San Sebastian Basilica

Completed Project
World Monuments Watch
Manila, Philippines

San Sebastian Basilica dates to 1891and is part of a complex that includes a college (1947) and a seminary and courtyard (1950s). The site is in the Quiapo district, once the heart of historic Old Manila. Now, its narrow streets and turn-of-the-century houses are heavily congested with pedestrian and vehicular traffic as well as densely packed shanties and low-rise commercial buildings. Along adjacent streets are some of the grandest historic houses, Malacanang Palace of Philippine presidents, and some of the country’s oldest universities. San Sebation was constructed of 1,527 tons of steel manufactured in Binche, Belgium, in 1886 and assembled over the course of two years by local craftsmen. The interior, designed by the school of Lorenzo Rocha, is decorated by an elaborate painted program: faux jasper and marble, and trompe l’oeils of angles, saints, medallions, and coats of arms. There are 34 painted glass windows, all imported from the Henri Oidtmann Company of Germany.

1998 and 2010 World Monuments Watch

The site was included on the 1998 World Monuments Watch because of structural threats and decorative losses. Following its inclusion on the 1998 Watch, through funding from American Express, WMF was able to partner with the National Historical Institute in the Philippines to begin a massive conservation project on San Sebastian Basilica. Work included the repair of steel corrosion caused by water infiltration, humidity, and salt air from Manila Bay. Relationships were forged between the project manager, local government, and parish to support and institutionalize the project within the local government. Professional conservators were hired to help the community create a cultural resource map and preserve the physical material of the basilica. In addition to physical investigation and conservation efforts, a website was created dedicated solely to explaining the conservation of the site in order to be a conduit for two-way communication and donations. The basilica was included on the Watch in 2010 because of the persistence of certain threats to the structure. Following Watch-listing, the basilica received government grants and in-kind professional support totaling $80,000. In July 2011, the project received a $96,000 award from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation of the U.S. Department of State to continue the major effort to carefully study and document the condition of this one-of-a-kind building.

San Sebastian stands on the site of first church of the Recollect Friars and first Carmelite shrine. Since three stone churches succumbed to earthquakes between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, a steel basilica was proposed in 1881 to withstand future tremors; it is the only all-steel church in East Asia. Don Genaro Palacios, Director of Public Works of the Spanish Insular Government was credited with the design, but documents suggest Gustave Eiffel of the famed Parisian tower may have been the actual architect. While the exterior had been frequently repaired and repainted, the structure remained true to its original design. The interior was largely untouched, with the exception of a 2001 restoration in which paintings were cleaned and coated with wax to brighten their surfaces. The church is an active site within the Manila community; as the national shrine of Our Lady of Carmel, it has been a pilgrimage site for devotees since the Spanish colonial period.

Last updated: February 2019.

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