Not far from Manila, Taal is a rarity of a town. It ranks among the most preserved historical towns in the country. A distinction it shares with Vigan, Pila and Silay. Some argue that the preservation is far from satisfactory but I happen to believe otherwise. The manner of which the Taaleños had “reuse” their old ancestral house is one of the most adaptive cultural phenomena in our time.
Many Filipinos confuse Taal the town with the Volcano and its lake (Places that got its name from the once prestigious capital of the whole province). The same case for the town of Ba-y where the lake (Laguna de Ba-y) was named after – these details are lost in the minds of today’s generation. We have to rediscover these long forgotten towns as they’re integral in our cultural and historical journey. These old town’s contributed significantly to the development of our identity.
But this could be easier said than done, with our fast-phased life, its easy not to find the time.
Taaleños had put great effort and care in making their old town appear as it was during its heyday. And they’re not doing it for sentimental reasons but rather for the pride it brings home. The spirit of their great houses continues to guide them, they draw inspiration from its meaning and significance. These tangible links reminds visitors that the old traditions are alive in all things here and in all Taaleño.
Examples of these undying traditions are the presence of handcrafted balisongs and barong tagalog – Taal has long been considered to be one of the best source of this regional dress. Food stalls that sell what could probably be the best (and thickest broth!) “lomi” in the country can be found in the towns public market. The Taal’s coffee industry (peaked in the 1800’s) was once a giant industry – sadly, it suffered from “peste” and never recovered. And not to be forgotten are the religious festivals. The one in Caysasay (known for its fluvial parade) is the biggest and grandest in town.
“Must see” houses in Taal begins with the Felipe Agoncillo’s white washed house. The descendants of the first foreign secretary had magnificently restored the two storey house and is open for the public. A bronze monument (dressed as a European styled lanky gentleman) for its illustrious owner stands in its front garden.
A stone throw away from Felipe Agoncillo’s house is the ancestor house of the Ylagan-de la Rosa. This was the house of a popular lawyer and educator in the late 19th century. The Ylagan’s were prominent member of Taal’s rich society during the early 19th century. Maria Ylagan Orosa, the eminent scientist and war hero who invented banana ketchup (my favorite ketchup!), soyamilk, palayok oven and pineapple vinegar among other things came from this illustrious family. The renaissance woman died during the war.
Agoncillo’s beautiful wife’s ancestral house is now under NHI custody and has been a museum for some time. Her role in our history – simple yet iconic – she helped sew the flag (in Hong Kong) that was raised in Cauit . Her house (built by her parents and could probably be the oldest in town) also had a small bust bronze monument in her honor.
In the house of the Doña Gliceria Marella de Villavicencio, a brightly painted casa reminiscent of Mexican homes, one can find a simple monument of a lady that donated her family’s wealth to the revolution. A trading ship of her family is considered to be the first ship in our navy. An excellent illustration of the old Taaleños’ unselfish commitment for their country.
Another house, now also a museum (also administered by the NHI), is Casa Apacible. Another Rizal kin and a delegate in the Malolos convention. A ranking mason who opened his house for masonic and revolutionary meetings during the critical years of the revolution – one could just imagine what important decisions were made inside his house (or is it possible that the hombres were just hanging around drinking cerveza negra!).
Taal is a symbol of survival and determination. The original location of the town was said to be closer to the volcano. A major eruption changed all that. The missionaries took their town and church a little further downstream. This was when communities were attached to the religion that united them. A strong earthquake leveled the town but was again it was rebuilt by its resilient missionaries and people.
Their Basilica, San Martin de Pours, the biggest in the country and is considered to be the largest in Asia is an awe-inspiring sight. Not to many people know that it took a century to finish, after the original was destroyed by the volcano eruption of 1754. The massive basilica built on the hill must be seen to be appreciated – I could not put in words the effect seeing it had on me. The whole place looks like it was built by giants!
This is the Taal of the old, everything was possible!
Near this massive church is the original escuela pia of Taal that was administered by the missionaries. I was delighted to see it restored (though it appears to be a reconstruction) These schools are historic monuments of the forgotten Spanish educational system that precedes the American public schools in the Philippines.
One of the students of Taal’s escuela pia is Ananias Diokno, whose house can be found a little further down the main road. The house is now a gym and and could very well be “in danger” as it appears to be not properly maintained.
Sadly, there are casualties along the way and they are growing in number. Some houses had fallen in disuse and are no longer habitable. There was even one that is for sale (how can we put a price tag on a century old house?). A camarin had been left to rot and there were quite a few houses that had been taken down. These are realities that are happening in almost all old towns, that is why we have to be thankful to those remaining families that took the initiative to preserve their ancestral houses. Without them, Taal would have been another soulless town.
There is no perfect approach in heritage preservation, in most cases there must be creativity, but the most effective option is to continue utilizing them with respect and pride. If the houses continue to be relevant and useful, the more likely it would be spared from destruction and new construction. Many owners would say it is far more economical disposing these houses than maintaining them. An attitude that presents a great threat to existing heritage structures. The key here is that we promote architectural reuse in order to avoid situations like the one that happened to Binan’s oldest house.
But like what Batman said to Robin, “greed is an overpowering emotion”. It dems all the senses – most especially the “historical sense”, if there ever is such a sense for those who destroy their ancestral houses for profit.