The Fascinating Stories Behind Malate's Architectural Gems

Rediscover the historic structures that define this district.

PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu

(SPOT.ph) Most Generation X folks who grew up in the 1990s remember Malate as a bohemian enclave of cool bars and cafés—a memory that would leave Generation Y and Z scratching their heads now. But the real Malate goes back further than this. 

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Apa Ongpin, an editor and a keeper of sorts of Malate’s oral history, gives us a background of the district. “Malate was originally a small fishing village, whose only noticeable features during the Spanish era were the Malate Church and the outpost of Fort San Antonio de Abad,” he says. “During the American era, the government developed Malate into a suburb, laying out gridded streets running exactly North-South and East-West, with a large rotunda (today’s Remedios Circle) in the center. The advent of the automobile and the bus made Malate a viable residential proposition.” 

Says editor Apa Ongpin of the future of Malate, which now has soaring property values and high-rise buildings: “It can still evolve into something new and potentially desirable, but only if some kind of zoning is exercised. It will never be the quiet suburban district that it was.”
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Malate’s single-family homes have since been replaced with high-rises and commercial buildings. But with the recent discovery of war heroine Maria Orosa’s grave marker at the Malate Catholic School, others are remembering its historical importance. Take a closer look at these 10 interesting spots you can find in Malate area.

Check out these 10 places in Malate with fascinating stories to tell: 

M.H. Del Pilar Street

Rajah Sulayman Park
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Start at the heart of the district at Malate Church along M.H. Del Pilar, which is fronted by Rajah Sulayman Park, Roxas Boulevard beyond it, and Manila Bay. 

Our Lady of Remedies Parish (Malate Church)

Heritage writer Glenn Martinez describes Malate Church (Our Lady of Remedies Parish) as the heart of the district.
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Martinez relates that the church stands on the location of the original church of the 1600s, and this church and its convent were taken over by British soldiers in 1762.
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Malate Church is one of the few remaining Spanish Colonial structures in the district, and dates back to 1864 (with its previous two churches erected in 1591 and 1680). It was burned during World War II, and restored in 1950. Heritage writer Glenn Martinez says that it is one of the most important spots in Malate and describes it in his blog: “Father Pedro Galende describes the façade of the church [as a blend] of Muslim and Baroque architecture. ‘The solid, compact, dark stone structure is enhanced by cylindrical end buttresses, a few openings, and an overall ornateness of design.’” 

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Our Lady of Remedies Parish is at 2000 M.H. Del Pilar Street, Malate, Manila City. 

North Sy-Quia Apartments

North Sy-Quia Apartments (affectionately called “No-Sy” by its tenants) is the only remaining structure of the five heritage apartments in the area. Its original architect is disputed. “Though my bet for North Sy-Quia is Fernando Ocampo, because the building features internal light and air wells, which he also put in Angela Apartments,” says Ongpin.
PHOTO BY Rachelle Medina
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Ongpin, who lived in the North Sy-Quia Apartments from 1991 to 2009, cites the building, along with the South Sy-Quia, Michel, Angela, and Carmen Apartments (the latter four have been vacated or demolished), as important pre-war structures in Malate. “Built in 1938, it was the first of the Sy-Quia family’s three ‘high-rise’ buildings, and contained the first private elevator in the Philippines, made by Otis [and still working],” he says of North Sy-Quia.  

“The original architect was either Fernando Ocampo or Pablo Antonio; descendants of both families claim that they designed the Sy-Quia Apartments. While North Sy-Quia has many Art Deco details, it is more modern. It continues to operate as the oldest rental apartment, and over the years has hosted a lively community of diverse personalities, many of them artistic, such as BenCab and Annie Sarthou, and [the late] Carlos Celdran.” 

North Sy-Quia Apartments is at 1991 M.H. Del Pilar Street, Malate, Manila City. 

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Marcela Agoncillo House

From Malate Church, walk towards your left. Along M.H. Del Pilar Street—across North-Syquia Apartments and the boarded-up Grand Boulevard Hotel—you will see the humble family home of Marcela Agoncillo. The pre-war home (with post-war modifications) was where Agoncillo spent some of her final years before her death in Taal in 1946.
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Most of us are familiar with the Agoncillo House in Taal, Batangas, which was the home of the Mother of the Philippine Flag. But heritage enthusiast Martinez points to another Agoncillo house that you could check out after visiting Malate Church. It is now a placement agency office and a laundromat, and it was her family’s home in Manila post-exile, where she and her remaining children endured the hardships of World War II. You can’t go inside, but you can read the heritage marker that identifies it. 

Marcela Agoncillo House is at M.H. Del Pilar Street, across North Sy-Quia, Malate, Manila City. 

Roxas Boulevard

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Malate district, which includes a whopping 57 barangays, stretches across part of the Bay Walk facing Manila Bay, as well as a portion of the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex. 

Metropolitan Museum of Manila 

The massive adobe and aggregate-clad façade of the Metropolitan Museum fronting Roxas Boulevard was designed by Gabriel Formoso to allude to the 500-year-old Fort San Antonio de Abad right next to it. Public access to the fort is currently not allowed.
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Located at the headquarters of the Central Bank of the Philippines is the Metropolitan Museum, one of the major museums in Metro Manila. Architect Lor Calma designed the minimalist interiors of the Tall Galleries, which is used to exhibit contemporary art. The structure, with its fortress-like, adobe-clad walls, was designed by architect Gabriel Formoso to blend with the Spanish Colonial-era Fort San Antonio de Abad behind it, which is closed to the public. “Fort San Antonio de Abad is like a micro-Intramuros, but all walls, with cannon emplacements, proved to be spectacularly useless during the British invasion of Manila on September 24, 1762, when the British overran and captured it in a couple of hours,” Ongpin says about this forgotten fort.

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Metropolitan Museum of Manila is at Roxas Boulevard corner P. Ocampo Street, open Monday to Saturday; or visit their website

Ramon Magsaysay Center

Inaugurated in 1967, the Ramon Magsaysay Center was once the tallest building in Malate. There is a massiveness but also a lightness to the building’s design, as the 18-storey tower stands on a central block surrounded by 12 pillars.
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The colonnaded area and marble-floored plaza are open to the public, with a pavilion that is used for wedding receptions and parties.
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Inaugurated in 1967, the Ramon Magsaysay Center is one of the finest mid-century modern structures in Malate. The building, which holds the offices of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, was designed by Alfredo J. Luz and Associates with architect Ruben Payumo as project manager. The 18-storey tower on 12 pillars clad in travertine marble, all made to withstand the salty air from Manila Bay. Its colonnaded area acts as a wonderful breezeway, and extends to an outdoor plaza that is open to the public. 

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Ramon Magsaysay Center is at Quintos Street corner Roxas Boulevard, Malate, Manila City. 

Pablo Ocampo Jr. Street

The façade of the Rizal Memorial Coliseum
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Many still refer to P. Ocampo Jr. Street’s original name—Vito Cruz—as the street of prominent Philippine families. Today, it is lined with schools and important landmarks. 

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Rizal Memorial Sports Complex

Dr. Gerard Lico renovated and restored the 85-year-old Rizal Memorial Coliseum with ME Sicat Construction in a matter of just five months in time for the Southeast Asian Games in 2019. “It is the biggest example of Art Deco design in the area,” says Ivan Man Dy of its historical relevance.
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This Art Deco porthole-window was covered up in a wall in recent years, and its existence was only discovered through archival photos, according to Dr. Lico. 
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Other original details that were retained include the brass Art Deco stair railings, the floor, and the architectural mouldings.
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Art Deco Philippines founder Ivan Man Dy’s must-see architectural gem in Malate is the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex. “Mainly because it is the biggest Art Deco building in the area, it is very accessible to the public, and also because of what architect Gerard Lico did in terms of its restoration in 2019 for the Southeast Asian Games,” he says. National Artist Juan Arellano designed it in 1934 and it is the only Art Deco coliseum in Southeast Asia. Man Dy, who holds Art Deco tours for Old Manila Walks, also cites important features, such as the Visitor Center in the main lobby that shows the history of the coliseum, and a sports museum within the complex.

Rizal Memorial Sports Complex is at M. Adriatico Street corner P. Ocampo Street, Malate, Manila City.

Orchid Garden Suites Manila

P. Ocampo, formerly Vito Cruz Street, was considered the posh “Park Avenue address” in pre-war Manila. The Villareal Mansion was one of those homes, now adaptively reused as Orchid Garden Suites. The gated main house is used for public areas such as the hotel lobby and swimming pool, and in spite of this, still has a residential feel to it.
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The Legarda family home next to Orchid Garden Suites has been renovated to become Café Alicia, the hotel’s restaurant. Guests can have their meals in the sunny breakfast room or in the stately, navy-blue panelled wall formal dining rooms.
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This boutique hotel was designed by National Artist Pablo Antonio in the 1930s as the mansion of Supreme Court Justice Antonio Villareal. Overlooking what was once Harrison Park (now the defunct Harrison Plaza), it was one of the many luxurious houses along that street. Converted into a 91-room hotel in 1995, the main house, which serves as the hotel lobby, retains its pre-war façade and delicate Art Deco window grilles. In 2014, the hotel acquired the adjacent, 1935-built Legarda house, which they converted it into Café Alicia. It is a fantastic example of adaptive reuse, and is so charming you tend to forget the multi-story hotel building behind it. 

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Orchid Garden Suites Manila is at 620 P. Ocampo Street, Malate, Manila City. Visit their website.

De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde - School of Design and Arts

Ed Calma’s design of the School of Design and Arts’ 14-storey building was initially part of a design contest. The complicated but dramatic façade holds a 558-seat theatre, state-of-the-art educational equipment, and a museum inside it.
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Ed Calma’s 2007 modernist marvel unfolds like a silver sculpture along narrow Ocampo Street. Students and teachers describe using the building as “an experience.” Visual artist and School of Design and Arts (SDA) multimedia professor Jeryc Garcia relates: “I always love getting lost in the numerous pocket spaces that the irregular shape of the SDA building creates. You can turn a corner or enter a series of doors and suddenly you’re in a bright open-air space, or in a small stairwell where your sense of up or down gets messed up.” Don’t forget to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design on its ground floor. 

De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde - School of Design and Arts is at 950 Ocampo Street, Malate, Manila City.

San Andres Area and Remedios Circle

Remedios Circle
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San Andres is a small district that borders Malate and Paco. Remedios Circle, on the other hand, is the location of a former cemetery, that has since been converted into a public plaza. 

San Antonio de Padua Parish

Located right next to the Saint Anthony School, the mid-century modern San Antonio de Padua Parish shows subtle Gothic revival influences in its vaulted ceiling, wooden panelling, and exterior, according to Dr. Lico.
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A look at the church's vaulted ceiling. 
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This church, located on the border of Malate, is a simple but elegant example of mid-century ecclesiastical architecture. Architect and heritage expert Dr. Gerard Lico explains that its details show subtle Gothic influences, as seen in the wood panelling and vaulted ceiling—no surprise there, as its architect was Carlos Santos-Viola, who designed the Iglesia ni Cristo churches. “However, the original belfry was toppled by the 1990 earthquake and was replaced soon after,” says Lico. Further renovations were made by Dominic Galicia, the architect of Saint Alphonsus Parish in Magallanes Village. 

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San Antonio de Padua Parish is at 2126 San Andres Street, Malate, Manila City.

Café Adriatico

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Cap your Malate tour with a cup of tsokolate eh in the cozy Filipino interiors of Café Adriatico, arguably Remedios Circle’s most famous restaurant. Its opening in 1980 by the late Larry J. Cruz is credited as influential in creating a café culture in the country, and in transforming Remedios Circle into an area of fine restaurants. “The early '90s saw a huge revival of Malate, which I later wrote about in a book called Malate, commissioned by Larry J. Cruz, who was responsible in no small part for the renaissance of the district,” Ongpin recalls.   

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Café Adriatico is at M. Adriatico Street, Malate, Manila City. For more information, visit their website.

As interesting as the district is, Ongpin can’t help but long for Malate in its heyday, and hope for something better. “The Malate I knew is fast disappearing, betrayed by increased density and choked by traffic. The biggest crime for me is the tearing down of the heritage buildings. It is eviscerating the district, destroying its soul,” he says. 

“Once in a while, we visit North Sy-Quia to see our old neighbors, many of whom we still count as lifelong friends. I have good Malate memories, and will have them until the day I die.”  

Rachelle Medina is a licensed interior designer, heritage enthusiast, and the former editor-in-chief of Real Living. She spends her free time exploring museums and decaying old buildings. Follow Rachelle's adventures on Instagram @goldosmom.

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