Up in smoke

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The TikTok generation will probably ask: what’s a stamp?

That will be the reaction to the loss of the priceless collection of antique and rare commemorative stamps that went up in smoke, literally, in the fire that razed the Manila Central Post Office from late Saturday night until Sunday morning.

The TikTok generation might care about the destruction of the National ID cards that were being readied for snail mail distribution. Those expecting official documents, registered mail and parcels, which must still be sent by traditional postal service, might also be worried.

As for those rare stamps, the Philippine Postal Corp. (PHLPost) has said these weren’t just the collection of the Central Post Office but the entire national stamp collection. That was part of our heritage that got torched in that inferno.

The building itself is a national heritage. Since its concrete shell survived the fire, it can and must be rebuilt, with the original neoclassical architecture designed by Tomas Mapua and Juan Arellano preserved, as it was rebuilt from the destruction in the World War II Battle of Manila.

Reconstruction, unfortunately, is going to be costly and will take time. And it’s unlikely to be given funding priority by the administration, which is warning of fiscal collapse from unsustainable military and uniformed personnel pensions (although funding for foreign junkets is bottomless). The country is already buried in P13.86 trillion debt as of end-March, over P1 trillion of which was incurred in the first nine months alone of Marcos 2.0.

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For the steep fire toll, there must be a serious effort to determine if negligence played a role in the conflagration. With the dramatic drop in the use of snail mail, was there also a weakening of official interest in protecting what’s housed in the Central Post Office?

Some quarters harbored more sinister suspicions, that the fire was deliberately set off and allowed to get out of control so the site, with its prime location, can be sold by the government for mixed-use commercial development.

Manila Mayor Honey Lacuna-Pangan has reassured the public that this isn’t going to happen to the site, which the National Museum had declared in 2018 as an “important cultural property” and by the National Historical Institute as a heritage zone.

The National Museum’s designation entitled the postal building to state funding for its protection, conservation and restoration. Where did the funding go?

The ugly speculations persist, because of details emerging that indicate failure to comply with fire safety standards in a structure that serves as a repository for highly combustible materials.

Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) personnel have said the building lacked water sprinklers – a basic requirement for all commercial establishments, so it must also be a requirement in government offices.

There was no fire alarm system, the BFP said. Were there night guards on duty? They must have been asleep in the pancitan when the fire roared across the basement where the mail and parcels were stored.

By the time the fire trucks began arriving – and that area teems with fire stations from neighboring districts – the fire was already raging. It quickly spread all the way to the fifth floor.

BFP personnel explained that the enclosed space trapped the heat and fanned the fire. The intense heat caused even the powerful bursts of water from the fire hoses to swiftly evaporate, and the fire trucks quickly ran out of their loads of water. The BFP said several trucks had to get water from the Pasig River and even the water fountains in Liwasang Bonifacio. It took 30 hours to declare the fire completely out.

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In other countries, places that hold important documents and precious artifacts are environment-controlled for temperature and light. This is the reason why flash photography is prohibited in exhibits of priceless artwork and antiquities.

After reconstruction, the government might want to turn over the postal building to the National Museum instead of PHLPost, which doesn’t deserve to be entrusted with heritage property. Museum personnel are expected to understand the importance of providing the appropriate environment for different types of objects.

At the same time, there must be a serious effort to identify old structures in Manila that deserve to be preserved or restored.

In many countries that I have visited, there are “old towns” or old quarters that have been preserved, and they are almost always top tourist draws. Old houses have been converted into lovely boutique hotels, quaint shops and restaurants that usually feature local fare. Property values in such enclaves are typically among the highest in the country.

China is dotted with such enchanting old villages. Even tiny Singapore, with hardly any land to spare, has preserved its colonial era shophouses amid its concrete jungle.

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In Manila, sadly, it has been a struggle to preserve anything even within Intramuros. The city is a microcosm of the unplanned, anything goes, kanya-kanya mindset that has characterized development all over the country. Compare Intramuros with the walled enclave in the Old Town of Cartagena in Colombia, and the way that old haunt of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been developed into a tourist destination, and you will be green with envy.

The Central Post Office, an imposing landmark that’s featured in postcards of Manila, could have served as a focal point for an Old Manila development that can include Binondo, portions of Sta. Cruz, Quiapo and San Miguel districts. (TikTok generation: what’s a postcard?) But it’s too late now for this.

Considering the cost of reconstruction, which the Government Service Insurance System says it can bankroll (if its assets aren’t forcibly included in the Maharlika fund), there are proposals to just turn over the postal building to the private sector – with the non-negotiable provision that its basic structure cannot be altered.

Proponents say the building can be converted into a neoclassical hotel, as Singapore has done with some of its colonial era government buildings, or a music hall. Similar proposals have been made to save and restore the old train station in Paco, Manila, whose concrete columns and platform remain intact.

The postal office inferno at least has ignited conversation on the need to protect heritage structures. Perhaps a preservation mindset can rise from the ashes of this disaster.


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