The tragedy of Bahay Alberto
MANILA, Philippines - In the 1800s, it was hard to miss the Alberto mansion in Biñan, Laguna.
Aside from being large and stately, it stood right beside the town plaza which tells everyone who listened to his or her Philippine history class that the Albertos were a prominent family.
For sure, they were wealthy; but as the decades rolled on, they became prominent in a different way.
The Albertos count national hero Dr Jose Rizal among their progeny and no less than his mother, Teodora Alonso, grew up in the Alberto house.
Rizal himself spent a year of his youth in the ancient bahay na bato while studying at a nearby private school.
Fast forward to today and the mansion is still hard to miss.
This, however, is not due to its stateliness and grandeur.
The roof has all but completely caved in, exposing its gutted insides to the cruel elements. Below lies an avalanche of wood and metal totally laying waste to rooms where Rizal may have slept, studied or eaten a hearty breakfast.
The once gorgeous ventanillas hang precariously by rusty hinges, some lie shattered on the ground below amidst broken pieces of capiz. In truth, the house can come crashing down any moment due to its decayed foundations.
A monument of our national history, a relic from our hero’s past is now an eyesore.
In 2011, the Biñan local government pulled together P20-M supposedly to expropriate the house so that restoration efforts could begin.
But this came to nothing because of the lack of response from Gerardo Alberto, owner of the mansion.
Yet Alberto has just sold the house to real estate developer Jose “Jerry” Acuzar, owner of New San Jose Builders. It was Acuzar’s company who gutted the Bahay Alberto, taking its original wooden planks, doors and stairs to his resort in Bagac, Bataan.
Those who can afford the steep room rates in the Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar Heritage Resort get to spend a night in glorious replicas of Spanish-period mansions.
But the “replicas” are more than that.
They are, in fact, the real houses themselves, transplanted from their original locations in Escolta, Binondo, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija and Bulacan, among others.
It is said that the Alberto house is set to be the newest addition to this collection; so while the original house languishes in Biñan to the dismay of locals who have considered it a local landmark, its spruced up clone in Bataan will house the wealthy.
Wrong idea of restoration
Jerry Acuzar has incurred the wrath of many heritage advocates who condemn his version of “restoration.”
Uprooting the house from its original location takes it away from the residents of the locale who could have benefited from the structure had it been restored. The house could potentially stimulate local tourism and add to the idiosyncratic charm of the town.
Heritage advocates lament the fate of the other heritage houses that have become part of Acuzar’s collection.
They believe that far from a sincere effort to bring back built heritage to the people, Acuzar is merely “restoring” them to generate profits for himself. Now, to see these houses, one has to pay P650, the entrance fee of the resort.
How has it come to this?
In many parts of the world, the sad condition of the Alberto house is unthinkable.
In Paris, it is a crime to destroy mere mouldings on walls and ceilings. In Amsterdam, buildings bear plaques indicating what year they were built so that people would know they are not supposed to vandalize or damage any part of them.
Yet in the Philippines, we treat our built heritage like garbage, or worse, as commodities that can be hoarded for selfish reasons.
In 2009, the National Cultural Heritage Act was signed into law, stating that structures at least 50 years old are to receive special protection from the government.
The Alberto house is more than 200 years old.
According to the law, such buildings cannot be demolished without a permit from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts or National Historical Institute. As national cultural treasures, they are entitled to such privileges as “priority government funding for protection, conservation and restoration.”
Based on the same law, there should be a Conservation Incentive Program that encourages private individuals to restore and maintain such structures. The law further commands that an official heritage marker be placed by the “cultural agency concerned” to indicate that the “immovable cultural property has been identified as a national historical site.”
If there are already such good laws in place, how can we explain the decay and abandonment of Bahay Alberto?
Can we save it?
Rizal is probably rolling in his grave.
How disappointed would he be if he knew that today, the countrymen he died for have allowed the near-destruction of his mother’s home?
At this point, it seems Biñan’s local government has exhausted all means to try and get back the house from Acuzar.
Heritage advocates and Biñan residents believe that only President Benigno Aquino III can turn the tide. He can empower the National Historical Commission of the Philippines to restore and repair the house.
There is only one foreseeable hurdle: Jerry Acuzar is a close friend of the President’s and is said to be among his campaign financiers.
But if enough concerned citizens lobby for Bahay Alberto, if enough people make noise and demand that this ancient structure be given back to the people, then perhaps President Aquino will make the right decision. - Rappler.com
Pia Ranada is a member of the youth arm of the Heritage Conservation Society. The United Artists for Cultural Conservation and Development (UACCD) has launched an online petition to save Bahay Alberto.