Historical Sites Hiding In Plain Sight: 9 Examples Of Adaptive Reuse In The Philippines


Buildings can be rife with stories just waiting to be told. Manila, our very own concrete jungle where dreams are made of, is home to a lot of buildings that need more love.

Some heritage buildings have remained unused (like the Metropolitan Theater and the Philippine National Railway Paco Station) or even reduced to heaps of rubble (like the controversial Jai Alai Building and the Aduana Ruins). There are others that still somehow serve the same purpose, although they’re well past their heydays (such as the Times Theater and the Capitol Theater).

There are ways to make use of structurally sound buildings with purposes no longer relevant nor doable. This is called adaptive reuse, and these are some of the luckier buildings with new life breathed into them.

1. Luneta Hotel
T.M. Kalaw Ave., Ermita, Manila, circa 1918

This hotel was, at one point, called one of the most romantic spots in the world by US president Dwight Eisenhower. Spanish engineer-architect Salvador Farre designed the hotel in the style of French Renaissance architecture, with a blend of Filipino and Beaux-arts elements. High society, foreign dignitaries and World War II officers would have been a common sight in the hotel, until it closed in 1987.

Luneta hotel was in poor condition prior to its 7-year restoration efforts, with its foundations crumbling from neglect. It reopened in 2014 under new management, who chose to preserve the hotel’s former glory and improvise where furniture and foundations were unsalvageable. It currently bears a plaque from the National Historical Commission commemorating its historical significance.

The Luneta Hotel

414 TM Kalaw St., Ermita, Manila, Metro Manila

+63 2 875 8921


2. Casa Vallejo
Session Road, Baguio, circa 1909

The Casa Vallejo boutique hotel is one of the ten oldest institutions in Baguio city, with special recognition from the Baguio Centennial Commission. The hotel’s well-maintained facade betrays its history of having survived through WWII airstrikes and even its possible demolition. You can even say it’s older than the city itself — it was designed by Daniel Burnham and completed in 1909, a year before Baguio’s founding anniversary in 1910!

They sure know how to get with the times, though. With a hotel, restaurant, bookshop, cinematheque and spa, it remains to be one of Baguio’s most visited tourist attractions. Its location makes it easy to visit, as well. It’s at one of Baguio’s main roads, right across SM Baguio and walking distance from Burnham Park.

Casa Vallejo Hotel

111 Upper Session Road, Baguio, Benguet

+63 74 424 3397



3. National Museum
Ermita, Manila, circa 1926

The National Museum of Fine Arts, in particular, has an illustrious history. It used to be the Legislative Building, additionally housing a National Library on its ground floor. Defining moments in Philippine history happened in this very site. The 1934 Constitutional Convention was held in the building, and the inauguration of Manuel Quezon as President of the Commonwealth happened at its front steps.

The building had become a casualty in the Battle of Manila (1945) but was reconstructed the following year. The Senate no longer used the building in 1996, and by 2003 renovations were underway to transform it into the Art Gallery we now know–with Luna, Amorsolo, Hidalgo and many more under its wing. You can still visit the Old Senate Hall and marvel at its lavish neoclassical architecture.

The National Museum of Anthropology, in a separate building, is also an example of adaptive reuse. It used to be the Department of Finance, and now it is also a component museum of the National Museum. It houses important anthropological and archaeological finds that tell us about our past.

The Museum of Natural History is currently still under works, but the former Department of Tourism building will be used for this museum. This third component museum is expected to open to the public by 2017.

The National Museum of Fine Arts is at Taft Ave, Ermita, Manila, 1000 Metro Manila.
The National Museum of Anthropology can be found at P. Burgos St., Manila, Metro Manila.

4. Tutuban Mall
Tondo, Manila, circa 1892

Tutuban Mall, filled with bazaars, specialty shops, boutiques, restaurants and fast food chains, is arguably the center of activity in Divisoria. But it served a much different purpose before that — the mall used to be a Philippine National Railway (PNR) station.

Tutuban Mall

Tutuban Mall photo from Unasalahat

The mall was developed in 1988 by Prime Orion Group, and was given strict guidelines by the National Historical Commission to preserve its floors, high ceilings, walls and exteriors. The mall houses an old PNR train, as well as a pre-war building of the PNR.

Tutuban Mall is at Tondo, Manila, 1012 Metro Manila.

5. Museo Ilocos Norte
Laoag, circa 1800s

The Museo Ilocos Norte used to be a tabacalera: an old tobacco warehouse from the 19th century, designed by architect Jojo Mata. It’s one of a chain of identical warehouses, but its location (being next to the Ilocos Norte Provincial Capitol) secured the fate of this plainly designed brick warehouse into the future ethnographic museum of the province.

Museo Ilocos Norte

Museo Ilocos Norte photo from Flickr

It has since turned into Museo Ilocos Norte, the home of old tools, handicrafts and artifacts from all across the province.

You can visit the Museo Ilocos Norte at Gen. Luna St. cor. V. Llanes St., Laoag, Ilocos Norte.

6. Silay Ancestral Houses
Negros Occidental, circa 1900s

There are several lavish ancestral homes to behold in Silay City, put up by sugar barons in their golden age (from the late 18th-early 19th century). Ancestral houses like the Hilofileña House, Victor Fernandez Gaston House (Balay Negrense), and the Don Bernardino Jalandoni House have been converted to museums for the general public to enjoy. Many tourists have also taken to doing walking tours around the city.

Balay Negrense Museum

Photo from Kathleen T.’s looloo review for Balay Negrense Museum

Even the local bank is filled with history, as Republic Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC) purchased the Maria Ledesma Golez Ancestral House in 1992.

7. Subic’s Repurposed Bunkers
Subic, around 1950s

Subic is now currently a special economic zone and popular tourist destination, although there are very visible remnants of its history as a former American military base. For instance, the dense rainforests of the Subic Bay Freeport area were ideal for survival training. The former naval magazine area used to hold 50,000 tons of weapons, heavily guarded in hundreds of bunkers. Some of the bunkers have been repurposed into parts of Zoobic Safari, and in the past, into a restaurant.

Zoobic Safari

Photo from Mary Love S.’s looloo review for Zoobic Safari

Zoobic Safari, a popular safari attraction in the area, has turned the bunkers into animal exhibit venues. Instead of ammunition, the bunkers now house all kinds of snakes, as well as stuffed animals and their bones. The zoo also lets the Aetas, indigenous people of the area, live in the bunkers for shelter. They’re the same ones who show off their authentic Aeta dance moves in the Aetas Trail area.

Bunker Bob’s is no longer operational, but you can still see the quirky-looking bunker while making your way through Ilanin Road. It was run by a former officer of the US navy, and served seafood and mediterranean food.

Zoobic Safari can be found at Subic Bay Freeport Zone Group 1, Ilanin Forest, Subic Freeport Zone.

8. Casa Tesoro
Ermita, Manila, circa 1901

Casa Tesoro is a reminder of Ermita’s past, with a long story of its own. It was built during a time when Ermita was a secluded area for rich, landed folk to go on vacation. The house had become a vacation mansion, to an army HQ in the time of war, to a postal station, and a whole host of businesses. Current residents of the area are 1335 Mabini, a contemporary art gallery, and antique showrooms by Maria Closa and BAR.

Casa Tesoro

Photo of Casa Tesoro from Malate blog

The building is truly a union of old and new, with its colonial-style architecture contrasting with metropolitan Manila, as well as its antique displays clashing with experimental, contemporary art forms.

You can visit Casa Tesoro at 1335 A. Mabini Street Ermita, Manila.

9. Blackbird
Makati, circa 1937

The Manila National Airport has went from police station, to the Filipinas Heritage Library, to (currently) a posh restaurant. The building used to be a part of the Nielson Tower from the Manila International Airport, which they have taken a cue from for their aviation-themed restaurant.


Photo from Bea A.’s looloo review for Blackbird

Named after the SR-71 Blackbird (the fastest plane ever flown and commonly used as a spy plane), Chef Colin Mackay’s restaurant looks just as elegant, sleek and cutting-edge. The interior is decorated in a black and white theme, and guests are dressed to the nines to savor Blackbird’s contemporary European and Asian dishes.

Have a delectable evening at Blackbird, The Nielson Tower, Makati Ave., Ayala Triangle, Makati.

These are just some examples of adaptive reuse in the Philippines. These show us that there’s hope for our heritage buildings yet. The Metropolitan Theater (Ermita, Manila, circa 1931), for example, is on its fourth attempt at restoration and expected to be completed by 2017.

There are even more out there that don’t get the care and attention they deserve. Hopefully we can support our country’s heritage sites, just as they (literally) supported our ancestors with their foundations in their glory days.

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About Author

Rissa Coronel

Rissa writes around the place, reads in the car, and bleeds caffeine. She likes to think aloud on her Twitter (@rscrnl), or on her blog when 140 characters just don't cut it.