Casa Arrieta is the oldest house in the vicinity,” says Arrieta. “When it was built, the neighboring houses were all still nipa huts.” She persuaded her mother to transform the house into an inn. “If it doesn’t work, at least my grandparents are happy that someone’s taking care of it,” she says.
As Dumaguete’s new wave of entrepreneurs brings new life to old buildings, they also prove a forgotten wisdom. While heritage preservation is a laudable goal, these architectural heirlooms can only stay relevant for as long as they remain used.
This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Smile magazine.