Heacock’s Department Store on the Escolta


As many of you know, I also have a Facebook group called “Manila Nostalgia”. There have been numerous posts lately regarding the restoration and revitalization of my favorite old haunt, the Escolta. My family used to have a jewelry store there called the Gem Gift Shop and as a result, I spent many an afternoon wandering around, stopping at the many stores that abounded the “Rodeo Drive” of Manila in the Fifties.

I’ve already written articles about the history of the Escolta and the Crystal Arcade but haven’t as yet written about some of the more well-recognized stores located there. So..I thought I’d devote the next few articles on the stores that have come and gone but continue to remind us of a time when the Escolta was THE place to shop.

Heacock’s Department Store.

At the onset of the American occupation, there were a few visionaries who saw opportunities in this yet uncharted but promising U.S. possession. One of those was the wholesale jewelry firm of Heacock & Freer from San Francisco. The young partner, Mr. H.E. Heacock arrived in Manila in 1900 carrying a line of jewelry; mainly men’s furnishing such as watches, collar and cuff buttons that might appeal to the American ex-soldiers, businessmen, and the well-to-do Manila elite.

He opened a retail store on the second floor of the McCullough Building next to the Hotel Metropole by the Sta. Cruz bridge, filling his inventory not only with men’s watches, chains and cufflinks but clocks, silverware, cut glass and other general merchandise.

It turned out to be quite popular and by 1908, the store was moved to the new Lack and Davis Building at 21-23 Echague street, Quiapo. (postcard courtesy Discovering the Old Philippines)

In 1909 H.E. Heacock and his partner, Freer, sold the business to Samuel Gaches and other partners. Gaches graduated from Stanford in 1899 and came to Manila in 1900 for the military postal service. He quickly rose to head the money-order section, and in 1904 went from that post to become chief agent of the internal revenue bureau. Finding an opportunity in retailing, he resigned from civil service to become treasurer, then later president of the H. E. Heacock Company. As it turned out, he was a natural-born entrepreneur and became a pioneer in retailing innovation.

In 1910, the store moved to 121-123 Escolta in an old Spanish period building between Pinpin Street and David Street. It was refurbished and featured the first modern store front in Manila. Before that, stores on the Escolta were closed at night with iron shutters, fearful of being robbed. However, Heacock’s belayed the risk and displayed wares within the large windows that opened up onto the street. The mode of shopping changed as other retailers were anxious to follow this more modern style of retailing. (click to enlarge photos)

Heacock’s grew ever more popular and by 1918, with the assistance of Dr. Burke, a new four story concrete building was erected and the store moved once again to the northwest corner of Escolta and David. The Escolta was evolving from the old Spanish era buildings that featured wooden construction with sliding windows of capiz shells to modern concrete and glass edifices. Below, the newly completed Burke building stands next to the Perez-Samanillo Building. c.1918 The reason it looks so deserted is due to the photo taken at 5:00 AM.


In the meantime, Heacock’s continued to grow, acquiring several businesses (C. Alkan, D. Denniston, and Manila Trading Supply)  that included sporting goods, firearms, photographic and office equipment. It soon became an all-encompassing provisioner. In the Thirties, Heacock’s took over the Philco Radio line and the refrigeration line of General Motors. The Philippines was in a growth mode. More Americans discovered the prosperity found in these islands and heavily invested in its future. As well, Heacock’s started opening branches in Iloilo, Cebu, Davao and Baguio. It soon out-distanced the competition such as I.Beck’s and American Hardware Company.

In 1929, construction started on a new 8 floor building (including basement) on the south west corner of Escolta and David streets. The pictures below show construction underway.


Heacock bldg construction(2)-1929
The photo below looks out onto Escolta and the Burke Building.Heacock Bldg construction-1929


From The American Chamber of Commerce Journal, Sept.1930:
In September, 1930 the H. E. Heacock Company removed from its old quarters to its fine new million-peso, eight-story building immediately across the Escolta at the same intersection, Escolta and David. The main entrance on the Escolta opens into Heacock’s proper, the jewelry store; then comes Denniston’s, the photographic department, with its valuable Eastman agency, and then the office equipment department. The jewelry store is L-shaped; one of the illustrations gives a good view of it.

In the new building the Heacock store occupies the main and mezzanine floors, both handsomely finished and artistically arranged. The second floor is also all occupied by the Heacock company; the offices are there, and the stock, accounting, mail order, wholesale and optical departments. Four rooms on the third floor are given over to stock and records; the other rooms of that floor are rented as offices, as are the rooms and suites of the fourth, fifth and sixth floors. These rooms, all of them desirable because of their location and the building they are in, offer great latitude of choice.

The seventh floor accommodates Heacock’s engraving and printing, watch-making, metal engraving, jewelry repairing and manufacturing departments; also the optical shop, Denniston’s photo laboratories, and stock of the office equipment department.

The basement, under the entire building, counts as the eighth floor. It is to accommodate automobiles during the day. Seventy-five cars will not crowd it; a wide ramp opens from Calle David, egress and ingress are safe and convenient. This public service in connection with the Heacock building will materially mitigate the downtown parking nuisance.

Unfortunately in August, 1937, an earthquake caused the destruction of the building on the Escolta, shutting down business. However within thirty days, Heacock’s had reorganized their departments, splitting them between temporary Escolta and Port Area locations while plans were made to rebuild at the same location on Escolta and David. This article shows a photo of Heacock’s temporary location at the corner of Calle Soda and Escolta, taken probably around 1938 (although the article was dated 1939) . The new building at the same location of Escolta and David, just past the large Masonic Building on the right, was completed in 1938.

Escolta-Heacock's-1930s-modThere would be a beautiful display of windows, large enough to include an entire room of furnishings. One of the most modern stores in Manila, it even offered an electric door opened “magically” by a photoelectric cell. (photo below courtesy John Tewell)

Architects Fernando Ocampo, Tomas Arguelles, and George Koster drew the plans for this modern facility budgeted at PHP800,000. It would be the latest in office buildings and include pneumatic tubes to allow executives to communicate with any department without using the telephone. It had a 20-foot concrete vault and reinforced steel space to store ammunition, samples of aerial bombs, tear gas, machine guns and other equipment used by the Philippine army.

It was beautiful as well as functional. Dao wood was used exclusively throughout to avoid warping in the humid climate, while narra was used in the bargain basement – another first for businesses of the day. The basement offered much the same merchandise but of slightly lower quality.

Much was done to pay attention to the smallest detail. A beauty parlor was located on the third floor. Counters on the main sales floor were planned at the correct height for the average customer. And, it was the first totally air-conditioned building using air ducts passing through the building.

Much of the building was destroyed during the Battle of Manila however the business did survive and was brought back to life during the reconstruction period of 1946-1948. It was still a viable and popular department store in the Fifties.

From the diary of E.A. Perkins
Fri., February 16, 1945:
“I went out on pass again this morning with Dinny Gunn and Major Chenery, both of the staff of H.E. Heacock Company. We were out from 9:00 to 11:45 A.M. and finally succeeded in getting as far as the Escolta and the financial district. What a ghastly sight! A city of the dead! Not a building unscarred, although a few showed only minor damage. My office is among the lucky ones, although I could not get inside because of the debris and rubble all around that military equipment backed right up against the wall and doorway. From an outward inspection it appears that the first three floors have been gutted by fire, but above that it shows little outward signs of damage. The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, the People’s Bank, the China Bank, and the National City Bank are completely gutted but the frameworks of the buildings, blackened by fire and smoke, still stand. The Bank of the Philippine Islands is completely destroyed and has collapsed, except for a few bits of wall of the ground floor.

 The Philippine National Bank (the old Masonic Temple on the Escolta) is completely gutted and the part facing the river is over half destroyed and one side has entirely collapsed. There is an immense crater just at the foot of the wall in this part in which it appears that a large bomb, or perhaps several of them, fell. The crater is at least 20 feet in diameter. The depth cannot be seen because it is nearly filled with dirty water.

The 8-story Cu-Unjieng Building has completely collapsed and has fallen partly on Calle Pinpin and partly across the Escolta, blocking both streets to a height of two stories. (Bill) Chittick’s office on Calle Pinpin, just behind the debris of Cu-Unjieng Building, still stands but has been completely gutted by fire.

The Heacock Building was likewise gutted by fire and shows scars of desperate fighting. Sandbag breastworks on the ground floor and the mezzanine floor are mute testimony to what went on. I went up to the third floor climbing over a mass of debris which cluttered the back stairway. There I nearly stumbled over a wire which was connected with a detonator of a large torpedo bomb, evidently placed there by the Japs. I decided not to go any further in the exploration. “

During the occupation, the Japanese interned Sam Gaches, along with 4000 Allied civilians, at the University of Santo Tomas. His health declined even after he was liberated three years later and soon passed away in 1946. D.O. Gunn took over as President after Gaches’ death but only served a few years and was succeeded by Jose Orosa, one of the first Filipinos to be president of an American-owned company.

The store reopened during the reconstruction period and in 1948, Heacock’s was known as one of the most progressive companies of its day in terms of employee benefits. The Heacock employees enjoyed a profit-sharing privilege when given bonuses by the management based on the profits realized during that year. Each year the employees were given 15 days vacation leave and 15 days sick leave with pay. In addition, they were also entitled to free medical and dental service rendered by the company physician and dentist.

“Heacock’s has a splendid reputation,” Mr. Orosa declared, “and this has been built up by the employees and the management. We have lived up to the expectation of the public. We continue to do so, and to better serve our customers, we are opening our new air-conditioned store this week.”

Radio Heacock

Along with his competitor, Beck’s Department Store owned by Isaac Beck, Heacock’s imported and sold American radio sets and equipment. Gaches, intrigued by the prospect of the growth of radio and even the future of television, started kzRH on July 14, 1939, from the top floor of the H.E. Heacock Building.

At exactly 6:00am, the voice of announcer Hal Bowie signaled the start of the Philippines’ fourth radio station. Assigned to 650 kilocycle in radio frequency, kzRH made its premiere broadcast using a 10,000-watt transmitter, the strongest signal power at that time. kzRH installed the most modern equipment of the time that allowed it to cover every point in the Philippines, rivaling the power of kzRM which, until that time was the only one of the three stations before kzRH that was heard practically all over the Philippines.  (Source: Appropriation of Colonial Broadcasting: A History of Early Radio in the Philippines by Elizabeth L. Enriquez)

Above: Radio personality, Hal Bowie sitting on the right, announcer John Arville on the far left. c.1949 (courtesy Lea Bowie)

Above, the radio staff at kzRH, c. early 1950s.

I miss the Escolta. I miss what it once was. I do hope that the whole area of Binondo, Plaza Moraga, Plaza Santa Cruz and specifically the Escolta can be revitalized. I’ve seen efforts by the younger generation to clean up the streets, clean up the Pasig with boats ferrying tourists to the old “downtown” area. Their passion and reverence for our heritage may be the only thing that can save this once beautiful district.

As always, I invite you to write me at Manilanostalgia@gmail.com Send me your photos and share your memories. I would love to hear from you. Signing off now from Seattle.

Cheers ! Lou Gopal

Cheers ! Lou Gopal

More articles coming: Brias Roxas, Riu Hermanos, Berg’s

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