Be it ever so humble (or grand) … (Part I)

Published August 2, 2021, 12:21 AM

by Jaime Laya

Wala Lang

Join this author check out homes humble and grand whenever he can, wherever he goes. He’s been at it for over 50 years and his tally is close to 100, from Batanes down to Mindanao.

… friends like to visit each others’ homes. Once or twice when I was about age five, Nanay gave in to my pestering and let me tag along on talkfests with her BFF, Miss Florentina Hernandez, who lived in Pandacan. Directed to a bench by a dining-room-kitchen window, I was told to sit still, be quiet, and behave.

Adult-speak was gibberish and I spent the time surveilling wandering fowl through the floor slats; imagining what was behind closed capiz windows and a wide door across the way; and where the stairs behind the chatting duo led. I hope the house still stands—those outings got me hooked on old houses.

Since then, I’ve checked out homes humble and grand whenever I can, wherever I go.  I’ve been at it for over 50 years and my tally is close to 100, from Batanes down to Mindanao and excluding those at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan.

Most of the ones I’ve been to were vintage 1800s, a few built by average people but mostly by the elite whose houses are of materiales fuertes and survive longer. A few were museums open to the public, including reconstructed homes like Calamba’s Rizal Shrine, Museo de la Salle in Cavite, and Casa Manila in Intramuros but the rest were lived-in private homes with hospitable owners.

OLD HOUSES The Fortich-Rocha house in Sitio Ubos, Tagbilaran City; the entrance to a vandalized home in Bulacan (photo by Conrado Bugayong)

Humble homes

Built mainly by farmers, fishermen, and blue-collar workers, humble homes are typically little more than a roofed room where residents sleep on mats laid or cushions laid on the floor.  Cooking, eating, bathing, carousing are all done outside. Toilets could be anywhere.

I was welcomed to some of those homes as part of a group visit to Leveriza near the Manila Zoo. They were small, low, and built close to each other, all scrupulously neat and clean. Other homes I’ve been were similar—the recreated boyhood home of former President Diosdado Macapagal, the one-room traditional Cordillera houses relocated to Baguio’s Tam-awan Village and to the National Museum of Anthropology inner court.

  • Roofed in cogon, the Macapagal home in Lubao was about three feet above ground, had an all-purpose room, and a silid that was really a walk-in closet.
  • Tam-awan Village, brainchild of National Artist BenCab, was a group of native one-room huts dismantled, transferred, and rebuilt into a picturesque B&B complex. I was told that Jaime Zobel de Ayala stayed there once and constructed at his own expense a matching CR.
  • A couple of notches above these was a school principal’s house in Barrio Dampol, Plaridel, Bulacan. It was well built with floor and second floor outside walls of wood and a GI sheet roof.  It was about six feet above the open bare-ground utility area. Access was by outside stairs leading up to a tiny balcony. The house proper consisted of a dining-kitchen area and an all-purpose room occupying the entire front half of the narrow house.

It’s interesting that indio homes of the 19th century, both humble and upscale, had similar floor plans—storage area at ground level, outside stairs and balcony, and inside, an all-purpose room and kitchen. The difference was in size and material, the former being small and made of bamboo and nipa or cogon, and the latter being humungous and of stone, hardwood, and tile.

Upscale Rural Homes

The last time I was in Bohol, in Tagbilaran’s Sitio Ubos were three homes of the early 1800s. All were entirely of wood and two still had their original tile roofs.  Technically they were not not bahay-na-bato. One, the Fortich-Rocha house, had outside stairs with thick molave steps leading to a large sala-dining room and a cuarto fronting the street. At the rear was the utility area and kitchen. The outside stairs of the Rocha house next door ascended directly to the main door that had an elaborate wood mechanism for a lock. Inside was the vestibule with a dome-shaped ceiling. There were massive Chinese-style aparadors that I later saw in a Makati home.

Tia Tinay’s Pandacan home must have been built by a prosperous farmer ancestor.  It was a real bahay-na-bato. The ground floor was of mortared adobe blocks, the upper floor of wood panels and capiz windows; and probably with a nipa roof originally. It seemed L-shaped with sala, bedroom, caida, and stairs on the long wing and the wood-slat-floored kitchen and dining room on the short wing. Ceilings were low but the place was fully cross ventilated, the windows opening onto the tree-filled yard.

I saw a similar house in Bulacan, a bahay kubo in bahay-na-bato attire. The size and proportions made it a bahay kubo with two wings. The ground floor was walled in stone while the upper floor was paneled in wood and had capiz windows and wide narra plank floors. The GI sheet roof was steep and obviously was originally nipa. Unusually, what in a bahay kubo would have been outside stairs, was sheltered in its own narrow wing. The finely proportioned caida had a trayed ceiling while that of the main room was shaped as a dome. Perpendicular to the caida was a long wing for kitchen, general utility and storage. The main piece of furniture, apparently transferred from a larger house, was a four-poster Ah Tay bed that took up most of the caida.

It was so exquisite and unique I toyed with the idea of buying it for NCCA that I then headed, and making it into a provincial middle-class architecture and lifestyle museum. Unfortunately, I couldn’t connect with the owner, an old lady so reclusive she hid even as she let a neighbor and I tour her house. Sadly, the house was vandalized after she passed away and was a floorless, windowless shell when Conrado Bugayong, a Facebook friend, posted photos of it.

(to be continued)

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