Manila Hotel: The Grand Dame by the Bay

Anson Yu explores Manila Hotel, still one of the most iconic accommodations in Manila.

By Anson Yu
August 08, 2011

Whether you are aware of it or not, Manila used to have a beach. During the Spanish Colonial Period, the shoreline of Manila used to reach what is now Plaza Rajah Soliman in front of Malate Church. There are prints and etchings showing how people then used to bathe in the shore in front the church. However, the beach disappeared when the Americans came and reclaimed the land, turning it into what is now Roxas Boulevard and Manila's harbor area. However it was not an entire loss, as a prime portion of the land they recovered was designated for rest and recreation. It was here that they built the Manila Hotel.


The four-story hotel formally opened on July 4, 1912. To celebrate its opening, there were a procession of cars around Luneta Drive, fireworks over Intramuros, and 500 dancers doing the waltz. The hotel then featured a music room, guest's parlor and a children's dining room. For women, there was a ladies parlor and a gift shop, while for the men, there was a smoker's room, a bar, a tailor, and a billiard room. It was the first hotel in Asia to have electric elevators--three in fact. There were 149 guest rooms, half of which had private baths-- more than most European or American hotels of that period. In every room, guests could find telephones, push-button room service and an intercom system. The hotel wasn't air-conditioned then, but the rooms were cooled by the Manila Bay breeze, while the harsh tropical sunlight was filtered by sliding capiz shell windows. Because of these features, the publication Hotel Monthly reported that, "Manila will not only be a city of great future possibility but also one of the most charming resorts in the Orient."

By 1937, the hotel has earned a place as one of the three top ranking hotels in Asia alongside the Raffles in Singapore and the Imperial in Tokyo. It would be the site for important parties, wedding receptions, dance balls and official government social functions. One of the regulars here was President Manuel. L Quezon. He would visit the hotel several nights a week to dance as a way to relax from his extremely stressful job.

When General Douglas MacArthur had to take up residence in the Philippines, he was given the option of a newly built penthouse on the top of the hotel. It would be legendary, as it would be the first fully air-conditioned room in the country, though early accounts would comment that it was like living in a refrigerator as it didn't have a thermostat. Since then, the problem of the air conditioner has been fixed and the suite is one of the most sought after guestrooms in the hotel.


The hotel suffered heavily during the closing days of World War II, but it reopened as soon as the front lobby was passable and one wing of rooms was available. The dance balls and parties started again and people began coming back. By 1948, it began offered one of the first hotel buffets in Manila. For only Php5, people could eat a table laden with 12 to 15 popular dishes, among which were roast turkey, lechon, Virginia ham, roast prime ribs, kare kare, lengua and Alaska Salmon Mayonnaise.

Since then, the hotel has had quite a history! Numerous celebrities and political figures have stayed there. It is also where quite a number of historical events that have occurred. It was there that Ferdinand Marcos was nominated as the standard bearer for the Nationalista Party for the 1965 presidential election. His supporters would take over the hotel in 1986. This was a poor attempt to restore Marcos to back power after he was ousted from office in the People Power Revolution. 


The hotel itself has undergone numerous changes during the postwar years. A new 18-storey annex was added to the rear in the 1970s, which increased the number of rooms to 570. There were now eight restaurants, two bars, and a health club. It now had a business center equipped with telex machine, fax machine, and IBM computers, which were not common then. It was also the first hotel to introduce direct dial phones in some of the guest rooms, as well as an in-house cable channel offering the latest films.

Manila's hotel scene is more competitive now than when the hotel first opened in 1912. Many of the innovations the Manila Hotel initially introduced are now standard features in many other hotels. But the Grand Dame is not ready to give up without a fight. It has undergone a refurbishment and is now poised to reclaim it space as the place to stay when in Manila. Aside from the health club, they have now opened the Manila Hotel Spa, which offers a selection of aromatherapy massages. The guest rooms now sport 21st century features like high speed internet, mp3 player compatible radio players, LCD TVs, and contactless electric door locks.  The buffets are back with the new Café Ilang Ilang, offering a wider array of dishes than anyone ever thought possible back in 1948. But some things never change, as the service here is still first rate. After all, the staff has a hundred years of experience, serving royalty, celebrities, and heads of states.  


Basta Pinas, Makulay ang Kasaysayan!


Anson Yu is a freelance writer and a home-grown Binondo boy. He gives walking tours of Binondo and other parts of Manila under Ivan Man Dy's Old Manila Walks.

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