What’s the oldest house you have been to?
Unless I am mistaken about my own history, it is Casa Manila, a house-turned-museum through the efforts of the Intramuros Administration. The casa is built out of wood and stone and was erected circa 1850 in Barrio San Luis, one of the first four villages in Intramuros.
The original house was one of the many victims of the World War II and the bombing of Manila. From its ruins rose what is now the grand casa, which is patterned after the San Nicolas house in Binondo (but was formerly in Calle Jaboneros), which is said to be owned by a merchant known as Don Severino Mendoza. It also took influences from the Spanish architecture in the Philippines of mid to late 1800s as well as other houses owned by actual Spaniards and Filipino illustrados, the educated middle class during the colonial period.
Despite being such an imposing and almost regal structure, it can be easily missed because it’s dwarfed and overshadowed by its huge and popular neighbor, the San Agustin Church. Still, the casa holds its own and welcomes anyone who looks and finds it—whether by accident or on purpose.
My friends and I searched for it. And we almost missed it, despite being already on the right street. Why did we miss it? Because it shares a complex with a restaurant and bike rental, which weren’t what we were looking for. After correcting our bearings, we succeeded in locating it.
We entered through the puerta principal, the large red wooden door. It leads to the zaguan, the passageway of visitors and carruajes and calesas, which in turn ended in the patio, a beautiful space punctuated with flowering plants. The fountain in the middle of the patio served as the roundabout for the carriages. There is also the caballariza, the garage secured by arched bricks where the caruaje is parked.
At the patio was the small ticketing office, where we paid for our entrance. Then, we entered the actual casa.
Up two flights of stairs, we came to the first floor of the casa; other sources would regard it as the mezzanine. This is where the oficina (office) and biblioteca (library) are, which has a caja de hiero (safe) and baul (chest). The floor also has dormintorios (dormitories) used for siestas. The bedrooms here were usually reserved for elderly family members as well bachelor uncles or maiden aunts.
Two more flights of stairs and we were welcomed by the bastonero, a hat-and-cane rack into the antesala or caida, where the family played games, smoked cigars, or had their merienda. Just behind the stairs is a mural of a Philippine idyllic scene featuring nipa huts and cascos or covered boats.
But the real showcase was in the sala. It boasted of a gilded mirror, consolas with their marbled table tops, a grandfather clock, porcelain jars from Japan, curio cabinet from China, harp from France, and piano from America.
At the left was the inner sanctum, which contained the oratorio, where the family and the household prayed. The room was guarded by life-size santos encased in glass. The paintings on the altar, walls, and ceiling have a Neo-Gothic style, which was inspired by the rebuilding of the Santo Domingo Church in 1867.
Next was the cuarto, the bedroom of the son or daughter. It has Neo-Classic Empire charm but is remarkably lighter than the sala because Neo-Classic Philippine furniture was influenced by Boston and Salem, not by Europe. The biggest bedroom in the casa is the cuarto principal, which had a bigger set of furniture than the other bedrooms. It has an aparador de tres lunas or three-mirrored wardrobe, tremor or dresser, and a marble-top lavadera or washstand.
From the bedrooms, we left for the comedor or dining room. While the dining table and platera or sideboard are beautiful, the punkah was immediately arresting. The punkah is a ceiling fan pulled by hand; it is also a device from British India brought to the Philippines when the Brits occupied Manila from 1762 until 1764. Atop the rich dark wood is a puesto de postres filled with colorful delicate pastillas wrappers.
Then, we went to the cocina or kitchen where there was a vandero or food cabinet, hulmahan or cookie molds, gallinera or chicken coop, and banguera or dish rack. The one kitchen furniture I was excited about was the nevera or icebox because that meant ice, which made it possible to make ice cream.
Adjacent to the cucina was the letrina or toilet. This house had two toilets right next to each other. Some toilet sets even had checkerboards carved onto the armrests so people could while away their time on the throne. Other houses could have a toilet on the floor for those who preferred to squat.
Last room was the baño or bathroom. Reflecting that of the letrina, it has two bañeras or bathtubs.
Exiting the casa meant we entered the azotea or roof, where the messy house chores like laundry and dressing chickens were done. It also has an aljibe or cistern for collecting rainwater.
Plaza San Luis Complex, General Luna St., Intramuros, Manila