Many years ago, a small group of my friends decided on a whim to spend New Year’s Eve at the Peninsula Manila. We checked in that afternoon, enjoyed a few (several) drinks at the Bar, and later joined another set of friends who had booked a table at The Lobby for the traditional countdown. As the merry-making wound down, we went back to our rooms, where another stream of friends—those who couldn’t join us earlier—started dropping by and kept our little bash going, almost till sunrise. Our apologies to Prince, we didn’t party like it was 1999. It was 1999.
It’s a miracle that I can still recall the details, but as the Pen celebrates its 40th, I know I’m not alone in being nostalgic.
BACK TO THE START
The Peninsula Manila’s story doesn’t really begin in 1976. You’d have to go back around a decade to get to its roots, when the friendship between the late Patricio Luis Lim and the Kadoorie family, the clan behind The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, parent company of the Peninsula Hong Kong, was forged. Their first business deal wasn’t related to the hospitality industry, but to carpets. In partnership with Lim’s Philippine Carpet Manufacturing Corporation, the Kadoories started making the famous Tai Ping carpets in the country.
Despite the success of their carpet business, the Kadoorie family’s crowning glory was, and still is, the Peninsula Hong Kong. In the mid-1970s, their first expansion outside Hong Kong would rise in Manila, in partnership with Lim and his close friend, Carlos “Charlie” Palanca, then the owner of La Tondeña, who came on board as an investor. So in 1976, the Peninsula Manila finally opened its doors, welcoming among its first guests the delegates to the joint conference of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank held in Manila that year.
YOU’VE GOT THE LOOK
The design or architecturally inclined may wonder who designed this landmark hotel, one of the few original Makati hotels left standing. The answer is found on a small plaque, just outside the Makati Avenue pedestrian entrance, which reveals that it was the celebrated Philippine architect Gabriel Formoso who took charge of the architectural design, with the Honolulu-based firm of Wimberly, Whisenand, Allison, Tong & Goo as the consulting architects. At the time of the hotel’s construction, Formoso was one of the country’s most esteemed, as well as in demand, architects, having designed the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Complex, including the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, the Asian Institute of Management, and numerous homes of the 1960s and ’70s social set. The Peninsula was typical of his edifices, distinguished by its bush hammer finish and exposed concrete aggregate façade. Indoors, his Brutalist design was softened by a rather lush tropical feel with lots of tall plants and cozy, comfortable furniture (in green and orange!) that you could really plonk down into in the lobby. Looking back at old photographs, you’d hardly imagine it’s the same place today.
EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY
As with the hotel’s look, the food and beverage outlets have changed over the years. Do the names La Bodega, Tipanan, or Quimbaya mean anything to you? If you answered yes, congratulations, you’ve just revealed your age. La Bodega was the casual dining outlet (it was set up like a rustic Spanish cellar), later evolving into Nielsen’s, and it stands today as Escolta. Tipanan was the lounge with a poolside view, dubbed “the swingiest place in town.” We now know it as Spices. Quimbaya got its start as a swanky supper club, but soon transformed to the more sedate The Chesa, which served Swiss and continental dishes; rumor has it that it was one of Imelda Marcos’s favorites. It, too, evolved into the very much missed Italian restaurant, Mi Piace, before its current incarnation, Salon de Ning. In the midst of all these changes, there was one constant: Old Manila, the flagship dining outlet of the Peninsula, serving the finest continental cuisine for the past 40 years.
The two wings of the hotel rise perpendicular to each other at the corner of Ayala and Makati Avenue, with a 39-step cascading fountain bisecting them right down the middle. It’s very much the hotel’s signature today, but it was quite simple in the early years, originally constructed as a two-level waterfall feature in 1976. Its present look, courtesy of a major makeover in 1994, is attributed to the late American architect Pete Wimberly, a partner in the Pen’s original consulting architectural firm. (Wimberly was known as the “Pacific Rim” architect thanks to his popular resort designs.) To go with the new fountain’s more ornate look, the rest of the façade was updated as well.
In the outer structures dominated by numerous small dark panes of glass—a miniature nod to Mies van der Rohe’s IBM building perhaps?—rose arches in the neoclassical style, echoing Formoso’s more recent projects, including the Pacific Star building down the street. Inside, more dramatic changes. The casual, lounge-like feel of the Lobby was transformed into a more elegant space, with National Artist Napoleon Abueva’s majestic Sunburst sculpture affixed to the top of the 50-foot-high ceiling setting the tone. Taking the place of the utilitarian staircases on both wings of The Lobby are a grand pair of marble winding staircases, the most photographed in the country, according to the hotel. In 2007, portions of The Lobby—scene of the annual fundraising Christmas Concert, among other beloved hotel traditions—received major damage when rebel forces seeking to overthrow the government occupied the hotel. The most painful blow came from the government side, as it rammed an APV carrier through the hotel’s front doors to bring the revolt to an end. In true Peninsula fashion, it completed the repairs in record time—just four days—and triumphantly reopened for business.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Locals never call the hotel by its full name, the Peninsula Manila: it’s always just the Manila Pen—a shortened form of its original name until 1992, or simply, The Pen. In that year, the Manila Peninsula transposed the order of its name, to become more attuned to the worldwide direction of the Peninsula hotel group. The old logo, a stylized combination of the initials M and P, was subsequently removed from all areas of the hotel, the façade, room keys, stationery, even the paved driveway.
WORLD LEADERS & CROWD PLEASERS
After welcoming the IMF and World Bank delegates, the Peninsula Manila’s first celebrity guest was the Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida. A global sex symbol at the time, the brunette bombshell was also a respected photojournalist, and in the mid-1970s, she was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to photograph and write a coffee-table book on Manila. Since then, more celebrities and world leaders have made the Pen their home in the city, a few among them Margaret Thatcher, Bill Gates, Prince Andrew, Queen Sofia of Spain, Stevie Wonder, David Hasselhoff (!), and the cast of The Bourne Legacy, including Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, and Rachel Weisz. (We imagine Agent 007, Daniel Craig, stayed the night when he visited his wife.) Quite recently, the pop rockers OneRepublic sent a tweet to their fans, posting a photo of Makati’s rush hour traffic. Based on the telltale landmarks in the photo, you could easily guess where they were staying.
Throughout its storied existence, the Peninsula Manila has empowered the creation of treasured memories for all those who’ve passed through its doors. As it celebrates its 40th anniversary, we raise our glass, and toast to everyone weaving more magical moments in the years ahead.