Declared an Important Cultural Property by the National Museum of the Philippines, this 19th-century bahay na bato in Ilocos Norte has been unveiled in its reincarnation as a living museum
For many decades, in its decaying state, the ground floor of what has been described by the National Museum of the Philippines as (one of) “the oldest, most imposing heritage houses in Ilocos Norte” was rented to vendors selling all manner of native food and delicacies.
The town of San Nicolas is—and has always been—a convergence point, the end destination of three major roads, one from Tuguegarao on the north, one from Manila on the south, and one from Nueva Era on the East. No wonder, it has been no stranger to conquests and occupations.
Once home to pagan Tinggians and Igorots, the small town bordered by Laoag, Sarrat, and Batac in Ilocos Norte was occupied first by the Spaniards. The indigenous population did put up hostile resistance against the expedition the center of the Spanish mission in Vigan back then dispatched on Laoag River in 1575, but eventually, over a decade later, in 1584, though some of the pagans fled to the Cordilleras, the town surrendered to the Spanish forces, particularly the Agustinian friars who founded a visita or a Spanish settlement there. It was next taken over by the Katipuneros at the height of the Philippine revolt against Spain in 1898, and then by the Americans during the American commonwealth, and then by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945, when Imperial Japan took control of the Philippines.
Balay San Nicolas, as it is now known, a new name given it in 2019, was just as subject to the whims of time—and the many turning points of history—as the town itself. Believed to have been constructed in early 1800s by the gobernadorcillo Antonio Valdes, the heritage house, formerly known as Valdes-Lardizabal house, even in its dilapidation as a result of years of neglect, did present a hint of its once-lofty place in San Nicolas, so christened in 1733 after the Italian saint and mystic Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, who was believed to have protected the town from storms, fires, floods, and earthquakes. It is the only municipality in Ilocos Norte named after a saint.
This grand house in Ilocos Norte is a cultural gem that needed to be restored for the young to have a glimpse of an example of a genteel lifestyle in a balay na bato. —Dr. Joven R. Cuanang
Balay San Nicolas, located west of the town plaza, had stood witness to the town’s evolution, though its last key role in the affairs of the municipality was as the headquarters of the Japanese army during World War II. Although it was pretty much left to fend for itself against the ravages of time for most of its history, there is no denying it is of particular significance as a cultural, artistic, and historical gem.
On Dec. 23, 2015, after the municipal government acquired the dilapidated bahay na bato, Balay San Nicolas was declared an Important Cultural Property by the National Museum of the Philippines.
Over the next few years, under a cultural revival program spearheaded by the town mayor, Mayor Dr. Alfredo Valdez Jr., neurologist, contemporary art gallery owner, and art patron Dr. Joven R. Cuanang, working closely with the San Nicolas Express BinI Foundation, Inc., a San Nicolas-based foundation that promotes education, culture, and arts, supervised the work restoring the old glories of the ancestral house.
On Dec. 28, 2021, shortly after the restoration and renovation work was completed, Balay San Nicolas was unveiled on the occasion of the 2021 Damili Festival of San Nicolas. It was presented in its reincarnation as a living museum, replete with a Department of Tourism office, restaurant, and souvenir shop on the ground floor, as well as events spaces, including the patio for outdoor activities.
A 19th-century building like this—weathered by the elements, worn by time—is a treasure not only to the San Nicoleño or the Ilocano, but also the Filipino and the rest of the Philippines.
Moreover, the adaptive reuse of Balay San Nicolas has made it more than twice the treasure it already is. As they would say it in Ilokano, agturong iti nadur-as ken nalinak nga ili, a dream is now reality.