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Lessons should be learned from post office tragedy


ALONG with all Filipinos who have an appreciation of our nation’s heritage, we were shocked and saddened by the near-destruction by fire of the grand Manila Central Post Office building early

Monday. Postmaster General Luis Carlos and government officials were one in reassuring the public that the nearly century-old neoclassical structure will be fully restored as quickly as possible, and that is encouraging. That effort, however, will best benefit the country if it includes a reassessment of the ways in which historical buildings and areas are conserved and used.

Members of the Bureau of Fire Protection continue their clearing operations at the Manila Central Post Office on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. PHOTO BY MIKE ALQUINTO

The post office is one of the largest buildings in Central Manila and was designed by the famed duo of National Artist Juan Arellano and the Philippines’ first registered architect Tomas Mapua based on Daniel Burnham’s original plan for the layout of the city of Manila. The post office, which was located next to the Pasay River for easy access by mail boats, was completed in 1926. The building was nearly destroyed in the brutal Battle of Manila in 1945 but was quickly restored and reopened in 1946. Besides being the headquarters of the Philippine Postal Corp. (PHLPost), the post office is a popular tourist site, and houses a small museum of the post office’s history, artifacts that were sadly destroyed by the inferno.

In a sad irony, the fire struck one of the country’s most iconic — and, sad to say, relatively few well-preserved historical structures — during National Heritage Month, which the country marks in May each year.

In the wake of the disaster, Manila Mayor Maria Sheilah “Honey” Lacuna-Pangan promised that the post office would be restored exactly as it was before the fire, as it was designated an “important culture property” by the National Museum in 2018, and lies in an “institutional zone” according to city law, which guarantees restoration of the building and prohibits construction of other establishments or infrastructure in the area.

That is all well and good, but those kinds of legal protections for historically or culturally significant buildings and sites are relatively rare, particularly in Manila. Over the years, dozens of buildings and even entire blocks that ought to have been preserved have been destroyed or destructively encroached upon for commercial development goals; the problem has been acutely felt in the old Binondo and Quiapo areas of the city, for example. While it is true that not every “old” building can or should be saved for various reasons, the application of conservation assessment guidelines is haphazard at best, with many parts of the city’s heritage being lost due to a lack of attention.

Historic preservation examples

In this regard, Manila and the other cities in the National Capital Region should take some guidance from areas outside the capital, where historic preservation in a manner that does not impede progress seems to be handled much more effectively. The city of Vigan in Ilocos Sur and Bohol province are familiar examples, and there are many others. Conservation guidelines and regulations need to be reassessed and corrected where needed to make their parameters clearer, and their enforcement more consistent.

Another lesson from the post office fire is that the safe and sustainable use of historic buildings and their emergency management plans need to be improved. So far as is known at the time of this writing, there is nothing to suggest that the fire was anything but a tragic accident, but one thing that stands out about the disaster is how quickly it happened. Post office employees in the building called for help as soon as they detected smoke from the fire, and there are at least two fire stations nearby — one at Arroceros, which is a mere 300 meters from the Manila Central Post Office, and one in Intramuros near Manila Cathedral, less than a kilometer away — and yet by the time the first firefighters arrived, the entire structure was ablaze and nothing could be saved. That should not have happened, and it does not seem to be the fault of the Bureau of Fire Protection. Investing in safety systems and better emergency response in historic structures and other important public buildings is critical for preventing such a disaster from occurring again.

Credit belongs to : www.manilatimes.net

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