IF the walls of the old Senate Session Hall in the former Legislative Building in Manila could speak, imagine the stories they would tell.
As home to members of the Philippine Senate from 1926 to 1996, the historic venue had been a silent witness as senators from various eras debated and charted the Philippines’ future, from the country’s growing clamor for full independence from America in the 1930s to its rejection of a new US bases treaty in 1992.
Its walls remain mute to this day, but thanks to a two-year, P20-million restoration project undertaken by the National Museum, the old Session Hall along Padre Burgos Avenue in Manila has been restored to its pre-war glory, from its rich cream-colored walls down to its vibrant red floors and baseboards.
The old Session Hall was also where then Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. and his allies in the opposition delivered privilege speeches during the run-up to martial law in 1972.
It was closed and later turned into one of the National Museum’s galleries during the remainder of the Marcos years. (The Batasan Pambansa in Quezon City housed the parliament in the Marcos era.)
When democracy was restored after the People Power Revolution in 1986, the Senate and Congress returned to their old homes in the Legislative Building.
Then in 1996, the old Session Hall was closed again after the Senate moved to its new home at the GSIS Building in Pasay City. Work on the Session Hall’s restoration started in April 2010.
Directly below the Session Hall is another hall once used by members of Congress. It has since been converted to a gallery displaying Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium.”
For its first event, the newly refurbished Session Hall was the venue of a sit-down dinner last September 29 hosted by businessman Ramon del Rosario, Jr., chair of both the National Museum and the Philippine Business for Education, a non-profit organization that recognizes and provides funds to deserving educational institutions and teachers.
During its two-year restoration, Jeremy Barns and Ana Labrador, the National Museum’s director and assistant director, respectively, pored over old pictures in their attempt to produce a newly restored Session Hall that’s as close as possible to the original.
If the National Museum could preserve great works of art, why not its permanent home, which also includes the former Department of Finance building.
By 2014, the National Museum would also take over the Department of Tourism building across Rizal Park.
“Since the National Museum has enough space for its galleries, we won’t be turning the Session Hall into a permanent gallery,” said Labrador. “We can rent it out for private events on a case-to-case basis. The chairman (del Rosario) envisions it as a venue for important events like state dinners.”
Considered the core of the then Legislative Building, the old Session Hall was designed by American architect Ralph Harrington Doane as a high-ceiling reading room. Doane, part of the team of the legendary architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, was also a consultant to the Bureau of Public Works,.
When the Commonwealth government abandoned its original plan to house the National Library in the yet-to-be constructed building, in favor of the Philippine Legislature, Filipino architect Juan Arellano stepped in to tweak the structure’s design and oversee construction.
Heavily damaged during the American liberation of Manila in 1945, the Legislative Building was in near ruins. But for some reason, the Session Hall remained intact with only its intricately carved hardwood ceiling blown off. When the newly independent postwar government worked on rebuilding the structure, it was able to restore much of the Session Hall to its original state.
Its prewar look became the peg of the restoration work started two years ago. The Session Hall had murals which were painted by Arellano in between the overhead concrete fretwork, as well as garland and statues done by leading Filipino prewar sculptor Isabelo Tampinco.
Barns and Labrador chose the 1930s, because it was during this period that the country’s independence movement started to intensify. But in the absence of detailed pictures of the original, they left the venue’s less ornate postwar ceiling intact.
Workers searched in vain for Arellano’s murals that might be hidden underneath layers of old paint. The pair decided to simply give both the ceiling and spaces between the statues a fresh coat of paint, which Barns described as a “Bureau of Public Works cream.”
Taking advantage of economies of scale, the bureau, a precursor of the Department of Public Works and Highways, had a standard color for nearly all public buildings during the Commonwealth period.
“We’re mandated by law to preserve this hall where many historic events happened,” said Barns, referring to the 1998 National Museum Law. “Recognizing the historical importance of this hall, then Sen. Neptali Gonzales included its preservation in our charter. He was concerned that the hall he and his colleagues and predecessors had held sessions in be preserved.”
The in-house project, funded mainly by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. through the National Museum’s endowment fund, tapped the expertise of the museum’s four heritage architects led by Evelyn Esguerra. (For a full version of this exclusive story, get a copy of the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s October 21 issue or visit its website at http://www.inquirer.net)