Behind the 400-hectare Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar

Is Jerry Acuzar an unlikely savior of the country’s heritage structures, or is he, like his detractors size him up to be, a businessman salvaging precious historical buildings for his own gain?

by Jerome Gomez, photo by Jason Quibilan

The Unagol River cuts through the entire Las Casas property, and is surrounded by ricefields and moutains.

 

Jerry Acuzar is telling me about his acquisitions like a proud combat general introducing his seasoned platoon. “Yang bahay na yan ang nagpalaki kay Diosdado Macapagal,” he says when I point to the house known as Casa Lubao built in the 1920s by a couple named Valentin Arrastria and Francisco Salgado. “Yung pamilya na ‘yan may inalagaang Hapon during the war.” The family took the Japanese under their care, employing him as driver and gardener. Only later on would they learn he is a spy. A colonel in the Japanese army, he would return the favor when Pampanga was being burned down during WWII: the colonel asked his comrades to spare the house of the kind hacienderos who took him under their wing.

 

“That’s Bellas Artes,” Acuzar says when I lead his eyes to a nearby structure, a traditional bahay na bato with its second floor entirely in wood and painted white. “It was considered the most beautiful house during its time,” Acuzar tells me. It was the home of the artist Rafael Enriquez y Villanueva, a painter whose parents insisted their son pursue law studies in Spain. And he did—but would pursue art again in his return to the country, transforming the house’s mezzanine into a studio which would become a training ground to future masters: Fernando Amorsolo, Fabian dela Rosa, Guillermo Tolentino, and Botong Francisco among them. The building used to stand proud in Quiapo’s famed Hidalgo Street before it was sold to a Chinese family. Over the decades, it had gone on through different incarnations: a bowling alley, a brothel, a boarding house. “Nang makita ko ‘yan halos giba-giba na,” Acuzar recalls. “Maganda ang storya ng bahay na ‘yan sa akin. ‘Yan ang pinakamamahal kong bahay dito.”

 

It is almost sundown in Bataan, and we are at the 400-ha. Bagac property that Acuzar, the architect and self-made millionaire, turned into a heritage and conservation center called Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in the early part of the 2000s. He would uproot historically important old houses, sometimes already in near crumbling, very depressing condition, and transfer them to this Bataan sprawl, restoring the structure to its original glory as much as he can, brick by brick, plank by plank, replacing already-missing parts by sourcing or creating new ones. Of houses that were lost during the war years, he would make replicas of from existing drawings, and now they line up the Las Casas shoreline, sort of shielding the more valuable, more fragile restored houses from the elements of the ocean. Sometimes it’s just the façade that he reconstructs, the bones, as in the building we are standing from: the Hotel de Oriente whose exterior is exactly like that of the hotel it took its name from, the first luxury hotel in the Philippines. “Ang telephone number nila number 2, kasi yung number 1 sa Malacañang,” the architect offers. Once we step into the structure’s main lobby, however, a totally different sight beholds—one born exclusively from the owner’s imagination: ornate wall patterns everywhere, godlike statues hanging from above, an intricately carved ceiling, and a wood parquet rendering of the Spoliarium as piece de resistance.

 

The workshop inside the Escuela de Bellas Artes

 

It is here where Acuzar would tell me his stories from childhood, his student days at the Manuel L. Quezon University in Quiapo, and what brought him to building this theme park cum museum cum resort that houses heritage gems from different parts of the country. When he talks about the back stories of each house, his language unconsciously lets on that he is really more businessman than conservationist, more engineer than history enthusiast. And sure enough, that is how he started, he admits, but he has, over the years, grown to have a deeper appreciation for these significant structures, their relevance and maintenance, and his role as their rightful custodian. He talks with the confidence of someone who came from humble beginnings and did exceedingly well for himself. While roaming around the Las Casas premises, often trailed by a small entourage of engineers and assistants, he is always in shorts and nondescript shirts, which is exactly what he is wearing sitting across me inside Hotel de Oriente, his missing left hand resting near the pocket of his shorts that I wonder whether he is making an effort to make it inconspicuous.

 

The missing hand. It takes a while before I get to ask about it but I eventually get to it. It is a touchstone to his beginnings. He was 13 years old and he and his father were selling ice drop and ice cream in a town fiesta. Its one of those times when father and son were not bound by contractual work at a construction site. Equipped with an amusing personality, the young Jerry was an effective salesman, and even possessed great business savvy. Yung perang pinagtindahan ng ice drop, ibibili ko ng bote,” he tells me. The bottles he would then sell to bote garapa shops. “Mas malaki kita mo sa bote kaysa ice drop. Dalawang tubo ka.” His earning from selling ice drop would go straight to his mother while the sales from the bote garapa he secretly gets to keep. “E di pagdating sa eskwelahan mayaman ako. Yung mga kaklase ko ang baon diyes sentimos. Ang baon ko piso. Kaya ako maraming barkada. ‘Tara. Kain tayong lahat!’ O, nood kaming sine, barkada kasama ko. Libre ko sila lahat!” On one of these ice drop selling trips, the accident would happen. The jeep they were riding would fall on its side and consequently crush young Jerry’s arm. At 13, losing an arm might cause lesser kids to retreat from the world, but Acuzar was back in the rhythm of things in no time. This was, after all, a kid who at nine or 10 was already a jueteng collector, and was dealing ice drops by recruiting a group of kids to sell them while he hies off to swim in the nearby river in Mariveles.

 

the Casa Hagonoy, originally from Bulacan, with the Casa Ladrillo behind it

 

Life was simple for the Acuzars in the province. They had a beautiful bahay kubo with a space underneath enough to take care of ducks and chicken. His father was a jack of all trades, and worked at whatever job he could get. Acuzar describes his father as a happy man who worried very little. The children pitched in with the family income to help send each other to school. Hard work is inherent in the fabric of the Acuzar family. The young Jerry, even while he was studying architecture in college, was already clocking in time at the National Housing Authority. “Pag-usapan natin ang lungkot,” he tells me—because he never considered back-breaking work or the simple life he grew up in a struggle at all. After college graduation, the Acuzars found out that the house they built and were living in stood on a lot that turned out not to be their own. They were soon sent packing and moved to the house of one of Jerry’s siblings located near the market. In this new nestling place, he and his parents shared a room. “Doon ko naramdaman yung lungkot,” he says. The house they left was where Acuzar was born. “Lumaki ako lahat-lahat do’n, doon ko nakita yung mundo ko.” Some days he still cries at this memory. “Kasi naaawa ako hindi para sa sarili ko, naawa ako para sa tatay at nanay ko.” The sight of his parents packing their things from the old house broke his young heart. He promised one day he would buy his parents a house and lot of their own.

 

Critics were up in arms when he bought the Alberto Mansion in Calamba, the ancestral home of Jose Rizal’s mother, and where the National Hero had likely spent some of his boyhood years. 

 

Jam Acuzar at the heritage park’s Escuela de Bellas Artes. She now heads the art foundation Bellas Artes Projects which initiates collaborations with local and foreign artists in the hopes of creating projects that engage and benefit the park’s surrounding communities.

He was able to do more than that, of course. Acuzar would go into construction after graduation and would make his fortune in the industry. Now his own company, the New San Jose Builders Inc. (NSJBI) constructs high-rises and developments for both government arms and private corporations. The firm’s most important undertaking, next to Las Casas, is the mammoth Philippine Arena in Bulacan, the largest indoor arena in the world, standing on 140 hectares of land and boasting a capacity of 55,000 people. Acuzar was on top of the project’s management, spending days and nights in the site. It was expected to be completed within five years, but Acuzar was able to deliver in two short years, to the detriment of his health. “Dun ako na-bypass (surgery) eh,” he recalls without regret.

 

The guy has come a long way, and perhaps because he is seeing it all now in retrospect, narrating his rise in his usual no-frills, straightforward manner, he makes it all sound easy. Even if it wasn’t. Perhaps it is his humble beginnings that informed his decidedly practical way of tackling the problem of criticisms from heritage groups. Acuzar’s method of preserving heritage houses and buildings is not without its set of detractors. Historians insist that the best way to preserve a historic landmark is have it stay in situ— right where they were originally built. Critics were up in arms when he bought the Alberto Mansion in Calamba, the ancestral home of Jose Rizal’s mother, and where the National Hero had likely spent some of his boyhood years. But the Alberto Mansion has long fallen into ruin before Acuzar came along and the owner was only too willing to sell the property. After some loud protests by activists through social media, and the intervention of the United Artists for Cultural Conservation and Development, Inc., government stepped in and stopped Acuzar from carting the entirety of the building to Bataan.

 

He has been accused, by his critics, of “hoarding” the heritage homes for his own profit and gain, but a number of historians who have actually stepped foot into Las Casas Filipinas have learned to soften their stand. While not fully agreeing on his ways, some of them understood what the man is trying to do. Acuzar himself acknowledges the reality that, ideally, these homes should stay in their original locations, but sadly heritage preservation is not at the top of the Philippine government’s list of priorities. The way Acuzar sees it, he is only doing what he can while there is still something to save.

 

He cites Quiapo, for example, a place he is so attached to because he is a devotee of the Nazareno and spent his college years there. The old houses there, he says, deteriorate because of the surroundings, of the owners’ children bickering about ownership and responsibilities that maintenance becomes the least of the concerns. “So, since walang nagme-maintain, nawawalan ng value yung bahay, lupa na lang [ang may value],” Acuzar says. “Madaming bahay sa Quiapo na nasira nang gano’n lang. Lalo na sa Arlegui, ang gaganda ng bahay do’n, kasi parang Forbes Park yung Quiapo dati. Nandiyan sila Tuason. Sila Tampingco diyan nakatiraAng ganda ng Quiapo nung araw. Estero, lahat malinis.” But when the homeowners started moving out because of congestion, they started renting out their homes, and these houses became places for business, its residents unable to contribute to its upkeep. The care for the structures—a lot of them made of wood and therefore preservation is more complicated and difficult—became secondary concern. “Ako ang pilosopiya ko, gawin ko muna kaysa mawala. Kung may ayaw, di pag-usapan ulit [kung paano ibalik], basta ang pinaka-praktikal, ang common sense, bago mawala, makuha na natin, tsaka na pag-usapan yung issue. So kesyo usap nang usap ng issue, marami tayong pinag-uusapan, nabulok na, nawala na. Ano pang pag-uusapan natin? Gano’n ang nangyari. Sa’kin, di bale may issue basta na-save natin.”

 

“Is it the houses you collect or is it the stories?” The latter he says is what gives the homes their value. Otherwise it’s just another old house. 

 

Not that he didn’t consider keeping them in their original locations, he did, but he knew it wouldn’t work right away. He knew he didn’t have much influence in the government, but he had the money to do something.

 

Acuzar didn’t start out rebuilding old houses. About 15 years ago, he bought his first old house and simply salvaged what he could from it and incorporated the pieces to a modern home. Ang exciting do’n yung ginigiba. Nakikita mo na ganito pala nilalagay yung bintana, sinusuksok lang. Yung method ng construction nakikita mo. Nung nakita ko, di ko alam ha bakit pumasok sa isip ko, na sa susunod di ko na siya gigibain.” The sight of a home literally torn apart did not please him. “Tinanggal mo na yung ulo, tinanggal mo na yung kamay, tinanggal mo na yung paa. So nawala siya.” After that, he decided he would buy a house again but this time, he wouldn’t dismantle it. He would just move it, lock, stock and barrel to Bataan. Someone told him about a house in Cagayan selling for P60,000. He paid a moving truck P30,000 for the transfer. “Meron na ‘kong 70-sqm na bahay na puro kahoy. Ang gaganda ng poste.” One day, one of his cousins challenged him to do the same with a bahay na bato, a real Spanish colonial house.

 

The first house he bought of this nature was the Meycauayan House, a sizeable piece that took him and his team three years to rebuild. It was all trial and error in the beginning. They got the stairs wrong, and wood and other materials ran out. “Where were we supposed to get wood? If you put new wood in, it’s not going to work.”

 

He researched, read books. When he and his family travelled to Europe, he looked for tomes on heritage preservation, explored antique houses and shops. “Yun and naging mundo ko,” he says. “Kapag wala ako at malungkot ako, andun ako sa mga antique shop.” He would frequent the second hand stores in Kamuning. He enjoyed inspecting, running his hands on pre-loved objects. He enjoyed haggling. “Kahit na meron akong isang milyon sa bulsa.” He credits Speaker Sonny Belmonte as his mentor when it comes to antiques.

 

A Chinese friend from Taiwan saw what Jerry was doing in his Bataan property and encouraged him to turn it into a “world-class development.” Jerry thought about it and decided to go with the idea of a heritage park. He tore down the old houses he first built on the property and drew up the plan that unfolded into what it is now, Las Casas Filipinas de Azucar.

 

The heritage park cum resort has been open to the public since 2010. He often walks around the resort in his shorts followed by an entourage of engineers, assistants, and someone carrying his cooler and foldable chair. He observes the recent additions to the property. Not a brick escapes his observation. He talks with his team about any new things he wants to add, whether its a new detail of a boat, the pillar of a bridge. The work is never done. As long as there’s an old house to save, he says, Las Casas will remain a work in progress.

 

Walking into Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar heritage park in Bataan is like walking into a movie set of a period film, and it has attracted quite a few film shoots over the years, most memorably Heneral Luna and Lav Diaz’s Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis.

 

Of the homes he’s accumulated, the Bellas Artes is indeed the closest to him. It took a lot of back and forths with the Chinese seller before he finally clinched the deal. The seller would up the price every chance he got, and just when they finally agreed on something, he would tell Acuzar he is not selling anymore. But friends like Jimmy Laya and Ramon Zaragosa would remind him of its importance. Until seller and buyer finally settled on a price, and Acuzar agreed to purchase not just the structure but the land it was standing on. He says it cost him about P40 million.

 

But there are a couple more reasons why Bellas Artes is special to Acuzar. Its storied past is irresistible: Juan Luna might have dropped by in the premises, and its produced a few National Artists. I kid him, “Is it the houses you collect or is it the stories?” The latter he says is what gives the homes their value. Otherwise it’s just another old house. The second other reason is because as a young student in Manuel L. Quezon University, the Bellas Artes building was the symbol of a life outside of his means. “Tapat ng MLQ yan eh. Merong Bulaklak Restaurant do’n,” he begins. It was a Chinese tea house in the building that served pancit and fried chicken, and in those days his everyday student meal at the dorm consisted mostly of tuyo and itlog, the practical sustenance for a student in a dorm without a refrigerator and with only a manual stove that ran on gas. “Sa umaga, scrambled egg. Sa tanghali, sunny-side up. Sa gabi, hard-boiled egg,” he recalls the routine. Sometimes he would supplement his diet with banana cue. “Kapag kinain mo yung banana cue para kang sinuntok sa tiyan, ang lalaki!” It was only when his siblings and parents would visit him in Quiapo that he his meals would get an upgrade. They would order pansit and fried chicken in Bulaklak.

 

Long story short, his purchase of Bellas Artes meant acquiring a keepsake of his younger years. He didn’t stop there. He even bought the MLQU. “E nung araw hindi ako makakuha ng test hangga’t ‘di ka nagbabayad ng tuition fee mo…Nangyari sa’kin yon eh.”

 

“The Umagol River cuts through the property and meets the West Philippine Sea right by the private beach and the line of replicas by the shore.” Jerry Acuzar sitting on said beach.

 

Walking into Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar heritage park in Bataan is like walking into a movie set of a period film, and it has attracted quite a few film shoots over the years, most memorably Heneral Luna and Lav Diaz’s Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis. There are guardia civils by the entrance, the staff are all in period costume, there is working tranvia the last time I visited/ Everywhere else, cobblestones, brick walls and entire 18th and 19th century stone houses. The Umagol River cuts through the property and meets the West Philippine Sea right by the private beach and the line of replicas by the shore. This was all tall weeds and mud more than a mere decade ago, Acuzar recalls, when he owned just a mere four hectares of the land and he built his family a beach house for P500,000. A beach house too small that Jerry could step on one of his children’s heads while making his way out of the lone bedroom. They would go to the beach on sunny days, but even when its wet season, all the Acuzar kids would go out and play. “Ang tanong ko sa sarili ko, maganda ba ‘yung nangyari?” the architect says, pondering on his past and looking now at what he’s achieved. “Pero masaya yung buhay namin noong araw—kahit ako. Siguro masaya kasi ganito yung nangyari. Pero mas masarap ba yung nakaraan o mas masarap yung ngayon?” If Jerry’s affection for the past is anything to go by, he already knows the answer.

 

additional reporting by Stef Juan