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Laguna Travel Guide - Ancestral house in Pila is showcase of a vanished era

Ancestral house in Pila is showcase of a vanished era

By Glenna Aquino
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Now, Cora Relova and her kin are making it thrive in the present
PILA, LAGUNA IS A SMALL town, ideal in its commercial and human proportions, where children walk to school and play in the grassy town plaza, and where townspeople stop and talk to each other on the street.

Sure of itself and of its place in the past and the present, the Corazon Rivera house on the corner of Bursagom and Rivera Streets doesn’t hide behind stone walls. Built in the mid-1920s, during a period described by Nick Joaquin as “the lingering afternoon of Spanish culture,” the two-story house and the 35 other houses and structures surrounding it are a living archive first of the Spanish Colonial town plan for the Indies, and then the American Commonwealth building style.

From 1935 on was a period that gave a new twist to architectural styles, from the massive stone-based bahay-na-bato to the use of more Philippine hardwoods and cement. Houses built were suitable to the climate and provided comfort and respite from the tropical heat.

A 10-year transitional period in Philippine history from 1935-1945, during which the Philippines was preparing for independence from America, the Commonwealth era was a time of nationalistic fervor and new ideas. The religion and lifestyle were inherited from the Spanish, and blended with the indigenous folkways and traditions, while the youth learned to boogie and listen to American jazz.


The main entrance of the Rivera house features an L-shaped canopied granolithic staircase that leads to a landing before the main door. The house itself has no big design statement, except maybe for the general feeling of airiness because of its wide-glass paned windows and high ceiling.

It’s like the house has no walls. It is so well-ventilated. Typical of houses from this period, it has no interior hallways, and its residents can just move from room to room. Bedrooms open to the sala or living room. The house is suffused with a feeling of graciousness and hospitality. The floors are hardwood, and the facade and interiors have planar decorative Art Deco or Art Nouveau treatments. The sidings on both floors are wood.

The furniture is the accumulation of generations: a hundred-year-old sofa sits in the living room; a bed, side table and a mirrored wardrobe in one of the bedrooms were a mother’s 18th-birthday present to her daughter; armoires, tables, chairs and beds.

Nothing is put on: there are bookcases filled with old magazines and coffee-table books, china cabinets filled with an earlier generation’s collective pursuits, and framed prints and paintings hang on the walls. The living room is separated from the service area where the kitchen, pantry and back stairway are.

The ground floor served as the storage area and the household help’s sleeping quarters. It also served as an alternative space for hanging the laundry during the rainy season. Intended for a multitude of uses, it was and remains the most versatile part of the house.

Small-town rituals

The house reflects an attitude and a way of life, and is unchanged from its days as a private residence. It remains a showcase of a vanished lifestyle, when small town rituals and values shaped hearts and minds, and houses were designed for people to be part of a community.

Cora Relova, Rivera’s granddaughter and president of the Pila Historical Society, recounts the comforts of local traditions and the social rituals that shaped the various cycles in their lives while growing up in Pila. As a child, she loved the house’s openness and noble simplicity, and the reassuring way it overlooked the town hall, the church and the grassy plaza.

“The house extended beyond the openness of our windows,” Relova says. “I would call my cousins using the tried-and-tested milk can-and-string method from our windowsill to theirs across the street to plan our next play session. I watched the comings and goings of the whole town, from processions to funerals, the timeless Flores de Mayo and the town’s fiesta. It gave you a zest for life and gained a place in your heart forever, no matter where you went.”

For Relova, the town of Pila was a theater where the plays were full of grace and small-town values, and their house a parterre box with the best view. The town was united in many ways. Everyone knew each other. The familiarity and openness made each member of the community conform to the values and mores of the whole.

It was too much a place in the heart to be slowly subsumed by makeshift structures of cement, plastic, garbage, haphazard town planning and other incongruous architectural designs. An agreement had to be reached to establish good designs and construction to preserve the unique feeling of the community.

Built environments, such as the present third relocated site of Pila, embody a past, and is a crucial starting point for continuing its culture in the present. The 35 structures, including the 200-year-old St. Anthony de Padua Church and other houses that surround the town center, remain stylistically united by the same architectural elements from the Spanish and American periods.

Herculean task

Relova’s sustained efforts at preserving and maintaining these remnants of a gentler way of life resulted in her formally organizing the Pila Historical Society Foundation in 1993. Using funds raised by the foundation and with the cooperation of the late Mayor Querubin Relova and the Sangguniang Bayan, the foundation undertook the herculean task of demolishing and relocating new structures that detracted from the original town plan.

It was transformation as a process of continuity that allowed them to look back and recognize where they came from. It was continuity with a positive value.

All their work finally paid off when the National Historical Institute of the Philippines declared the town plaza and surrounding ancestral houses a National Historical Landmark on May 17, 2000. The town’s places for the heart remain.