The House of Wood

A tour of the past as immortalized at Malacañan Palace

BULWAGANG KALAYAAN Facade of The Kalayaan Hall, a government building within the Malacañang Palace complex in Manila, Philippines

Touring the Old Executive Building of Malacañan Palace was a treat. Our appointment with the division managing collections at the Malacañan Museum and Library was meant to access a number of old documents and photos my colleagues and I were researching on for a project. We were delighted to be told we could be taken on a tour of the rooms and Past Presidents Exhibit in what is now known as the Kalayaan Hall.

PRESTIGE AND HERITAGE Entrance to the Old Executive Building, built by Governor General Francis Burton in 1921

As a child, I used to go to the palace for family gatherings. I remember Maharlika Hall, as it was known during my uncle the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos’s time, as the venue for intimate plays and musicals performed by my siblings and cousins on Christmas Eve. The central portion of the second floor of the old executive building used to house guest rooms but then First Lady Imelda R. Marcos converted guest rooms into what the Kalayaan Hall is today.

HALL OF HONOR In 1968, then first lady Imelda Marcos cleared the eight guest bedrooms once housed in what is now the Main Hall, current site of the Philippine Past Presidents Exhibit

I also remember one time when the hall was filled with gigantic Botong Francisco paintings all lined up waiting to be presented. That was my childhood memory of the now called Kalayaan Hall. After People Power, then President Corazon C. Aquino renamed it Kalayaan Hall, which is now so much brighter and colder (because of the AC) than I remember.

BUSTO DE MADERA WOOD SCULPT Intricate carvings by Isabelo Tampinco and Graciano Napumoceno showcase the craftsmanship of the times

Today, the main hall holds the Malacañan Museum’s “Relics of Power: Remembering the Philippine Presidents” exhibit (which is available on line). It’s an exhibit in the antiquarian/curiosity cabinet style, where the memorabilia and personal effects of former presidents, as well as their wives, are displayed. It was so genteel—so kagalang-galang.

Being in the midst of dignity through so many generations imbues one with a determination to respect the position of the President of the Republic of the Philippines. Regardless of one’s political views on and personal belief of the person who sits in the position, one has to remember this is the highest position one can ever hold in the country. How can one not feel this way with dark wooden cabinets towering like sentinels, keeping guard of the love and sacrifices of past presidents and their families? This love and these sacrifices are enshrined in the relics the cabinets contain, which serve as reminders of the proud and resilient past of all Filipinos as represented by the President of the Republic. 

LONG TABLE The Roxas Cabinet Room was part of the 1937-39 additions to the Executive Building. It was originally intended as the Cabinet Room, though used sparingly as such by President Manuel L. Quezon

We started our tour in the Old Waiting Rooms of the Old Executive Building. Here you find memorabilia of the current President BBM and campaign materials used by past presidents. One can’t help noticing the beautiful wood carvings of ceiling borders by noted sculptors Isabelo Tampinco and Graciano Napumoceno. You will see American colonial influences with the carved eagle as its main feature. This eagle soon gave way to the Republic of the Philippine Seal.

The Old Executive Building at the Malacañan Palace was built from 1920 to 1921. Although it was started by Governor General Francis Burton Harrison, it was his successor Leonard Wood who was able to make use of it.

After the Old Waiting Room, we were taken to the Old Executive Secretary’s Office, the Quezon Executive office, the Quirino Council of State Room, the Roxas Cabinet Room, then the Main Hall  or the Northeast and Southeast Galleries. They are all very grand.

MEMORIES OF THE NATION From left: Letter from author's grand uncle Miguel L. Romualdez to his father Justice of the Peace Daniel A. Romualdez mentioning family friend Leonard Wood (1907); President Manuel Quezon's executive desk carved by Vidal Tampinco at the Quezon Executive Office; President Emilio Aguinaldo's suit; and campaign memorabilia from past Presidents are showcased at Kalayaan Hall

The Old Executive Building at the Malacañan Palace was built from 1920 to 1921. Although it was started by Governor General Francis Burton Harrison, it was his successor Leonard Wood who was able to make use of it. Wood was someone I had heard about casually from family members recalling the stories heard from previous generations. Later I would find his name being mentioned by my great uncle Miguel in letters to my great grandfather Daniel Arcilla Romualdez. The earliest family correspondence mentioning Wood dates back to 1907, a year after Wood ended his stint as governor of Moro Province. In less than 20 years, Miguel would be appointed the sixth mayor of Manila (1924-1927) by no other than Wood, who had become governor general of the Philippines in 1921.

DECORATED SOLDIER The Medal of Seals worn by President Ferdinand E. Marcos, which of the seals of the provinces of the Philippines

Wood was somewhat of a polarizing figure not only in the US but in the Philippines as well. It was either you liked him or you didn’t. He instituted well received reforms in places like Cuba, where he served as governor from 1899 to 1902. From 1903 to 1906, Wood was assigned as governor to the Moro Province in the Philippines where, in the final days of his tenure, the Battle of Bud Dajo broke out. It is touted to be the “bloodiest engagement of the Moro Rebellion.” Hundreds of Bud Dajo died. Some say even a thousand were massacred by the Americans. There were only six Bud Dajo survivors.

In 1907, Wood became commander of the Philippine Division and based on the correspondence between my great grandfather Daniel Romualdez (who was a Justice of the Peace in Tacloban, Leyte from 1902 up to his death in 1909) with his sons, the Romualdez family had a very warm relationship with the Harvard trained doctor turned military man.

Wood went back to America in 1910 but returned to Manila in 1921 as governor general. He believed the Filipinos were not yet ready for independence, likening this desire to “Christians wanting to go to heaven… They all want to go there but not now.” History books also remember Wood for helping build the country’s economy, improving public health and sanitation sectors. He died in America in 1927.