Pila, Laguna, Oct. 31, 2000 - Some were instantly curious. Just what could have merited this Laguna town the distinction of being declared a national historical landmark, thus, being elevated to the status enjoyed so far by only two other towns? Quite heavy in the criteria is for the site to "reflect a rich and varied architectural history."
Mere mention of noble towns like Vigan, Taal and Silay in Negros Occidental and images of stately 19th and turn-of-the-century houses immediately come to one's mind. But Pila?
If anything, Pila should evoke images of mysterious flashing orbs in the sky. Remember a few years back when the sleepy town was thrust to quasi-national fame after a certain group, which was heavy into the paranormal, announced to the that it was a favorite landing site of visitors from outer space?
So quite obviously the quest of our morning sojourn (which uncannily fell on the millennium's last Friday the 13th) is seeing for ourselves the features which capped the illustrious title for Pila.
About an hour and some 80 kilometers since we extricated ourselves from the notorious everyday traffic of Metro Manila, all it took was the slightest turn of the coaster at the intersection leading to the town proper for us to understand right away.
It is like stepping out of a time machine on low gear.
Surrounding the town plazas on all three sides are quaint structures of houses built at the turn of the century. The fourth side is lorded over by an ancient stone church. Across the church is the municipio. Everywhere are tall trees and bursts of greens and floral brights. Traffic is very slow and there are very few people who thought of staying out under the late morning sun.
We are led to the municipio to meet the town officials and are given a background information on the town. This is capped by a late breakfast of suman, pandesal, kesong puti, ginataan, lansones, rambutan and tsokolate-ah - a welcome departure from the usual urban breakfast fare that comes out of cans and vacuum-sealed packs.
For the first home visit, we troop to what could easily be the town's most celebrated abode, if only because it serves as Jolina Magdangal's residence for the daily TV show "Labs ko si Babe".
Built in 1928, the Rivera House architecture is typical of the era. Chalet-style, the ground space is used more as a storage area. The living quarters are on the second floor which is accessible by the stairs figuring prominently in the facade. A few antique furniture such as a wooden sala set, aparadors, and postered beds effectively emphasize the character of the house.
Cora Relova of the Pila Historical Society Foundation, whose ancestral home this is, refers to it as a "charming little house."
The stairs lead to the living room and dining room, which run along the length of the two bedrooms across the other side. The kitchen is located at the back of the solidly rectangular house. The perimeter of the property is pronounced by low flowering hedges. The yard is planted with tall trees of suha (pomelo), chico, coffee and balimbing (star fruit).
Tall, wide capiz windows allow the breeze to come in. At the same time, they offer quite a good view of what comes and goes on the town streets and a better idea of what is happening next-door. This set-up perhaps shaped in no small way the relationship which blossomed between the characters of Jolina and her original love interest Marvin Agustin, who lives across the quiet narrow street.
A short leisurely walk down the street brings us to the Pila Museum, a former classroom built during the Spanish period. It now houses priceless pre-Hispanic clay pottery unearthed in the Barangay Pinagbayanan in 1967. The rest of Liceo Pila, now known as Pila Elementary School, still serves its original purpose to date.
Adjacent is the San Antonio de Padua Parish Church. It was completed on June 18, 1581, making Pila the first Antoine parish in the Philippines. The church's original site was located in the town's second settlement area of Pagalangan, but because it was prone to perennial flooding by the lake waters, the move to the third, and final settlement area was made in the late 18th century. The church in Pagalangan was moved stone by stone to the current site, which is Barangay Sta. Clara where the most of the ancestral houses are concentrated.
All in all, the Pila National Historic Landmark boasts of 35 turn-of-the-century structures, of which 28 are ancestral homes. Up close or from afar, it seems that one could never have enough of enjoying the experience of simply seeing these structures. It is advisable to spend at least half a day in visiting the houses, walking along the quiet streets and dawdling under the shade of the giant Talisay trees hogging one side of the plaza.
Most of the structures are sill in good shape, withstanding the test of time and blessed with homeowners who take pride in their heritage. A good number of the houses belong to a clan of five families - the Riveras, Agras, Allavas, Relovas and Dimaculangans. And being family has its very practical pluses in maintaining Pila's old world charm.
Cora says that monitoring various states of the houses is made less arduous because of the clan network. In most cases, all it takes is a call to the home owner- cum-relative reminding him/her that it might be time to give the house a fresh coat of paint. To get things done, the most she usually does is to employ gentle pressure, giving the home owner a scenario of being left out of the rest of the ancestral houses which have been quite well preserved.
In instances when someone decide to put their property on the market, priority to buy is given to relatives. She cites that this ensures that, if only for pride of their heritage, the house will continue to be well-maintained.
Pila was declared a National Historical Landmark last May 17. Many factors were considered to prop up this decision. The most
obvious to us is its great luck to be among the "few existing towns in the Philippines that preserve the Spanish colonial town planning system for the Indies, where the center of the town was the plaza complex with the surrounding church, tribunal, school and large houses." And its structures that "reflect the Philippine Baroque church of the Spanish period to the charming chalets of the American period."
Once upon a time, these features which are presently so much treasured, were commonplace all over the country. World War II forever changed the city and townscapes, what with all the bombings. By some stroke of great luck, Pila was able to survive the ravages of war with its architectural character quite intact. Perhaps this is one of those incidents which fueled Pila's moniker as Lupang Pinagpala or "The Blessed Land".
These days, town officials are hoping that there would again reap blessings from their town through tourism. But of course, actions should go together with prayers. The local government together with the Pila Historical Society and the National Historical Institute have started working on plans that would support this endeavor.
Centuries may have passed but the legacy of such a distinguished past is no less seen or felt than in this blessed town called Pila.( By RUBY GONZALEZ, Malaya)
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