Manila Central Post Office: Fire can’t destroy its future
MANILA, Philippines—A worker at the Manila Central Post Office (MCPO) for almost 40 years, Sofia Calabio, saw the glory days of the iconic building that stood strong for 97 years since it was constructed in 1926 and rebuilt in 1946.
She said she started working at the MCPO in 1985, when the post office was still catering to “mountains of letters and packages” every day. She was only 26 years old then.
“Because my work was to sort mails, I was able to memorize all the towns in most regions in the Philippines,” Calabio, now 63 years old, told INQUIRER.net via FB Messenger.
She recalled that back then, employees could not even pass through the hallway “as there were so many people sending out letters and packages.”
This, Calabio said, was what the MCPO looked like at its peak until the internet took over, stressing that she thought it was already the end of an era not only for the MCPO but for all post offices in the Philippines, too.
“However, we did not go down,” she said, “as we entered several businesses, like being a collecting agent for PhilHealth and tying up with Bayad Center.”
When she retired in 2020, Calabio said she was grateful to witness how the post office overcame all the challenges. “Most people thought that we were already gone, but they were wrong,” she said.
This was the reason that she said her heart was broken when she heard on Monday (May 22) that the MCPO was on fire.
The iconic building in Lawton, Manila, was hit by fire at 11:41 p.m. on Sunday (May 21). The fire started in the basement and eventually destroyed the rest of the building.
The Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) said the fire reached the general alarm, which is the highest, at 5:54 a.m., and was declared “controlled” at 7:22 a.m.
Fire was declared extinguished at 6:33 a.m. the next day, Tuesday (May 23), leaving the neoclassical building, which has been declared by the National Museum as an Important Cultural Property (ICP), “totally damaged.”
The BFP said the fire wounded 18 individuals – 16 firefighters, a fire volunteer, and a civilian – and left an estimated P300,000 worth of damage. Additional assessments, however, are still being made.
“All had been lost, except for a few mails kept in the Lock Box Section,” MCPO’s postmaster Noel Dacasin told INQUIRER.net via phone call.
He said the section contained mails from embassies, the Supreme Court, banks, and hotels that have post office boxes, or numbered boxes assigned to a person or institution, where mail for them is kept until collected.
“They have mails there that were not reached by fire,” he said.
Dacasin said an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 national ID cards, which were set to be delivered to residents in the City of Manila, were also destroyed by the fire that lasted for 30 hours.
RELATED STORY: Manila Post Office fire affects delivery of PhilIDs – PSA
Operations of the MCPO have since been relocated to the Foreign Mail Distribution Service in Delpan, Manila.
‘Come to us, senders’
Dacasin said that every day, the MCPO is catering to a lot of mails, including national ID cards, so what’s next for those that were destroyed by the massive fire?
He said “when it comes to the retrieval of information, we’re really at zero, but we will try our best to trace where the mails came from.”
“We will start by asking details from the post offices the mails came from. We will ask them how many were handed to us from Monday to Friday,” Dacasin said, adding, however, that it would have been easier if all mails had barcodes.
As explained by the Philippine Postal Corporation (PHLPost), the “Track and Trace” is the reference number provided for one’s transaction, which he or she can encode to find his or her international and domestic mails.
However, as to ordinary mails, Dacasin stressed that “we can no longer do anything about them.”
PHLPost described ordinary mails as unrecorded items that are charged the basic postage and delivered through regular delivery channels.
Dacasin said once they are able to track the senders, they will try to inform them if their return addresses are encoded in the system, which is available in most post offices with online computers.
But if the return address is not indicated, “we can inform them once they will come to us to inquire [about their mails],” he said.
As to indemnity, “there will be none,” Dacasin said, stressing the rule on fortuitous events which could exempt a person or institution from liability.
Then as to the national ID cards, the Philippine Statistics Authority said those lost in the fire will be replaced at no additional cost.
But more than the letters, documents, and national ID cards ravaged by fire, the Philippines is grieving over its lost heritage – the 97-year-old building, which is a “classic example of Western architecture that existed between two world wars.”
As stressed by Dr. Gerard Lico, a professor of architecture and heritage conservation, “when heritage places are destroyed by fire or man-made disasters, people who have an emotional attachment to the place feel a sense of mourning for the loss.”
“Heritage places have the ability to connect us as a community, foster a sense of pride, and provide the physical artifact to recall and remember our past,” he told INQUIRER.net via FB Messenger.
An ICP, the building was designed by architects Juan Arellano, who also designed the Manila Metropolitan Theater and the Old Legislative Building; Tomas Mapua, who was behind the St. La Salle Hall of the De La Salle University and Ralph Doane.
Construction started in 1920 with a budget of P1 million at the time. The building, located in the middle of Manila so it can receive and dispatch mails and packages easier through the Pasig River, was completed in 1926.
However, as the Battle of Manila during World War II broke out in 1945, the Greco-Roman style building, which has 16 Ionic pillars, was destroyed. It was rebuilt a year later, with most of its original design retained.
The building has been the center of Philippine postal services and headquarters of then-Bureau of Posts, which was renamed Postal Service Office (PSO) in 1987 by Executive Order No. 125.
It was in 1992 when the PSO became a government-owned and controlled corporation and named as PHLPost.
As it was declared as an ICP in 2018, its Conservation Management Plan was completed a year later, with its rehabilitation allocated with P150 million, the Renacimiento Manila said.
Lico said in determining the significance of the MCPO, we employ a values-based approach such as these:
- Technological innovation as to the use of reinforced concrete and precasting technique
- Historical as site of battle in World War II
- Social as the icon of postal services in the Philippines
- Aesthetic as paramount example of neoclassicism created by a Filipino in the colonial context in pursuit of American City Beautiful agenda to transform Manila into a tropical imperial city
Not prepared for risks
After the fire, 42 congressmen filed a resolution to seek an investigation, stressing that there’s a need to maximize efforts in “protecting, preserving, and safeguarding our heritage sites.”
READ: 42 lawmakers seek probe of Manila Central Post Office fire
House Creative Industry and Performing Arts Panel chair Rep. Christopher de Venecia said “the historic MCPO building did not have any kind of fire suppression system or even water sprinklers.”
Postmaster General Luis Carlos told ANC that in the 1970s, “when the Building Code was enacted, there were no sprinklers yet.” He said: “It became a heritage site in 2018. It was very hard to put up all those sprinklers.”
As stressed by Lico, though, in conserving heritage buildings, “we manage the changes without diminishing the aforementioned values to prolong the life of the historic buildings.”
There should always be “preventive maintenance and technological upgrade to make the old buildings compliant to contemporary building code, fire and safety codes,” he said, too.
Lico pointed out that the fire that ravaged the MCPO could have been prevented if there were routine upgrades to ensure prolonged life of the building and craft a disaster management and risk protocols for the heritage building.
‘No new building to rise’
Manila Mayor Honey Lacuna likewise allayed fears that a new structure would rise in place of the ravaged MCPO building.
“To those who have doubts that maybe someone else wants to build in the Manila Central Post Office area, according to the local ordinance, the area is an institutional zone,” she said.
“It was also declared in 2018 by the National Museum as an important cultural property. The National Historical Institute declared it as a heritage zone.”
“As a heritage zone, no other structure can be built–only the Manila Central Post Office. It is protected by the zoning ordinance. The local and national government cannot build any infrastructure except the Manila Central Post Office,” Lacuna said.
Back in 2012, ABS-CBN News reported that the company behind the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore was said to be engaging with the government of the Philippines for the transformation of the MCPO into a first-class hotel.
“The Singapore hotel was also originally a general post office building, also known as the Fullerton Building, before its redevelopment into a luxury five-star hotel located at the Central Business District near the mouth of the Singapore River,” the report read.
As stressed by Lico, “we should always be vigilant in protecting our built heritage because they are irreplaceable.”
“But we should remember that for heritage structures to survive, it must be loved and enjoyed. It should have a compelling story to tell and provoke an understanding of the past.”
He said “it is through understanding the historic environment that teaches us how to value it [as] valuing it gives us a reason to care for it.”
As Dacasin said, there are already plans to rehabilitate the destroyed MCPO building, with the Government Service Insurance System saying that the building is insured for P604 million.
Likewise, House Deputy Speaker and Batangas Rep. Ralph Recto already stressed that the building can be rebuilt using contingency and calamity funds.
He said in a statement that the government could utilize its P13 billion contingent fund under the control of the President, and the P19.03 billion calamity fund under the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council.
Dacasin said the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) also pledged to help in the rehabilitation.
This, as the building is protected by the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009 since it was declared a National Historical Landmark (NHL) in 2012.
As stressed by Lico, “when heritage structures are destroyed, place-attachment and the associated meanings are diminished unless replaced with a reconstructed building.”
“Without the physicality and materiality of the old buildings we are unable to fully experience the richness of the past and the bittersweet emotion of nostalgia”
Meanwhile, the Manileños for Heritage reiterated its call for the proper implementation of various laws and policies in relation to restoration of the MCPO.
It said it is a double-declared NHL (Level 1) and ICP (Level 2), which enjoy certain benefits such as priority funding and incentives for conservation per Republic Act No. 10066, or the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009.
“We also emphasize still unimplemented provisions of the Heritage Law such as an NCCA Conservation Incentive Program (Section 7b), the Compulsory Repair Order (Section 26), and the National Heritage Resource Assistance Program (Section 36) in relation to heritage sites with similar concerns as the Manila Central Post Office,” it said.
“We call it a disservice to the Filipino people for still not implementing such provisions ever since the law was enacted in 2010.”