Hopes still up gutted Manila Central Post Office can again stand and deliver
MANILA, Philippines — Inocencio Agoilo, a postman for much of his life, has long regarded the Manila Central Post Office (MCPO) as a “second home.”
This was where he had been stationed for the last 11 years, he said, as he recalled already with fondness his daily commute until just two months ago when he would get off the bus at Plaza Lawton and walk to his workplace only a stone’s throw away.
Agoilo, 62, remembered arriving at Plaza Lawton around 6 a.m. on May 22, a Monday, to see a huge cloud of smoke rising from the Post Office building which had been engulfed in flames since Sunday night. He saw other postmen also on their way to the building.
“We were shocked,” he said. “We could not believe it.”
It was not until an hour and a half later that authorities said the fire was “under control.” Yet it took another day before the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) declared “fire out” at the MCPO. The BFP reported 18 people injured but no fatalities. Two weeks later the agency concluded its investigation, which ruled out arson as the cause of the fire, saying it was purely accidental.
Evidently, the biggest casualty was the Post Office building itself, one of the few surviving landmarks of colonial-era Manila which the National Museum declared in 2018 as an “important cultural property.”
But Post Office workers, heritage advocates, and other stakeholders to whom the building had become a vital part of their lives remain hopeful that it could be restored. And there are steadfast efforts to raise funds for that goal.
Government Service Insurance System president Wick Veloso said the building’s estimated P604 million in insurance will be used for the restoration efforts.
“To facilitate the insurance claims, we immediately dispatched our adjusters to the fire scene. We also deployed drones to completely evaluate the affected structures,” Veloso said in a statement.
“We are aware of the historical significance of the building and we would like to assist in its rebuilding efforts in every possible way,” he added.
Postmaster General Luis Carlos said he will seek the support of other government agencies as well as the private sector in financing the restoration.
Stephen Pamorada, lead convenor of Manileños for Heritage and tour guide of Renacimiento Manila, said the National Commission for Culture and the Arts is the “prime agency to protect and provide restoration efforts to our heritage buildings.”
But he also noted that the agency itself needs more funds for its operations.
Nevertheless, Pamorada emphasized that the post office fire has revived in the public discourse the need to restore the country’s heritage.
Architect Dominic Galicia said the history of the MCPO is defined by its cycle of ruin and repair. After all, there is no episode in the life of this building more horrific than the destructive liberation of Manila in 1945, when American forces bombarded the building with artillery fire to drive out Japanese troops garrisoned there.
The MCPO is more than just the country’s main transit point for letters and parcels.
It is a jewel of a building — a landmark attesting to the care in which Manila and other urban centers were designed and developed during the colonial era and in the immediate decades after the country’s independence from American rule.
Built in 1926 and completed two years later, the Post Office was designed in the neoclassical style by Filipino architect Juan Arellano, together with colleague Tomas Mapua and their American counterpart Ralph Doane.
“MCPO’s significance is that of the structure and the space that is enveloped by the structure,” Galicia said in a phone interview. “That goes beyond the function of [being] a post office. That goes to the realm of timelessness, space, and quality. It means that it can be something else other than a post office.”
Galicia also described the Post Office as occupying a “magnificent space.” As seen on any map of Manila, the building, indeed, seems to occupy pride of place in the city’s landscape.
According to a 2018 article in the online architecture magazine BluPrint, the post office was situated by American urban planner Daniel Burnham at the foot of Jones Bridge, as he saw that the Pasig River “could become a convenient medium for delivering mail.”
Damage, moving forward
Diego Gabriel Torres, president of the heritage advocacy group Renacimiento Manila, said “You can only understand the layout of the building when you tell the history regarding which were the sorting areas, the lockboxes, the telegraph, and long-distance phones.”
This location has served as a vital convenience to the city’s residents and has helped facilitate the country’s entire mail system even today.
The MCPO still handles a considerable volume of physical mail, despite the predominance of communication by email or social media and of deliveries online.
The crucial functions of the Post Office were, alas, underscored by their disruption after the May 21 fire.
Following that incident, main operations at the MCPO were transferred to its Foreign Surface Mail Distribution Center in Manila’s Port Area.
According to Manila City Postmaster Noel Dacasin, the Philippine Postal Corp. and GSIS donated 26 tables and 200 chairs to the relocated staff, who were also provided with five PCs (personal computers), after the 30 PCs at the Post Office building were destroyed in the fire.
But this assistance was obviously not enough for the MCPO’s more than 700 workers.
According to Agoilo, the new workplace is like a slum, as they sort out scattered sacks of mail. “We don’t have anything ourselves. We squat everywhere to record our work,” he said.
Dacasin said letters, parcels, and even the MCPO’s near-priceless stamp collection were all lost to the fire.
But despite this destruction, he and the others look forward to seeing the building restored to its former glory.
He said the restoration may take three to five years, but he noted that the government is already taking steps toward that objective.
Agoilo said, “No matter how long it takes, we look forward to returning to the Post Office, even if it takes years.”