Mansion House 2

The Mansion House—located at the eastern part of Baguio City, along Leonard Wood Road and across Wright Park—has been the official summer residence of the Presidents of the Philippines since the Commonwealth. It was originally built to be the seat of power of the American colonial government during the summer months.

 

Conception, Design, and Construction of the Mansion House

Baguio at the turn of the century, courtesy of the Mario Feir Filipiniana Library
William Howard Taft, atop a water buffalo

In 1904, United States Secretary of War, and former Governor-General of the Philippines, William Howard Taft commissioned the Chicago architect and city planner Daniel Burnham—via a family friend of Burnham’s, the newly appointed Commissioner of Commerce and Police in the Philippines, William Cameron Forbes—to submit plans for the administrative capital, Manila, and the proposed summer capital in Baguio. Baguio was much favored among colonial government officials for its cooler climate; clamor to develop the area ran steady at the time. In 1905, after a six-week stay in the Philippines, Burnham began to draw up the city plans, of which he wrote: “The Manila scheme is very good. The Baguio scheme is emerging and begins to warrant hope of something unusual among cities.”

 

Architect Daniel Burnham

Burnham then recommended William E. Parsons, a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in France and a practicing architect in New York, to oversee the implementation of what was to be commonly known as “the Burnham plan for the improvement of the city of Manila, and the Burnham plan for the improvement of Baguio.” By virtue of Philippine Commission Act No. 1495, enacted on May 26, 1906, Parsons was appointed Consulting Architect to the government, and he would stay in the Philippines in this capacity for the next nine years. His term coincided with Forbes’; the two would work closely together in the planning of the two cities, which included projects such as the building of the Philippine General Hospital, the Manila Hotel, and the Mansion House in the highlands of Baguio.

 

The Burnham plan for the improvement of Baguio

Forbes took a keen interest in Baguio City, and made the “City of Pines” his pet project. He thus spearheaded the building of what would serve as the seat of the American Colonial Government in the summer months—but what had initially only addressed the need to house the wife of Governor-General James Francis Smith, who intimated to Forbes that she could not stand the heat of Manila. The contract for the construction of the summer residence was awarded on December 4, 1906, with an appropriation of $15,000 from the Philippine Treasury; construction took a year, beginning in 1907.

There were initially two choices for the location of the Governor-General’s residence: One was on the site overlooking the big spring—which is the source of the Bued River immediately south of the sanitarium proper (the present site of Baguio General Hospital)—to make it visible to the government center; the other option was at the edge of Pacdal Plateau, called Outlook Point, in case the Governor-General preferred to live farther away from official activities. Pacdal Plateau prevailed; the 1905 Baguio plan prepared by Burnham reflected the Governor-General’s residence at this location. On March 21, 1908, at the onset of summer, the household of Governor-General Smith moved into the Mansion House.

The design of the summer residence, prepared by Parsons, was in accordance with the City Beautiful Movement—the architectural reform philosophy prevalent in North America at the time, and of which Daniel Burnham was a pioneer. Inmates from the Bilibid Prison in Manila were sent to Baguio to care for the vast estate, in exchange for the commutation of their sentences. A professional nurseryman from Scotland and ground staff from Nagasaki, Japan were hired to supervise the gardens, of which Forbes—soon to be Governor-General himself—had extensively written:

[Dated April 25, 1909] We have a wonderful plan for the Governor’s place here—a shrubbery and a maze, a labyrinth, on one side; a formal park in front with terraces and many flowering trees brought from strange and far lands, amaranths, marvelous flaming poppocathartelians and the like, a great array of flower beds and flower gardens on the other side; with two huge porches and two large wings, one of which will have the assembly or ballroom, and a billiard room, with guest rooms above, and the other with banquet hall, kitchen, servants’ quarters and service places. Then the main house will have one side for social, and the other for business duties.

[Dated August 17, 1909] I have designed a maze or labyrinth, to go on one side, a difficult one to enter, a large flower garden, a shrubbery, and the veritable mass of trees—poplars for one of the avenues; spruces for the large circle, hibiscus and arbour vitae hedges; an avenue of eucalyptus, groves of orange and flame trees; an avenue of acacias, and another of magnolias, and one of fern palms.

The summer residence was named after Forbes’ ancestral home in the family-owned Naushon Island near the Massachusetts coast. Thus, the correct usage in reference to the structure is “Mansion House,” because of its association with an extant building. (In plans dated 1913, 1917, and 1928, the structure was already recognized by the name Forbes had christened it with.)

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The Commonwealth Period

Upon the establishment of the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines in 1935, use of Malacañan Palace in Manila—as both residence and official seat—was granted to the newly elected President Manuel L. Quezon. Public Act No. 4204, approved on July 23, 1935, authorized the U.S. High Commissioner to the Government of the Commonwealth of the Philippine Islands—the outgoing, and very last, Governor-General of the Philippines Frank Murphy—to temporarily occupy the Mansion House as residence and office “until such time a suitable residence was constructed.”

Just as Merritt and then Taft had sought residence at the Palace, it was now Quezon’s wish to do so, for the very same reasons of compelling symbolism. Some Americans believed that the High Commissioner, as Murphy was now called, should remain at Malacañan—for, after all, the United States still exercised sovereignty over the Philippines. But the time for a Filipino resident was deemed nigh, and Murphy moved out, staying in the Mansion House in Baguio until his official home on the shore of Manila Bay would be complete. [1]

President Quezon himself, however, hardly used the Mansion House; in 1930, the Quezons had built a summer residence of their own in Baguio City, overlooking the city and Burnham Park. “It took me a full month,” wrote President Quezon in his memoirs, “to convince Mrs. Quezon that she should leave our home in Pasay, outside Manila, for the historic Palace of Malacañan in Manila; but I never succeeded in making her go and live at the Mansion House in Baguio.”

Baguio was the summer capital of the Philippines. Located there is what is called “The Mansion House,” a modern building built and rebuilt by American Governors-General. It is on top of a hill and the views from the Mansion are wonderful. A park with pine trees, flower gardens, ample lawns, a few fountains, an artificial lake, a tennis court and bridle path form the beautiful grounds, in the center of which stands the summer Executive Mansion. I seldom stayed in this official residence.[2]

When news of the Second World War broke out, President Quezon was staying with one of his daughters Zeneida at their private house; he had sojourned to Baguio to recover from an illness.

photo (3)

At the dawn of the Commonwealth period, Francis Burton Harrison—Governor-General from 1913 to 1921 and thereafter a top political advisor to President Quezon—wrote in his journals about the Mansion House—which he had referred to, while he was serving as Governor-General, as “a cottage allowed [the Governor-General] in the mountains of Baguio.” To wit: Harrison commented on renovations to the Mansion House in a journal entry dated December 27, 1935, noting that it was “double the size it was in my days. Instead of a wooden second story with sawali walls between the bedrooms as formerly, it is now a really modern mansion re-constructed by Governor-General [Dwight F.] Davis.” [The sawali walls are in keeping with Parsons’ style of integrating local architectural techniques into the overall aesthetics of the City Beautiful Movement; the original windows in his design of the Parsons-designed Manila Hotel, for example, used capiz panels, which was both a concession to the local climate and a nod to traditional building materials.] Several days later, on January 1, 1936, Harrison would write of a New Year’s reception hosted by the High Commissioner, held on the Mansion House grounds, “as per custom.”

 

Damage During the Second World War

On December 1944, President Jose P. Laurel and his party evacuated to the Mansion House. President Laurel thereafter described what was to become a three-month stay “somber and miserable.” Parts of the structure were damaged due to constant bombing and strafing, rendering the residence almost uninhabitable. In his war memoirs, President Laurel would write extensively about the destruction:

I was in Baguio from the time of my arrival there, around 7:00 p.m., December 21, to around 9:00 p.m. of March 22, 1945. [...] After installing ourselves the best we could, we found ourselves virtually in a concentration camp. All the Ministers, including Gen. Francisco, came with their military police, two for each. I came with a greater number of military police and the Mansion House compound was surrounded by a strong detachment of Japanese soldiers.

I and my family took quarters in the Guest House and Speaker Aquino, Generals Francisco and Capinpin and Mr. Hamamoto (representative of the High Army Command) lived in the Mansion House. Later on, because of bombing and destruction of their cottages, Minister Osias and family, Spokesman Luz and family, Secretary Abello and family, Minister Tirona and family, Director Neri and family, Dr. Macasaet and family, moved to the Mansion House. We were terribly crowded in the compound. The Presidential Guards, the military police, the servants were also in the compound. Lack of food, water and medicine, poor sanitation, constant bombing and strafing made life in the Mansion House Compound somber and miserable.

The stenographer of the Executive Office was hit by machine gun bullet and killed. We buried him and I delivered a short funeral oration. Two of the Presidential Guards were killed when a bomb fell on the water-pump station near the garage of the Mansion House. What was believed to be at least a 250-lb. bomb fell about 10 yards exactly in front of the Guest House and opened up a huge crater, breaking up crystals, windows, doors but not rendering the House wholly uninhabitable.

Then, both the Guest and Mansion houses were machine-gunned. Houses around the Mansion compound were hit and burned; one bomb fell on the right side of the Mansion but did not explode though it penetrated 6 meters deep into the ground; another bomb fell 4 meters from my shelter but did not explode either but it penetrated 6 meters deep into the soil. My family occupied the air-raid shelter built for the Quezons four years ago, which hardly offered any security; everybody started to dig a fox-hole for immediate use.

It was in the midst of danger and difficulties, suffering, fear and anxiety that we lived in Baguio, completely ignorant of what was happening in Manila and other parts of the Islands—except what the Domei News Agency mimeographed news contained—which was completely unreliable. No light most of the time, no means of communication, no gasoline or alcohol even for the members of the Cabinet to get together, we were not able to do anything worthwhile in Baguio.

[…]

To keep up the spirit to live and make the blood circulate, we dug and improved our fox-holes and air-raid shelters and occasionally played golf even in the midst of an air raid.

[…]

Near the middle of March 1945, the Guest House was again attacked by American planes. One bomb hit the entrance of the House; another, the flagpole hoisting the Filipino flag and pine tree in front; and another, the left side of the building—almost completely destroying the building and rendering it uninhabitable. But assembling blown-up pieces of lumber here and there, patching up broken windows and doors with pieces of cloth and paper—sleeping in dugouts, others sleeping in the open air under the pine trees, with scanty food available, polluted water, no light—it was evident that we could not remain much longer. During nights, the whizzing or wailing sound of cannon over and across the Mansion compound did not permit us to sleep. [3]

Minister of Finance Antonio de las Alas also wrote of the Mansion House, this time providing a glimpse into the operations of the government of the Second Philippine Republic at the height of the war:

On Sunday, March 18, we were called to a special meeting of the Cabinet at the Mansion House. All the Ministers were there with the exception of Yulo, Sison, and Roxas. It was a very solemn meeting. The President spoke for more than an hour. We consider it one of the best speeches that he made. He explained that Ambassador Murata had seen him to transmit the wish of the Japanese Supreme Council to have the President, the members of his Cabinet, the Speaker, and the Chief Justice brought to Japan.

[…]

[Dated March 20] The next day, Exec. Sec. Emilio Abello sent us a note that the President would like us to go to the Mansion House early. We went at two o’clock that afternoon. We had our picture taken with the President. In the picture was the Filipino flag, which the President had been using and which was almost completely torn from the bombing of the Mansion House. [4]

 

From Post-War Rehabilitation to Contemporary Times

The Laurel administration’s use of the Mansion House as de facto seat of government was not the first time the summer residence hosted official gatherings of the state. During his term as Governor-General, Forbes opened the gates of the Mansion House to host Filipino delegates for the special session of the Second Philippine Legislature, held from March 19 to April 28, 1910.

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In 1947, the heavily damaged Mansion House was rebuilt at a cost of PhP80,000, with additional guest rooms and conference rooms constructed. It would then serve as venue for important events: such as the second session of the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) in 1947; the second session of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 1948; and the first meeting of the Southeast Asian Union, more commonly known as the Baguio Conference of 1950, which was conceived and convened by President Elpidio Quirino. The Baguio Conference was held on the invitation of President Quirino, and with the support of United Nations President Carlos P. Romulo; representatives from Australia, Ceylon, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Thailand attended.

The Mansion House gate

 

Later Presidents reinstated the Mansion House’s status as summer retreat, and make their own impressions on the structure. President Ferdinand E. Marcos wrote in his diaries about playing golf at the Mansion House grounds; President Joseph Ejercito Estrada would build a two-storey building within the compound to house staff; and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would fully revive the annual hegira to Baguio.

On the centenary of the Mansion House on December 30, 2008, President Arroyo and the National Historical Institute [now the National Historical Commission of the Philippines] unveiled two historical markers—one in English, and the other containing the text translated in Filipino—detailing the structure’s history. On January 16, 2009, the board of the National Historical Institute, through Resolution No. 1, s. 2009, declared the Mansion House a National Historical Landmark. On May 18, 2010, President Arroyo, by virtue of Executive Order No. 88o, authorized the Malacañang Museum [now the Presidential Museum and Library] to establish a branch museum in the Mansion House.

President Benigno S. Aquino III resides in a two-storey building within the Mansion House compound whenever he is in Baguio City; his last official visit to the summer capital was during the commencement exercises of the Philippine Military Academy’s Siklab Diwa class, on March 16, 2014. Barracks for security personnel and the President’s staff are also located within the premises.

The 105th anniversary of the Mansion House will be celebrated on December 2013.

The Mansion House
Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Quezon, Manuel L., III, Paulo Alcazaren, and Jeremy Barns. Malacañan Palace: The Official Illustrated History. Manila: Studio 5 Publishing, 2005.
  2. Quezon, Manuel L. The Good Fight. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1946.
  3. War Memoirs of Dr. Jose P. Laurel. Manila: Jose P. Laurel Foundation, 1962.
  4. Diaz-Laurel, Celia. Doy Laurel. Manila: Author, 2005.