July 22, 2024

A recent assignment as source of the Dominican Hill Retreat House history found me scampering for information from all online and offline resources. The dismal online posts told me that my stock knowledge could not be validated, thus, a quick trip to the Baguio City Library gave me a surprise.

There is nothing better than the printed books to seek these valuable bits of history from the helpful library staff. Fascination with the publication of Architect Ruben A. Cervantes, The Grand House, the Dominicans Built Before and Now, gave me my ahamoment of what could have been Baguio City’s greatest structural achievement.

Two interior courtyards or patios were part of the original floor plan.

The Diplomat Heritage Hill and Nature Park, as it is now called, has the remnants one of the oldest structures completed by Fr. Roque Ruaño, a Dominican priest and civil engineer, in 1915. This was some eight years before the University of Santo Tomas building was opened in 1923. Records indicate this property that used to cover 17 hectares from which less than five remain. This was acquired after Kennon Road opened in 1905 and the American colonial government invited investors to purchase properties in the city to fund its development.

Cervantes noted the design was based on Spanish Baroque architecture which is “characterized by the exploration of form and light as it appealed to the emotions rather than seeking to please the intellect.”

It is like a fortress and has a protective character. The old floorplan included a two-story building with dimensions of 30 meters tall X 28.8 meters wide with two interior courtyards and patio and eight large rooms on the first and second floors. On a pedestal at the rooftop, The Gyronny cross of the Dominican Order with the fleur-de-lis at each end showed the symbol of the spiritual and intellectual aspirations of the Catholic order. The coat of arms is at the façade.

The Gyronny Cross and Coat of Arms at the facade remain in the first earthquake proof and rainwater harvesting structure of the Dominican fathers.

The interesting detail comes with the fact that this part of the city had no water, as all other parts did not, and the rooftop was used as the rainwater harvesting facility. During the rainy season, all the water was collected and stored in a big concrete reservoir below the house for the sustainable water supply through summer. Historically, this was the first earthquake resistant and rain harvesting facility in Baguio built with the help of Chinese and Japanese expats.

The building used the local stone, which was referred to as Baguio Stone then, quarried from upper and lower rock quarry.

On May 23, 1915, the structure was completed and inaugurated at the cost of P200,000. This was blessed by Bishop Pedro Hurth of Vigan, Ilocos Sur, Diocese of Nueva Segovia. 

Circa 1915 photo of the Dominican Hill vacation house of the Dominican order built by civil engineer Fr. Roque Ruano using Chinese and Japanese laborers.

The first use of the structure was as a school because of the high taxes for grand houses, the Dominicans converted the grand house after inauguration into a boarding house and college named Colegio del Santissimo Rosario which was renamed to Dominican House for vacation after two years because of the low enrolment of only six students.

This was used as a vacation house for 22 years, the surrounding 17 hectares were devoted to slope protection, forest buffer zone, and garden, the other parts used for food sustenance. From 1920 to 1930, Spanish families and friends of the friars used this.

World War II converted the structure into a refugee center for priests, nuns, and lay and secular members. Then the Japanese bombed Baguio on Dec 27, 1941 andoccupied the building for three months before the Americans came. This became a prisoners of war camp.

The book published by Architect Ruben A. Cervantes that contains interesting details of the historical structure and site.

On March 15 and 16, 1945, the American carpet bombing damaged the right side of the building and with the clash between Japanese and American forces encounters more damage was done to the building. The U.S. forces occupied the house for six months, thereafter. During the reconstruction after the war, several skulls and bones were dug out which were assumed to belong to the friars and other refugees.

The building was transformed into a vacation house again for 25 more years and illegal settlements started in the periphery.

Then in 1973, the new province of Our Lady of the Rosary decided to sell the property to the Diplomat Hotel, Inc. that converted the structure into a hotel. This group was represented by Antonio Agpaoa, then a renowned faith healer. They extended the dimension of the building by 288 square meteralong the damaged portion. The original structures and features remained the same, but 33-bedroom enclosures were made. On the second floor, fine dining was operated. A discotheque, squash court, basketball court, and beauty parlor for international guests included outside. Some rooms were used as healing centers of the faith healer.

Antonio Agpaoa and his family purchased the property and converted it into the Diplomat Hotel, Inc.

Agpaoa died in 1982 and the property became a looters paradise.

Now it is the Heritage Hill and Nature Park with an area of 52,402-sqm. or 5.24 hectares from the original 17 hectares which was transferred to the City of Baguio through a deed of conveyance on April 24, 2004, by Presidential Decree 1445 s. 1987 under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Lost in the course of history was the best green architecture that could have been the standard for the city.

– Nonnette C. Bennett