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The stunning, endangered heritage buildings of Sariaya


Sariaya town in Quezon province is located between Mt. Banahaw and Tayabas Bay, thus offering visitors hiking and beach escapades.  Yet it is at the center of this bustling municipality where one finds its most delicate treasures: the architectural gems certain to attract the attention of even the most casual wayfarer.

Along the national highway that leads to Lucena City is the 18th century Sariaya Church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi and home to the miraculous Santo Cristo de Burgos image of the crucifed Christ. In the plaza fronting the church rises a US colonial era monument that honors Jose Rizal and the virtues of education.  Just beside the church stands the turreted mansion of similar American "peacetime" vintage commissioned by Governor Natalio Enriquez.  A leisurely walk from the church are several other pre-World War II heritage houses and the notable municipal hall.

In 2008, three gorgeous mansions built in the 1920s and 1930s were proclaimed to be of national historical significance.

Two of these houses compose a significant part of Sariaya’s claim to be the Art Deco capital of the Philippines, buttressed by the presence of a compact Art Deco municipal hall (c. 1931) designed by Juan Arellano, whose work included the Metropolitan Theater and the Old Congress building.  

The homeowners were prominent in Southern Tagalog politics and culture, awash with the economic clout from coconut plantations and copra trading and able to hire the best talents to show off their wealth.  The surviving structures are reminders of past glories and trials.  They are silent witnesses and survivors of the passing of history, hosts of Commonwealth-era politicos, including President Manuel L. Quezon himself, senators and high officials, and later to Japanese soldiers during their invasion.

Governor Natalio Enriquez obtained the services of Juan Luna’s son, Andres Luna de San Pedro, to build a house with twin turrets flanking an ornate balcony that became the town's roadside landmark from its completion in 1931. Nearby, the Gala-Rodriguez mansion completed in 1935 owes its design to Juan Nakpil (later declared as National Artist) who created it to satisfy Dr. Isidro Rodriguez's wish to gift his wife an unquestionable showpiece.  A Japanese officer took up residence in the house's upper floor during the occupation.  He became enamored with the doctor's eldest daughter, who took to hiding for long periods in the basement to escape his attentions.  The splendid interiors are straight of a cinematic dream of a rich man’s house in the later post-war time.  Down the road from the municipal hall is another Art Deco landmark, the Emralino-Rodriguez residence that is also attributed to Luna de San Pedro.

The oldest of the three national heritage houses almost covers an entire block. Don Catalino Rodriguez (town mayor in the first decade of the 20th century) built it in the 1920s using artisans from Batangas and Pampanga.  Also known today as Villa Sariaya, the present owner is a direct descendant who welcomes visitors who wish to see its preserved bahay-na-bato interiors and who has restored the handpainted decorative vegetal patterns and fancy murals in its walls.

Apart from these declared heritage houses,  several other abodes erected by the olden day grandees of Sariaya remain today in that curious stage when the question of survival hangs in the air, such as the shuttered house of the philanthropist spinster Dona Margarita Rodriguez and the crumbling 1917 townhouse of Simeon Rodriguez, whose heirs died out.

According to local heritage enthusiasts, the decline in the upkeep of heritage houses begin when the heirs of the original owner have other priorities — old houses require sizeable budgets to maintain — or when there are absolutely no direct heirs to be found.  Some houses have already been sold by practical heirs and were demolished to give way to newer buildings.  

In recent days, the imposing Natalio Enriquez house has been threatened with the demolition of its concrete fence, part of the original Luna de San Pedro structure.  This uproar arose from a public works plan to create a wider highway (later morphing to a loading and unloading area) that would also cut off portions of the town plaza.  

The National Commission on Culture and the Arts issued a cease-and-desist order upon the urgent petition of heritage advocates and the Enriquez house’s current owner.  Appealing before the NCCA on April 22, homeowner Linda Marquez and daughter Rina decried the planned destruction of the Natalio Enriquez compound and the loading bay project which threatens to bring down the whole house by the intensified vibrations of traffic and construction. There is a seeming disregard in public policy for the cultural and heritage structures that define the identities of nations, they stressed. The NCCA ordered the parties to come to a suitable solution before lifting its stoppage order.

It is noteworthy that the most beautiful, many-splendored Sariaya house no longer exists but its ruins, hinting at its elaborate fence and concreting, can still be seen.  According to Eric Dedace, a prime mover of the town’s heritage concerns, Don Roman Reynoso (gobernadorcillo in the last decade of the 19th century) owned a mansion that was the center of the town’s social whirl,  hosting US Secretary of War Francis Burton Harrison at one time, among other notables. It was torched during the Japanese occupation.  

Arson also befell the 1930s mansion of Dr. Wenceslao Rodriguez, who himself was killed during the Japanese rampage as WWII came to a close.  The skeletal ruins of the house are in front of Villa Sariaya, the house of Wenceslao’s father Don Catalino.

Sariaya deserves a visit, even for a day, to see how the elites of a small town brought the Philippines and the world to their doorstep and managed to leave astonishing monuments from a bygone era.  Globetrotters today say Cuba is the place to go before the impending end of the American embargo would change its stuck-in-the-50s landscape.  Filipinos have no need to go so far as Cuba. Sariaya’s heritage treasures could just be as ephemeral.  

Ferdi Bolislis is a government employee who backpacks extensively here and abroad, with friends or alone, believing that every barrio has a story worth knowing, and telling. 

Much of the historical information cited in this article was sourced from online writings of Sariaya heritage stalwart Eric Dedace — in addition to his conversations with Sariaya Heritage Council leader Danny Galera Maffiotte de Leon during a tour of several houses on April 18, 2015 for the Advocates for Heritage Preservation.