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Rediscovering an Ilocos heritage landmark

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Balay San Nicolas. (Photo by Edgar Allan M. Sembrano)

Standing at the center of the town of San Nicolas in Ilocos Norte with an unobstructed view of the town plaza, the imposing Valdes-Lardizabal House is both part of the local and national patrimony.

The 19th century bahay na bato (literally “stone house” in Filipino) became an Important Cultural Property when the National Museum declared it as such in 2015.

The Valdes-Lardizabal House is the most prominent among the heritage houses of San Nicolas and is at par with the bahay na bato houses of Vigan in terms of architectural details, refined interiors and size.

In recent years, the house fell into disuse and was bought by the local government in 2015 for adaptive reuse from the Valdes-Lardizabal family who owned it. A section of its wall near the back entrance to the zaguán collapsed during the July 2015 earthquake but it is not yet clear whether that section will be restored or not.

The house is described as stately by the authors of the award-winning guidebook on the province of Ilocos Norte led by historian and church heritage specialist Regalado Trota Jose.

Ilocos Norte: A Travel Guidebook, published in 2005 by Gameng Foundation, notes “the main entrance is marked with massive engaged pilasters surmounted by a low arch which gives it an extra capital, making the arrangement of its cornices even more perplexing.”

The volada offers a view of the plaza.

A pilaster is a rectangular column while a capital is the topmost part of a column and cornices are ornamental moldings around a wall which are placed below ceilings.

“The main door, or the portón, is a set of double doors done in wooden planks into which are inserted two smaller doors, or postigos, used by the pedestrian,” the book further notes.

On the lower level of the house is the zaguán, a storage area for agricultural produce, furniture not being used, and even andas and carrozas used for religious events. The second level has high ceilings, whitewashed walls and volada windows supported by brackets. Its “door panels sport the Ilocano motif of oval bandejas in low relief on the tableros.”

The house, renamed recently as Balay San Nicolas, is now accessible to the public, thanks to the efforts of the local government and other stakeholders such as art patron Joven Cuanang and the local cultural group, San Nicolas Express Bin-I Foundation Inc., who banded together in this important endeavor of restoring and reusing a national cultural landmark.

Side door.

After years of rehabilitation and conservation works, the house is now an events place apart from being hosts to a Department of Tourism office, souvenir shop and a venue for art exhibits.

The restored house was inaugurated on 28 December 2021 during the  week-long Damili Festival. The event was graced by Department of Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, Ilocos Norte officials led by governor Matthew Manotoc, local officials led by San Nicolas mayor Alfredo Valdez, National Museum Ilocos head Paolo Mar Chan representing National Museum of the Philippines Director-General Jeremy Barns and the Valdes-Lardizabal family led by Pete Dacuycuy.

The inauguration was marked by the unveiling of the marker made by the local government, cultural performances and fashion show of attires made from and inspired by Abel Iloco or Ilocano hand-woven textile.

Back portion of the ancestral house.

Being a bahay na bato, the house is divided into two levels — the first of stone (bricks) and the second of wood. The main entrance leads to the zaguán which has at least three rooms originally utilized, as previously mentioned, for storage of farm goods and implements, carrozas and furniture not being used upstairs.

The escalera leads to the caida or the room for entertaining friends upstairs with what used to be the master’s bedroom at its end. A door at the caida opens up to the sala, which is flanked by two rooms, one of which was the original master’s bedroom following the configuration of this type of dwelling.

Beyond the sala is the volada with capiz windows. The volada offers a commanding view of the plaza, municipio and the San Nicolas Church complex.

The house used to have tisa roof but a strong storm in the early 20th century damaged a portion of it. The family decided to replace it with galvanized iron roofing which is still there today.

The exact date of construction of the house is a challenge to find out but evidences point to early 19th century.

Displaying a fusion of Chinese, Spanish and indigenous traditions, the bahay na bato was developed in the 17th century but extant ones date back only to the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Balay San Nicolas most likely belongs to those built in the early 19th century as it belongs to the style called Geometric which flourished from the late 18th century to the 1870s.

This particular style is typified by, among others, the grills protecting the windows of the zaguan and wide sliding windows with capiz shell or glass latticework.

Below the windows are ventanillas or small windows with sliding wooden shutters and barandillas or balusters made either of grills or wood.

Caida or the room for entertaining friends upstairs.

The roof of this house type is high hip, meaning, sloping on its four sides.

Other typical characteristics of an early 19th century bahay na bato is that its caida window opens up to the view of the garden at the back and its kitchen and dining room are one and the same, located in one area, usually at the back. The dining room only became a separate room in the late 19th century.

The Balay San Nicolas has these characteristics including the caida window and the dining room and kitchen which are both located in a section at its back which collapsed in the 2015 earthquake.

A list of past alcaldes (today’s mayors) of San Nicolas also supports the assumption that the house was built in the early 19th century.

In the first half of the 19th century, there were three Valdeses (also Valdez) who served as mayors of the town. These were Don Antonio Mariano Valdez in 1912, Don Miguel Valdez in 1814, and Don Antonio Valdez in 1822 and 1837 with the latter as the most probable suspect. Thus, it is safe to conclude that the Valdes-Lardizabal house was built not later than 1850.

Apart from its historic and cultural significance, the house was used in at least three movies by National Artist Fernando Poe Jr. including Ang Maestro in 1981.

It was also visited by a number of senators and secretaries during the Marcos administration, and then Senator Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a family friend.

The author would like to express gratitude to Mayor Alfredo Valdez and Pete Dacuycuy for sharing snippets about the house.

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