In the late 1930’s, American architect Welton Becket
had the opportunity to travel to Manila to consult with the Philippine government on housing for low-income families. Becket was born and started his career in Seattle. He designed the original Los Angeles airport and many homes for Hollywood stars such as: James Cagney, Ceasar Romero and Robert Montgomery.
After leaving for a three-month stay, Becket landed a $1,000,000 commission to design a new Jai Alai Auditorium in Manila. The Manila fronton was erected in 1939 and with its sleek and streamlined design fashionable in the 1930s, the structure soon became an icon. The games were formally inaugurated on October 17, 1940 by a team of Basque pelotaris and became an instant hit with Manila’s elite. It slowly evolved into an exclusive sport for the rich, much like golf.
Adjacent to the old Congress building along Taft Avenue, the Jai Alai Club soon became the place to see and be seen. The four story building was said to be one of the most beautiful Jai Alai frontons in the world, complete with gaming rooms, 4 restaurants, 4 bars, a roof garden and imported Spanish and Filipino entertainers.
Dinner and cocktails were available at the top floor in the glass-enclosed and very airconditioned dining room called the Sky Room. My parents would take me every so often to the Sky Room where I would relish the fact that I could “almost” wear a sweater and order a wonderful T-bone steak. Mmm!!
Jai Alai – means “happy feast” in Basque, the game was initially the sport of Manila’s elite. According to some sources, the game was introduced to the Philippines in 1899 by a group of aficionados headed by the Elizalde brothers.
Every night, the fabulously wealthy or the heavily indebted visited the Jai Alai Club and gambled on the crooked play of the imported Spanish Basques. Well, most people would agree that the games were fixed. Those stories abounded just like the boxing and wrestling competitions of the day – it was, after all, entertainment.
Jai Alai is a very competitive and sometimes, very dangerous sport played in a three-sided court similar to a handball or racquetball court, only much larger, one hundred eighty feet long, fifty-five feet wide and eighty feet high. The game is played with wicket basket-like slings that are attached to one hand of the players. Using these baskets, the players are able to throw the hard sheephide ball at speeds that defy the imagination. The ball is allowed to play off the floor and walls but not the ceiling. Most of the Jai Alai players were originally Basques from Northern Spain. Tough, fearless men who played the game with total abandon.
The Jai Alai building had seen many uses through its lifetime. The Jai Alai palace was the only major structure in Manila to stand up under both the Japanese and American bombings. It was constructed so strongly and served so well as a shelter during air raids that it was used by the top staffs of both the American and Japanese Armies when they were in Manila.
During the Japanese raids against Manila’s “Open City” at the end of 1941, the Jai Alai building was set up as a makeshift hospital and morgue by the U.S. Navy.
When the Japanese marched into Manila in January 1942, they found transmission equipment hidden within the Jai Alai fronton that had been used by the underground resistance to communicate with the military defense on Corregidor and Bataan. During the Japanese occupation it was the headquarters of the Japanese military secret police and a place of dread to all the remaining citizens of the capital city.
After the war, the Jai Alai building was the first badly damaged spot to be restored to its pre-war state. Cost of the $500,000 reconstruction was partially paid by the U.S. Army led by Charles Ward who drew the plans for the service center. With the help of 1700 Filipinos, the Army and the Red Cross directed the reconstruction. It was renamed The Roosevelt Club, after the late president, and was said to be the largest Red Cross service center in the world. It served about 40,000 military daily with every facility that can be offered by a first class hotel.
The fourth floor was outfitted for the entertainment of the servicemen with a canteen, jukebox, cabaret, broadcasting studio, valet shop and phonograph studio. The floor also had a roof garden, solarium, auxiliary dance floor and a soft drink bar where the famous Sky Room formerly entertained hundreds every night with big name bands, featured artists and the finest food and liquor found in Manila.
The tremendous fronton where the best jai alai players appeared was converted to a huge dance floor and a theater seating 5000. A service bureau, coffee shop, barbershop, checkroom, restrooms, first-aid station, lockers and showers were located on the first floor.
Unfortunately, the building did not survive the post-war years, decaying to a sadly abandoned structure and was demolished in 2000 – defying preservationists who rallied to save the building, one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in Asia. The spirited campaign to save the building was ignored by former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, who decried the structure as a reminder of gambling and other vices, despite the presence of numerous government-owned casinos in the city.
Here’s a photo of my Tita Charito and her mother, Adelaida apparently waiting for a parade to go by on Taft Avenue past the Jai Alai building.
John L. Silva, a member of Manila’s small network of preservationists, told AsiaWeek magazine at the time: “every time we tear down an old structure, particularly one that resonates with history and milestones, we as a people lose another marker that explains who we are as a nation, where we came from and where we are going.”
Here are a couple of wonderful digital paintings by Edel Rosario. They bring to mind the essence of the Jai Alai Building and perhaps how it might have looked today had it been saved. Sayang !
Next time: Hmmmm…. the Metropolitan ?