With its soaring ceiling, expansive space and repainted columns and balustrade, the Old Senate Session Hall at the former Legislative Building in Manila has been restored to its full grandeur and is now again set to inspire awe among visitors perhaps just like it did in its heyday in the early decades of the 20th century.
After undergoing extensive renovation for two years, the Session Hall is being relaunched this month simultaneous with the reopening of several renovated exhibition spaces at the National Museum’s National Art Gallery where the Hall is located.
“It was clearly intended to be nothing less than a secular cathedral—a temple of wisdom for enlightened debate and the making of laws,” said Jeremy Barns, director of the National Museum, who pushed for bringing back the Old Senate Session Hall to its former glory when he assumed office two years ago.
Barns, who closely supervised the hall’s renovation even on weekends, expressed satisfaction at the outcome. Interviewed by interaksyon.com, he said, “I feel happy it’s done. I’m glad about the reactions. So it’s there. It should have been completed a long time ago for people to enjoy. At least one piece of unfinished business is done.”
The Hall is now being eyed as a possible venue for functions, notably for official government activities such as the signing of treaties and state dinners for visiting dignitaries, as well as for private events such as conferences and recitals.
National Museum assistant director Ana Labrador stressed that events to be held in the Hall will be judiciously chosen. “We do not want to desecrate the sanctity of the place,” she said, pointing out that wedding receptions and fashion shows may not quite be appropriate for the venue.
Last September 30, a fundraiser for the Philippine Business for Education (PBED) became the first event to be held at the renovated Session Hall.
Ramon del Rosario Jr., chairman of both the PBED and the National Museum, said the event served as an opportunity to reintroduce the business sector to the National Museum.
In his welcome remarks, Del Rosario urged guests to support the repository of the country’s cultural legacy. “The Museum is the custodian of countless national treasures that are surely a great inspiration for a cause and concern that I know we all deeply share: strengthening our collective national identity, unity, pride and purpose that, building on the sacrifices, aspirations and achievements of the past, will ensure prosperity, direction and progress in our own time and for the future,” he said.
Barns described the state of the Old Senate Session Hall in 2010 as “very sad. It had never been opened to the public since the Senate moved out in 1996 and the National Museum occupied the entire building in 1998.”
Over the years, the Hall had been segregated into two floors, with a wooden floor installed at the balustrade level. “There were serious concerns as to the structural stability of the wooden floor, and in general it was not in a presentable state due to deterioration brought about by leaks in the ceiling, crumbling asbestos tiles, defunct electricals and centralized airconditioning, and termites running through many of the plywood partitions,” said Barns.
He noted, “There were at least 50 years of interventions that concealed, modified or damaged the original dimensions and features of the hall as designed by Juan Arellano and decorated by Isabelo Tampinco. Examples are the mezzanine galleries, a whole bank of 18 windows that were blocked up, and plumbing for a bathroom that apparently existed at some point within the hall.”
The museum official sought to turn things around, harking to Section 5 of R.A. 8492 which states that “The National Museum shall preserve the Senate Session Hall as a tribute to the legacy of the great men and women of the Philippine Senate for their invaluable contributions to the Filipino people, and as a relic where democracy and freedom reigned and events of national significance transpired.”
Barns and a team of in-house conservation and restoration experts, in consultation with the National Historical Institute, mapped out a plan on how the restoration could be best handled. “Based on assessments made possible through the dismantling, it was found that it would be possible to restore in virtually its entirety the Session Hall as originally designed, and present to the public the space as it appeared through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s before post-war interventions were made that had since deteriorated,” Barns said.
Labrador noted that peeling back layers of paint on the walls revealed the Hall’s original color—a beige tone that has now been adopted for the interiors.
A small section of the balustrade has been left unrestored to show visitors the stark contrast with the portions reconstructed by the House of Precast. A purposely unfinished column also reveals the various colors the hall was apparently painted in over the decades.
The Hall is said to be a testament to architecture and art, including such trademark features as Corinthian columns and pilasters, the main wall above the rostrum with its fretwork and garlands, and the sculptural groupings surrounding the top of the hall. The sculptural details—portraying great lawmakers and moralists throughout history – were made by Filipino sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, a contemporary of Juan Luna and José Rizal, and his sons Ángel and Vidal.
According to a National Museum primer, the Senate, in this hall, as presided over by then Senate President Manuel L. Quezon, “served as a primary forum for the promotion of Philippine independence, which culminated in the acceptance of the Tydings-McDuffie Law in 1934 that provided for a constitution, a transitory autonomous Commonwealth, and full independence in 1946. Here the last American Governor-General, Frank Murphy, gave his final address to the legislature, on the day before the Commonwealth of the Philippines, and Manuel L. Quezon as its President, were proclaimed and inaugurated on the front steps of the building.”
To mark Museums and Galleries Month, the National Museum is offering free admission for the whole of October which also happens to be the institution’s 111th anniversary. The Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.