The Grand Old Dame’s Rebirth

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In the last 85 years, the Metropolitan Theater in Manila has gone through the cycles of grandeur and disaster. With a seating capacity of 1,670 and a floor area of 8,239.58 square meters, it has the distinction of being “the only existing Art Deco building in its scale and integrity in Asia.”

After years of neglect, the landmark, nicknamed “the Grand Old Dame,” is once again getting ready for an unveiling.

The first phase of the restoration is targeted for completion by 2018 — with utilities restored and the building’s outer envelope rectified. Metro Manila’s culturati is already abuzz with anticipation.

This is just the latest chapter in the Met’s rich and, at times, tumultuous history.

Fortuitous Foundation

The idea for the Met came about in 1924, during the American colonial period. The Philippine Legislature approved the proposal of Senator Juan B. Alegre to construct a theater in Manila. Architect Juan Arellano was tapped to design it.

For the Met project, the government sent Arellano to the United States to learn more about designing theaters from world-renowned architect Thomas W. Lamb, who designed iconic structures such as the Lincoln Theatre and the Madison Square Garden.

They broke ground for the Met in 1930. At that time, Art Deco was all the rage. Pedro Siochi and Company was the engineering firm that supervised the Met’s construction.

The Met was inaugurated on December 10, 1931. Its remarkable facade was akin to a stage framed by a central window of stained glass that recalled a proscenium. It was clearly a cultural gem in a city that Filipinos considered the center of all things.

Dramatic Developments

Alas, when World War II came to the Philippines, Manila was laid to waste by bombs. The Met’s roof and walls were partially destroyed. Manila was liberated in 1945, but the Met was left in a state of disrepair.

Over the years, the Met was reportedly misused as a boxing arena and a basketball court. Informal settlers also moved in. Interestingly, the Met was declared as a National Historical Landmark in 1973.

In 1978, when then-First Lady Imelda Marcos was also the governor of Manila, she pushed for the Met’s restoration. Otilio Arellano — the original architect’s nephew — was tapped for the task.

In 1996, the Met was once again shuttered due to another conflict. This time, the battle was between the Manila City Hall and a government ministry, the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). The dispute over the Met’s ownership led to its deterioration.

Despite the acrimonious situation, the Met was declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum in June 2010. Then again, the ownership dispute persisted.

A 2011 concert by local band Wolfang was the last event held at the Met. It was once again closed in 2012 due to structural decay.

Repeat Revival 
The conflict over the Met’s ownership was finally resolved in 2015. That year, the country’s Department of Budget and Management released P270 million (around $5.4 million) and made it possible for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) to buy it from the GSIS.

In December 2015, the Met restoration — dubbed as “METamorphosis” — was formally launched with a clean-up drive done by volunteers. This was done until June 2016. After that, the structural works began.

Gerard Lico, consulting architect for the NCCA and architect in charge of the Met restoration, revealed that the restoration involves numerous people from many different sectors. He explained, “The Met team at its core has six members including myself, Architect Mary Rajelyn Busmente (project coordinator of the Met restoration), and our architectural staff. The Technical Working Group that oversees the development of the MET has over three dozen consultants and experts from many fields including architecture, theater, and art history, among others. We had the support of the different committees of the NCCA. They gave their input in formulating the different spaces and uses of the structure.”

The METamorphosis team worked with architectural consultants Schema Konsult, Inc., which developed the plans and documents required for construction. Meanwhile, the scanning and documentation was handled by Digiscript Philippines.

Lico pointed out, “All in all, around 400 people are involved in the construction process, not to mention the tens of thousands of supporters and volunteers who assisted us in our clean-up drives and exhibitions over the past years.”

Cultural Challenge
Lico admits that restoring the Met is a massive undertaking — and it’s not just because of its size. He stated, “The challenge with restoring any historic structure is ensuring that the materials, processes, and aesthetics of the building are maintained and respected.”

He added, “In the case of the Metropolitan Theater, sourcing archival material and recreating many of the interior and exterior ornamentation and details proved to be very challenging with the limited materials still existing. Layers upon layers of history have built up on the Met’s walls. Throughout the restoration process, we are constantly discovering new details about the Met that make us rethink and reconfigure our approach to the restoration of the building.”

That said, Lico noted that they’re on track to complete the first phase of the restoration by next year. The second phase — which includes the interior design and detailing of the wings of the theater and additional spaces — should be completed two years after that. “So, we are looking at a timeline of around three to four years from now for the theater to be fully operational,” Lico stated.

In any case, it’s already evident that the Met’s long overdue return will be worth the wait.

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