Malacañang Palace—and the neighborhood around it—is a fascinating reminder of history and the fickle nature of power.
Tucked away in a corner of the capital city lies the seat of political power in the country, Malacañang Palace. As both official residence and the working office of the president of the Philippines, its very name — or its more ceremonial form, “Malacañan” — is shorthand for the executive branch of government. But, lest one forget, it is also just a house, albeit a grand one whose walls have witnessed hundreds of years of history.
The grand Spanish residence
Found on the northwestern bank of the long and meandering Pasig River, the original structure was built in the 18th century as a summer home for Old Manila’s rich and famous. Malacañang Palace is located in San Miguel, one of the City of Manila’s oldest districts, where one can find 20th-century mansions next to Spanish-era churches. Although adjacent to the urban bustle of Quiapo and Recto, San Miguel is more subdued — a stray pocket of suburbia in the busy capital. “I consider this one of Manila’s hidden gems,” says Ivan Man Dy, a Manileño who conducts tours around the city, and a staunch conservation advocate.
Before Spanish colonization, the area that would eventually become San Miguel was prime fishing ground, owing to its position along the Pasig River. Trade from Mainland China would also flow through the area, beginning in Manila Bay and ending in the Laguna de Bay. The arrival of the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century changed the political dynamics of the country. The old Kingdoms of Tondo and Maynila gave way to a colonial administrator, a governor-general appointed by the Spanish crown.
The seat of power then was located, naturally, near the mouth of the Pasig River — in the Palacio del Gobernador found within the walled city of Intramuros. Historical records indicate that as early as 1634, the Spaniards had already claimed the area under colonial jurisdiction, naming it San Miguel (presumably after San Miguel Church, which was built in 1603). By the 18th century, it had become enviable real estate for rich insulares, the full-blooded Spaniards born in the colonies.
It was “Forbes Park before there was Forbes Park”, Ivan says. As Intramuros became more crowded, the upper crust of colonial society moved out of the walled city and into the banks of Pasig. The old fishermen’s village would be littered with mansions in the so-called bahay na bato (stone house) style, some of which still stand. By far the most famous mansion was Don Luis Rocha’s. Don Rocha was a businessman and industrialist who chose to have a summer home in San Miguel in 1750.
What would eventually become Malacañang Palace started out as a breezy house made of adobe and wood, which sat on 16 hectares of prime real estate facing the river. The Rochas would eventually sell the house to Colonel Jose Miguel Formento in 1802, who in turn sold to it the colonial government in 1825. The governor-general made use of its gardens and riverside veranda as an escape when summers in Intramuros proved too hot.
In 1863, an earthquake forced the government to move its offices to the old Rocha property. As the new official residence of the colony’s governor, the former summer home earned the designation of palacio — the Palace.
A series of repairs, expansions and reconstructions took place amid earthquakes, floods and even revolution. Photos and illustrations of the time show the Palace itself with high ceilings, grand staircases, large halls and rooms, and mother-of-pearl windows. It had become, in short, a grand residence worthy of a head of state.
A Malacañang for Filipinos
The Philippine Revolution and subsequent American colonization would radically change Philippine society, but it wouldn’t shake Malacañang’s premier position. In a span of a few years, from 1898 to 1901, Filipinos managed to overthrow the Spaniards and establish their own nation, before being conquered by Americans as a colony; the old Spanish governor-general was thus replaced by an American one.
San Miguel would change as well: The old Spanish houses gave way to “modern” mansions such as the Legarda Ancestral House, the Arlegui Mansion and Casa Roces – all named after the influential families who owned them. In the decades that followed, the transition from American colony to semi-independent Commonwealth meant that a Filipino president, Manuel Luis Quezon, would finally sit in the Palace. Quezon would continue to improve and renovate the building, up until the Japanese invasion during World War II.
During the war, Malacañang was used by the Japanese first as a prison, then as the seat of the José P Laurel government. The bombing of Manila during the later stages of the war would thankfully spare the Palace — it was the only government building to survive the total destruction wrought by the US. By far, though, the most infamous era of Malacañang happened during the Marcos dictatorship.
In the 21- year rule by the strongman Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 until 1986, the Marcoses transformed the Palace from a simple government complex into something closer to Versailles. Works by National Artists such as Fernando Amorsolo and Guillermo Tolentino were added to the Malacañang collection. Individual rooms were filled with French paintings and murals. There were even secret doors that led to vaults filled with jewels. All of these excesses were laid bare in 1986 when the masses stormed the establishment to finally oust the dictator from his seat. Structurally, the Palace underwent some big changes too: New buildings were erected and its wooden foundations were converted into concrete and steel.
Today, Malacañang Palace is not nearly as grand or decadent as it was in the years past, but it retains much of its glory. From the outside, it’s hard to make out the building’s unmistakable profile as shown on the 20-peso bill because of the surrounding long walls, which make the structure’s presence known from far. Making up the Palace are six buildings spread across both sides of the Pasig, all acting as a self-contained unit serving as offices, guest houses or reception halls.
Currently, the only part of Malacañang open to the public is Kalayaan Hall, the oldest standing building. Once, it served as the old Executive Building and a receiving area for guests. Today, it houses the Presidential Museum and Library. The museum gives guests a glimpse of what lies beyond closed doors in the halls of the highest executive power — you can take a peek at the offices, the décor and the art. It also serves as a political tour of the country, showcasing each president and First Lady, and some of their personal effects. The guided tour shows the Old Executive Building as it was used artifacts from their respective eras. And looking across the river, you can see Bahay Pangarap, the current presidential residence.
Around the neighborhood
Just across Malacañang is the Plaza Liga Anti-Imperialista, where a statue commemorates the long-gone American Anti-Imperialist League.
Less than three blocks away, along the corner of Jose Laurel and Aguado, is the ancestral home of the Roces clan. Its most famous member, Don Joaquin “Chino” Roces, headed a family media empire that included The Manila Times in its heyday. During the Martial Law era, Don Chino had been arrested along with other popular reformists such as Ninoy Aquino and Pepe Diokno. Casa Roces has since been given a new lease on life — as a restaurant. Lavish ancestral homes aren’t the only heritage sites in the neighborhood.
Churches like the National Shrine of Saint Michael and the Archangels (also known as San Miguel Church), the National Shrine of Saint Jude, the San Beda Abbey Church, and the Minor Basilica of San Sebastian not only reflect the country’s devout past but also represent another side of Philippine culture: religious art and architecture. San Sebastian, in particular, is the first wholly steel church in the Philippines, constructed in 1890 from prefabricated sections manufactured and imported from Belgium.
Not your usual tourist spot
Ivan’s guided tours are one of a few offered that lets you explore San Miguel in a historical context that doesn’t just end at the Presidential Museum and Library. He contends that the real treasure isn’t found in tourist attractions but in stories that might not be readily apparent in broad historical narratives.
These are found in the little anecdotes Ivan offers visitors: “This was where [former president] Cory Aquino used to live when she was president,” he says, pointing to the Arlegui Mansion on San Rafael Street. “She wanted to distance herself from the Marcoses, so she chose to live outside the Palace.”
There is a story behind almost every building in San Miguel but not even this neighborhood can escape the march of time. Many older houses in Manila are being torn down or left to waste away without being conserved. “It’s a shame that they aren’t being preserved,” Ivan laments. “These mansions are more than just houses, they’re heritage sites.”
For him, heritage conservation — especially in this area — is personal. “The reason I started doing these tours is because I grew up here,” he says. “I want to share the history of this place with as many people as possible.
San Miguel isn’t your usual tourist spot. This is history, our history. “This was the place for some of the most important events in our country, the home to some of the most important people in our nation. I want more people to realize and appreciate that.” He pauses. “The best way to preserve heritage is to teach it. You can’t tell somebody to preserve a building without knowing why. If we know just how deep these stories go, then we’ll think twice before tearing the houses down.”
This article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of Smile magazine.