The Metropolitan Theater (Met) is now owned by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). The national government’s agency in charge of arts and culture acquired the prominent heritage landmark in Manila for the sum of P270 million from the owner, the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). The Deed of Absolute Sale (DAS) was signed and the original titles were formally transferred on June 10,2015, at the national social insurance agency’s main office in Pasay City, led by NCCA chairman Felipe de Leon Jr. and GSIS president and general manager Robert G. Vergara.
This marked a new chapter for the theatre, a National Cultural Treasure. According to De Leon, “this is a very touching, historic occasion and milestone because the Met is one of the best, most creative products of Filipino artistic excellence.”
On the other hand, Vergara said: “GSIS is privileged to turn over this extraordinary asset to the NCCA. In more ways than one, we see this as an agreement handing the Met back to its rightful owners, the Filipino people.”
The NCCA credits the national government and President Benigno Aquino III for this development. The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) earlier released the amount of P270 million to the National Endowment Fund for Culture and the Arts (NEFCA) for the acquisition of the Met. This was announced by DBM Secretary Florencio Abad in late May of this year.
“The Met was once a testament to the richness of Philippine culture and artistry, but decades of neglect brought this beautiful landmark into serious disrepair,” he stated. “The Aquino administration, through the NCCA, has taken the first step to restoring the MET to its former glory. It will take some time, but we are confident that the NCCA has the capacity to take on such a formidable task.”
“We cannot claim to pursue national development if we fail at preserving our culture and heritage,” he added.
According to the NCCA, the purchase of the Met is an important initial step towards the fullest conservation of the property by the NCCA in coordination with the concerned cultural agencies, commensurate with its status as a National Cultural Treasure and National Historical Landmark.
Additionally, the NCCA Board of Commissioners expresses that there is need for the Met, described as “a great architectural landmark of the artistic and cultural creativity of the Filipino people” and to restore it according to the highest standards of heritage conservation: “This will indeed be an iconic building of Filipino heritage that affirms the vision of the NCCA that Filipino culture is a wellspring of global and national well being. Restoring the Met is befitting a national treasure that eventually would be an office for the conservation of the NCCA and a center for arts and culture for use by the nearby students and the general public.”
In the district of Ermita, among flyovers, bridges, the fumes of traffic, parks and other buildings, the Metropolitan Theater presently stands out with its motley of colors. The facade has a curving top crowned with pinnacles, colored glass window and iron grills depicting stylized birds-of-paradise.
The Met was inaugurated on December 10, 1931, designed by prominent architect Juan Arellano (April 25, 1888-December 5, 1960). Having studied in the United States as one of the first pensionados in architecture, Arellano was influenced by the neoclassical and eclectic styles, which are evident in his major works such as the Legislative Building, built in 1926 and now housing the National Museum of the Philippines (NM), and the Manila Central Post Office Building, also built in1926, with its impressive portico with Ionic columns. He also designed the Central United Methodist Church (1932) and the Negros Occidental Provincial Capitol (1936) in Bacolod City.
To many people, Arellano is known for the Met. Veering away from styles he was known for, the Met is in the Art Deco style. He was sent to the United States to study under Thomas W. Lamb, American theatre design expert, of Shreve and Lamb. In designing the theatre, it is said that Arellano was inspired by the phrase, “On the wings of song.” The Met also exemplifies his belief in incorporating native art forms and motifs in designs.
The idea for building a theater in Manila was developed in 1924. A theatre existed in the area before, the Teatro del Príncipe Alfonso XII, built in 1862 at the Plaza Arroceros and burnt down in 1876. With approval from the Philippine Legislature, 8,239.58 square meters of the Mehan Garden were allotted for the new theater and construction started in 1930.
With a program of music, drama and film, the Met opened the following year and was immediately hailed as an architectural achievement, both modern and romantic. Local motifs were used, particularly images from Philippine flora. A frieze of mango fruits and leaves, for example, adorned the ceiling. Local flora and fauna as well were depicted in the stained-glass central window of the facade which served as signage and a way to bring in natural light to the lobby. The walls were curving and sported patches of colors resembling batik patterns. Inside, there were lamps of capiz shells and pillars in the shape of banana leaves. Colorful walls, bas reliefs and sculptures were interspersed inside the theater.
Other prominent artists contributed to the grandeur of the Met. At the main lobby were sculptures of Adam and Eve by Italian sculptor Francesco Riccardo Monti, who lived in Manila from 1930 up to his death in 1958. At the balcony overlooking the entrance were National Artist Fernando Amorsolo’s murals The Dance and History of Music as well as Monti’s other statues. Sculptor Isabelo Tampingco made the carvings of local flora in the interiors. Arellano’s brother, Arcadio, painted images of local flora in the main auditorium.
With the auditorium’s original capacity of 1,670, the Met hosted performances of zarzuelas, operas, concerts and foreign classics up to the Japanese occupation. The works of National Artists Antonio Buenaventura and Nicanor Abelardo have also been performed at the Met.
In World War II, during the Battle for the Liberation of Manila in 1945, the Met suffered damages, and thus began its deterioration and neglect. With the US Rehabilitation Act of 1946, the Met was repaired, but it was not able to bring back its glory days. The building eventually has been used by different agencies and sometimes misused.
There were several efforts in restoration and rehabilitation. In the 1970s, then First Lady Imelda Marcos led an effort to restore the Met. The National Historical Institute, presently the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), declared it a National Historical Landmark in 1973. A restoration was conducted under the supervision of Arellano’s nephew, Otilio Arellano, and the Met was inaugurated on February 4, 1978. Kabataang Barangay staged a show tracing the roots of the Filipino people through poetry, song and dance called Isang Munting Alamat. Up until the 1990s, performances were staged at the Met including the musical adaptations of Jose Rizal’s novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo by Ryan Cayabyab and National Artist Bienvenido Lumbrera in 1995. But it was eventually closed in 1996 after prolonged disuse.
Already falling into neglect and disrepair, the Met saw another effort in restoration. In 2004, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo released P50 million to the NCCA for it, and the NCCA, the city of Manila and the GSIS signed a tripartite agreement to rehabilitate the theater. In 2007, the newly-formed Manila Historical and Heritage Commission came in to manage and supervise the restoration. This effort led to a “soft opening” on April 29, 2010, with the performance of a senakulo, a performance from Pilita Corrales and an excerpt from the original zarzuela Baler sa Puso Ko by Isagani Cruz. The National Museum declared the Met a National Cultural Treasure on the same year on June 23. Rock band Wolfgang was able to hold a concert in 2011. However, it was closed down again in 2012 because of ownership dispute between the city government of Manila and the GSIS.
Interest in the heritage structure did not die down. In September 2014, Manila mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada announced the city government’s plans to buy the Met for P200 million, to restore it to its former grandeur and to house the Institute of Performing Arts (IPA) of the Universidad de Manila, which is near the Met, as well as to serve as a venue for performances by the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila. The Manila city government has asked for a loan from the Landbank of the Philippines for the purchase as well as for restoration which was estimated to be at about P700 million.
In February 20, 2015, Estrada informed the NCCA of the city government’s intent to purchase the Met and requested the cultural agency to waive its right of first refusal. According to Section 9 of the National Cultural Heritage Law of 2009 or Republic Act No. 10066, “the appropriate cultural agency shall be given the right of first refusal in the purchase of cultural properties declared as national cultural property. Prior to the finality of the sale, the appropriate cultural agency may likewise match any offer made for the purchase of national cultural property.”
After a few days, the GSIS informed the NCCA of the formal offer of the mayor of Manila and offered to the NCCA and the NM to exercise right of first refusal and match the formal offer. The NM, through its director Jeremy Barns, waived its right of first refusal in favor of the NCCA. The NCCA finally decided to purchase the Met on May 14, 2015. It considered a counter-offer and requested funding from the DBM. It initially requested P550 million, which will also cover other expenses such as service utilities dues and conservation and restoration works.
According to the NCCA, its purchase of the MET stems from its mandate under Republic Act No. 7356, or the NCCA Law, with reference to other laws related to Philippine national cultural heritage, which is to formulate and implement policies and plans to conserve and promote the nation’s cultural and historical heritage by supporting and promoting the establishment and preservation of cultural and historical monuments, markers, names, and sites. NCCA’s acquisition of the Met is said to ensure minimization or prevention of damage to the property in accordance to a related law, the Republic Act 10086, or the NHCP law, which defines preservation as referring to “all activities that employ means to control, minimize, or prevent damage or deterioration to cultural property.”
The Manila city government respected NCCA’s decision, expressed support and proposed partnership in the Met’s restoration. In turn, the NCCA took into account the initiatives of the city of Manila on the Met, particularly its effort in reducing the initial price of P600 million during its negotiation with the GSIS, and its vision for the theater. It promised to give priority consideration to the city government, particularly the Universidad de Manila and the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila for the use of the theatre.
The NCCA initially envisions a restored Met to become a center for arts and culture, with additional exhibition galleries and its theater and performance halls for use by artists and cultural workers as well as by students and the general public. Additional space is planned for its needs in the implementation of the National Cultural Heritage Act.
The Met remains today as “the only existing art deco building in its scale and integrity in Asia,” according to heritage experts. Its Western design is infused with Philippine motifs and elements as well as the creativity and craftsmanship of Filipino masters and National Artists. It was considered as the country’s first “national theatre,” hosting cultural performances, social events, and visual art exhibits; a place where Filipino artists were nurtured and launched their careers, and where many Filipinos were inspired and made to dream.