This School By the Sea Has Front-Row Seats to a Poetic Dumaguete Morning

It is also the home of the oldest creative-writing program in Asia.

by Alain Zedrick Camiling
Sep 28, 2019

(SPOT.ph) For most of us, heading to class means going up a flight of stairs or taking an elevator to the nth floor, and getting stuck for hours inside the four walls of the classroom. But for the students of Silliman University in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental, walking to school gives them a great excuse to enjoy "the unsurpassed drama of a Dumaguete morning from the sea"—the same words spoken by Dr. David Sutherland Hibbard, founder of this American institution, while on his way to Negros Island from Cebu. 

It doesn't come as a surprise that this is also the home of the oldest creative writing program in Asia and the first national writers workshop in the Philippines. Imagine all the poems, stories, and plays penned by writers from all over the country after a couple of weeks listening to the crashing of the waves on the boardwalk.

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The First American University in Asia

With the number of islands that the Philippines has, you'd think that we have every opportunity to build a school by the sea. But it took one Dr. Horace B. Silliman—a retired businessman from New York—to make this dream come true.

In Silliman University, people just walk from one place to another since buildings are close to each other. The campus itself is like a big compound of structures strategically placed at each specific location alongside lush greenery.
PHOTO BY AZ Camiling
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In 1899, he thought of building an industrial school in the Philippines, and donated U.S. $10,000 to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. Dr. David Sutherland Hibbard and his wife, Laura, took on the challenge, and scouted the provinces of Cebu, Zamboanga, and Iloilo as possible locations. The couple took a side-trip to Negros and immediately fell in love with Dumaguete.

Hibbard Hall commemorates Dr. and Mrs. David Hibbard, founders of Silliman University. PHOTO: AZ Camiling

Silliman Institute was finally established on August 28, 1901 with funding from Dr. Silliman until 1907. The school was granted university status in 1938.

It stood the test of time—including periods of unrest in Philippine history, including the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945 and the Martial Law declaration in 1972. Both left marks in Silliman’s history as local communities were forced to leave the hallowed halls of the university and migrate to various places across the province.

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During the war, professors from Silliman would teach in the community school in Mt. Malabo, which is located in the nearby town of Valencia—a "jungle university," as they say. When Martial Law was proclaimed, Silliman University was mandated for closure and was one of the last academic institutions to be given permission to reopen. While many faculty members and students were detained by the Philippine Constabulary, those who were left proved that nothing can stop the Silliman community. They found home for their "secret campus" at the basement of the University Church, in a room named the Catacombs.

In 2002, Silliman University was given the distinction of National Landmark by the National Historical Institute for its contributions in Philippine history.

Silliman University Church’s beginnings are rooted from 1899 when American protestants came to the country. The area in front serves as amphitheater for various occasions and events. PHOTO: AZ Camiling

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Housing a preserved heritage

Almost two decades on and the university’s first building completed in 1903 still stands. Silliman Hall on the southeastern part of the boulevard is the oldest standing American structure in the Philippines and employs an Eastern Stick style, which is characterized by decorative sticks (thus the name), vertical movement, and a sense of fragility because of its wooden materials. Some of its parts, including the steel columns, ceiling moldings, and tiles, came from the debris of an old theater in New York. While inspired by foreign architecture, Silliman Hall is still deeply rooted in the style of the Filipino bahay-na-bato. Its walls were made from coral stones and windows from capiz shells.

The Silliman Hall now houses the university's Fine Arts department on its second floor.
PHOTO BY AZ Camiling
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View of the boulevard from the second floor of Silliman Hall
PHOTO BY AZ Camiling

Its first floor was initially used as the country’s first Protestant church, while the third floor was originally a dormitory. Late Philippine president Carlos P. Garcia was a dormitory resident at Silliman Hall during his high school years from 1916 to 1918.

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Silliman Hall was built with capiz windows, following the traditional bahay-na-bato of early times.
PHOTO BY AZ Camiling

Its walls were made from coral stones.
PHOTO BY AZ Camiling
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By 1906, what used to be the Office of the President was turned into a library. An expansion was built in 1909. During the Japanese occupation, Silliman Hall served as headquarters and detention center. While parts of the building were destroyed by the war, members of the alumni funded its restoration. In the' 60s, the building was the home of the College of Business Administration; and by 1970, it was turned into the university’s Anthropology Museum—which was transferred to Hibbard Hall in 2015. Silliman Hall now houses the university’s Fine Arts department on its second floor.

The Silliman University Bell was donated by the New York’s Women Foreign Mission Board in 1918. It served the community for 70 years. 
PHOTO BY AZ Camiling
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On the other side of the campus is Hibbard Hall, which was constructed in the early 1930s. It now houses the university’s Anthropology Museum where they keep a huge collection of various anthropological artifacts in the country. These range from daily objects and instruments used by our ancestors. The museum is located at the second floor of the hall. Entrance is at P200.

The next time you're in Dumaguete City or even in nearby Bacolod City, spend some time in this university town. Walk down the boulevard that inspires our most brilliant writers, artists, and even a president of the Philippines.

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