BAGUIO CITY – The City marked the centennial of the Dominican Hill and Retreat House, Baguio’s remaining edifice depicting 19th century architectural design, last Wednesday with the resolve to preserve and improve the area as a historical site.
In a program commemorating the 100th year of the structure built from 1913-1915, city officials led by Mayor Mauricio Domogan vowed to pursue the development of the landmark, a two-floor monastery on a ridge near the city’s southwest end and now dubbed as Baguio’s architectural jewel, as a heritage and nature park while sustaining its historical status.
Domogan said the city can take steps to achieve this goal by adopting an ordinance setting guidelines for the preservation and development of the stone building and the area.
“With the guidelines, we can identify what improvements can be done and what should be avoided all with the aim of preserving its value as a heritage site,” the mayor said.
He said the city can also pursue a private-public partnership (PPP) venture to determine the best use for the edifice which was built by Catholic priests belonging to the Dominican (Order of Priests) as vacation house and college for their members.
Ruben Cervantes, assistant city environment and parks management officer who did research on the structure, said the building also served as a refugee center and prison camp, hotel and as a hunting ground for ghosts and spirits.
CEPMO head Cordelia Lacsamana said the City will adopt the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) concept of “adaptive reuse” in the context of historical preservation in developing the property.
Under the NCCA concept, adaptive re-use “allows the introduction of a modern function into the old structure. Old buildings are not torn down but saved and recycled into 20th century uses.”
“Whatever feasible venture can be done on the site, we will pursue it as long as it does not destroy its historical value but at the same time it should be income-generating to make it self-sustaining,” Domogan said.
He said the city forks out P50,000 a month from the budget to maintain the area as the proposed guidelines for renting out the facilities remained pending before the city council.
With meager funds and with the help of volunteer individuals and groups led by the Baguio Heritage Hill Committee led by Domogan and former city architect Joseph Alabanza, the city introduced improvements to the building after it has been declared structurally safe by experts.
The main halls on both floors were transformed into function halls fit for conferences and occasions like wedding receptions and the like. The rooftop has been made accessible for a 360 degree view of the city.
The city also improved the landscape around the property with one of the fountains now made operational.
The 10 Commandments building located beside the Dominican edifice can serve as venue for any religious activity.
During the celebration, the city also inaugurated two new features – the Love Lock fence at the rear of the building where couples can profess their love through symbolic locks attached to the fence; and the flag staff hill in front of the building as a tribute to the ten countries that contributed to the construction and operation of the Dominican structure.
Lacsamana said that in the coming months, the city plans to reinstall the butterfly sanctuary and build an aviary and homing dove house, construct two gazebos, improve waterworks, revive the rain harvesting feature of the building, open the building for guided tours, pave and improve the road, set Station of the Cross during Holy Week celebration and install a giant rosary in one of the atriums.
The mayor said the City will pursue these improvements while the PPP plan is in the works beginning with the drafting of the terms of reference based on the various proposals received for the development of the area in to a heritage and nature park.
Recalling the building’s historical background, Carantes said the construction of the building was supervised by Fr. Roque Ruano, a Dominican priest and engineer, in accordance with Spanish-Dominical baroque architecture and incorporating his knowledge in designing earth-quake-proof structures and in harnessing rainwater.
With rooftop serving as a water-catchment facility and its solid foundation and stone walls, the monastery became the first building in Baguio with a rainwater-harvesting feature and to be earthquake-resistant.
Based on documents on the building at the University of Sto. Tomas that Cervantes studied, the building was constructed by local workers, Chinese and Japanese expatriates who were then living in Baguio and other parts of the Cordillera.
Anthropologist and Baguio girl Patricia Afable noted in her book “Japanese Pioneers in the Northern Philippine Highlands”, that “the massive stone and concrete walls still stand, a tribute to all the Ilocano and Pangasinan carters whose water buffaloes and oxen dragged on sled each stone and bag of lime up that hill.”
Her grandfather, Teruji Okubo, was chief carpenter of the construction. “He once spoke of Spanish wine being the best, especially if it came from the Dominicans,” Afable wrote.
Afable and her cousin, Kathleen Okubo, visited the building in 2003 and noted: “Today, however, no window is intact, and water has destroyed all of the interior wood surfaces. In the courtyard, now overgrown with large weedy shrubs and covered with rubble, two broken cherubs still decorate the foundation that the Dominican built. Parts of the structure and grounds were damaged in the 1990 earthquake.”
From the Dominical Order, the building was transferred to a private commercial entity which operated it as the Diplomat Hotel until the middle ‘80s. The lot, reduced from 17 hectares to over five hectares, was later placed under the jurisdiction of the Presidential Management Staff.
In 2004, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo transferred the building and its premises to the city government the wooded portion to the Sandiganbayan.
That paved the way for the city to begin repairs on the building which over the years had been vandalized by looters.
Former Councilor Galo Weygan and the later vice mayor Daniel Farinas pushed for development of the long idle property.
The work was carried on by Weygan’s daughter Philian Louise during her term as councilor. The younger Weygan, has remained a member of the committee./Ramon Dacawi and Aileen Refuerzo