MANILA, Philippines?The electricity was out during her welcome message, but 98-year-old Jessie Coe Lichauco simply ditched the mic and ran on ?Jessie power.?
?Can you hear me?? she asked her audience, in a deep, gravelly voice with an American twang. ?Whoa!? she exclaimed, testing if her guests were as energetic on Thursday morning.
The American-born Lichauco, widow of the late Philippine Ambassador Marcial Lichauco, was more spirited than ever on Dec. 16 when the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) unveiled a marker at the family?s home on Pedro Gil Street in Sta. Ana, Manila, finally declaring it a heritage house.
?This is the second most important document I?ve signed, after my marriage certificate,? she said jokingly to Sta. Ana-born Vilma Labrador, the chair of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, at the signing of the certificate of transfer of the marker.
The NHCP has so far given 35 historical markers this year, only five for houses. The Lichauco house is the first to have received the distinction in Sta. Ana, home to the upper crust of Philippine society in the 19th and 20th centuries.
?The Lichauco house serves as extant example of a domestic architecture built during the colonial era and a living witness to the development of the historic district of Sta. Ana,? NHCP Executive Director Emelita Almosara said, quoting the commission?s Resolution No. 5, Series 2010.
To be considered a heritage house, a building must be at least 50 years old, with historical, social and architectural significance, and has remained largely authentic, Almosara said.
At the tail-end of the Japanese occupation in 1945, the house by the Pasig River had served as refuge for Manila citizens displaced by World War II. The Lichaucos themselves had to move eight times during the war.
They were also virtually refugees the first time they came to the riverside house. At the time, it was already taken over by squatters and looters. The original owners, the American O?Brien family, had fled the city altogether.
?There were countless people from other districts in Manila fleeing from destruction by the Japanese. Only Sta. Ana was not razed so they came here,? Lichauco said.
Awash in blood
The street was awash in blood, she said. ?One day, I saw a woman on the street dragging her injured father on a piece of galvanized iron tied with a rope to her waist,? she said.
Ambassador Lichauco bought the house from the O?Brien family following the American liberation. Since then, his widow, seven children and their growing family have lived there for around 65 years.
The house has seen many dignitaries through its doors?local and international politicians and their families, Ambassador Lichauco?s old chums from Harvard University, artists, the first Peace Corps volunteers in the Philippines. They used to hold elegant gatherings in the spacious receiving room on the second floor.
Sturdy wood, capiz
But the house speaks of memories older than those of its residents. Stone and concrete materials were used on the ground floor; sturdy varnished wood on the second; capiz on windows and adornments, in the style of the Spanish-era mansions.
The family has largely maintained the original materials and architecture, just adding a small wing near the garden, screens on the windows and large glass panels to enclose the second-floor veranda.
?Initial surveys show the house dates back to the 1850s or the 1860s,? said Erik Akpedonu, research associate at the Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC). Rare are the old houses that survive in the Philippines. That such a house remains standing in a bustling, gritty city is an even bigger feat, he said.
Another let-on to the house?s age is the fact that it faces the Pasig River. With streets yet to be constructed, the river was a major transport route during the Spanish period. Houses received guests traveling on boats.
Akpedonu pointed to the adobe walls, the veranda?s machuca tiles, the handcrafted wooden panels and the sturdy staircase, all original. ?It?s a symbol of Filipino artistry. Obviously a lot of work and care and craftsmanship went into this house. You just don?t see that anymore in concrete houses.?
The free-spirited Lichauco was never the type to retire in glitzy high-rise buildings, which she calls modern caves. ?I wouldn?t live in one if you gave it to me,? she said.
?I was once offered property in Forbes Park back when it was only P6 a meter,? she said, a twinkle in her eye. ?I chose to stay here. I never regretted it.?
Her favorite spot in the house is an arm chair buttressed by throw pillows, in the veranda-turned-sitting-area, overlooking the Pasig River and her beloved 200-year-old banyan tree.
The tree, already a local landmark when the Lichaucos bought the property, is set to receive its own marker from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The Lichauco heritage house marker is a small triumph for cultural advocates after the tearing down of the neighboring Columban Priests? House, which will be replaced by a supermarket; and the Lichauco matriarch ?Lola Grande?s? house, now a fast-food branch.
It broke Lichauco?s heart. ?They?re tearing down many of these houses here, but I would like future Sta. Ana residents and guests who visit to enjoy our house. Now it will remain here for future generations,? she said.
?There are other historical landmarks, other heritage homes that I hope will also be given a spotlight for the future,? she said.
In Sta. Ana alone, the IPC has been able to identify more than a hundred heritage buildings, according to Akpedonu.
Older than Intramuros
Gemma Cruz-Araneta, vice chair of Manila Historical and Heritage Committee, noted that Sta. Ana, formerly Sta. Ana de Sapa, was even older than Intramuros.
?Before the Spaniards came, there were already indigenous people here and they had their own traditions and culture,? she said. Evidence of this was the burial site excavated under the Sta. Ana church, containing skeletons and Sung dynasty pottery dating back to the 11th century. The site, along with the church?s ?camarin,? has been declared national treasures.
?We hope that our house becomes an example, a launch pad into community-based heritage tourism,? said Lichauco?s daughter Sylvia. Such a program could help with poverty alleviation. ?Heritage could be the product of Sta. Ana.?
Sylvia is now president of the Lola Grande Foundation, which spearheads a heritage-awareness campaign in the district. The foundation pushes for the strict implementation of Republic Act No. 10066, or the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, which, among other things, urges adaptive reuse of heritage buildings.
?You can make the building commercial, but preserve its original architecture,? Sylvia said.
Lichauco agreed. ?Life has changed so much in my time,? she said. Gone are the days when the children would climb the banyan tree, and wave to the boats plying the river; gone are the days when ?tulya? and ?biya? were sold by river merchants; gone are the days when the river was clean.?
Still, ?When you get to be my age, every day is a gift. I?m very fortunate to have lived a long life, in good health and in comfort, meeting a lot of people.? It is hoped that her house and Sta. Ana could continue to enjoy the same fate.