Time stood still amidst the hustle and bustle of downtown traffic of modernity. Decades old establishments still stand against the test of time, reflecting the glorious days of commerce and trade of what was then, the Queen City of the South.
From its humble beginnings as a fishing community along the swampy riverside, Iloilo grew up to be one of Philippine's premier cities when in 1855, the Spanish colonial government opened the sea port of Iloilo to international trade, and with the introduction of modern sugar farming by the British Vice-Consul Nicolas Loney. Calle Real is the manifestation of Iloilo's glorious past. The street itself is a museum of old edifices that survived the onslaught of war, elements and time.
Old establishments still stand up to this very moment, still vibrant with commercial and vehicular traffic. JM Basa Street (and also Iznart St.), or known popularly as Calle Real is referred as the "Escolta" of Iloilo City. Named "Calle Real" or "Royal Street", it spans from Plaza Alfonso XII (now known as Plaza Libertad) all the way to Plazoleta Gay and the location of commercial establishments, the Casa Real (Iloilo Provincial Capitol) as well as the residences of the Ilonggo elite.
Reclaimed from the swamps, the street became the central business district since the opening of the city to international trade, it has experienced construction boom while riding along with the economic reaping of harvest from the sugar trade. Most of the commercial and residential establishments are of one or two-story buildings which display European and American of the late 19th and early 20th century influence such as art-nouveau, art-deco, baroque, Venetian-inspired or platoresque. The first levels are used as shops or stores and the second level are used as either offices but mostly as residential spaces.
Most of the heritage buildings were constructed during the late Spanish colonial era all the way to the 1930’s, which made this street the shopping district and a center for commerce and entertainment of the region. The first department store in the region is also located here which was owned by an Englishman Henry Hoskyn, nephew of Nicholas Loney.
The Elizalde and Company building, which is now the City Hall Annex, used to sell foodstuffs and benefited from the sugar trade, manifested its plateresque architecture with the usual balay-nga-bato feature of stone walls in the first level and wood in the second level of the establishment. Cine Palace (1928) and Cine Eagle, which are, located just a few meters away from Plaza Libertad, were once the witnesses to bodabil, theatrical plays and movies, one of the most modern cinemas outside Manila during the early 20th century.
The Masonic Temple on the other hand was once Iloilo Lodge No. 11 was finished in 1928 that faced the Catholic Church of San Jose de Placer across Plaza Libertad and it was made a headquarters of the Japanese Imperial forces for Iloilo.
On the southern end of Calle Real lies Plaza Libertad, formerly known as Plaza Alfonso XII. Surrounded by the old buildings such as the Masonic Temple, Lacson Ancestral House, the ruins of Botica Lacson and Iglesia de San Jose de Placer, it has been the witness of the dusk of the Spanish power in Asia as the last Spanish Governor General Diego de los Rios surrendered to the Ilonggo revolutionaries led by General Martin Delgado in Christmas Day 1898. Iloilo was the last Spanish colonial capital in the Philippines after they have surrendered Manila to the Americans in August 1898.
On the northern end of the street are the Casa Real (Royal House) or the Iloilo Provincial Capitol and Arroyo Fountain. The former was built from wood and stone in 1840, which features Greek columns dominate the facade. The once flagpole in front of the Casa Real was torn down in 1927 to give way to Arroyo Fountain, with its caryatids carrying a basin with fish gargoyles that sprout water. The fountain was dedicated to Senator Jose Maria Arroyo who created the Iloilo Metropolitan Water Works.
Commonwealth-era establishments lined up not just the main street of Calle Real, but also its branches of Aldeguer, Iznart and Guanco Streets. The Public Market of Iloilo for example displays predominantly of art deco in design. But damages from wear and tear of the time, World War II, the great earthquake of 1948 and the the big conflagration in the downtown area has left the old buildings to be neglected, mismanaged and left to decay. In April 2000, the Local Cultural Conservation Ordinance was enacted by the City Government of Iloilo to prevent further destruction of heritage sites in the city, preservation of the establishments and to be reused again for commercial, tourism, educational or institutional functions.
The ICCHCC or Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council is the overseer of the heritage conservation efforts in the Calle Real area. Today, educating the citizens and efforts from the building owners themselves for preserving or restoration the cultural heritage structures of the establishments has been gradually being implemented. As these old edifices of art and labor stands mute against time and the noise of the city, the edifices of Calle Real has shared its experiences with the Ilonggo people, from the glories to tragedies. The legacies that the old Iloilo left, reminded every Ilonggos of its regal past and its contribution to history of the Filipino people.
Acknowledgement to Center for West Visayan Studies (UP Visayas), Prof. Henry Funtecha and Prof. Melanie Padilla, Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council, Mr. Butch Peñalosa, Mr. Scott Sarria and Museo Iloilo.
This article was originaly published at Cebu Daily News in May 2007.