Jai Alai Building (Taft Avenue, Manila)

July 25, 2006

It is but proper that the first entry in this hit list be the demolition of the Jai Alai Building along Taft Avenue in Manila. As one writer notes, “Like a thief in the night, Mayor Atienza snuck in 60 workers to secretly chip away at the historical Jai Alai building from the inside.”

Jai Alai Building

  • Location: Taft Avenue, Manila
  • Completed: 1940
  • Architect: Welton Becket, a friend of Hollywood celebrities and designer of the homes of such screen legends as James Cagney and Cesar Romero, as well as of Los Angeles airport
  • Style: Art Deco
  • Design: The Jai Alai’s sleek, cylindrical glass front was said to evoke the velocity of the game, in which pelotaris use curved scoops to hurl a rubber ball at speeds of up to 200 km an hour against three walls of a court
  • Significance: Among the jewels of that period was Taft Avenue, a mini-Champs Elysee, with grand homes, sparkling movie houses, colleges and spectacular Art Deco buildings. One of the finest buildings was the Jai Alai stadium, opened in 1940 as a home for the Basque game of the same name and quickly adopted as a playground by the rich and glamorous.
  • Status: Demolition began on July 15, 2000 on the orders of Mayor Lito Atienza

Remember the Jai Alai?
By Augusto Villalon
MARK the 15th of July on your calendars.

On that date in 2000 began the demolition of the Jai Alai, one of Asia’s finest Art Deco buildings, a structure that was to have given way to a new Hall of Justice for the City of Manila.

Its demolition was one of the “defining moments,” as Inquirer columnist Bambi Harper called it, in the uphill battle to preserve Philippine architectural heritage.

Public protest was loud. Conservationists negotiated with city officials to save the building. But the Jai Alai building went down anyway.

The Hall of Justice was never built.

How far has heritage preservation gone since then?

Today, five years later, construction looms in both Mehan Garden and the Arroceros Forest Park located in central Manila close to the site of the former Jai Alai.

Both sites are designated as nationally significant archeological sites by the National Museum. Furthermore, Arroceros has the added value of being the only full-grown inner city forest in Manila. Just think of its contribution to the city’s stressed ecology.

Construction excavation is underway at Arroceros. Tempers continue to fly on either side of the issue and negotiation is near deadlock. Compromise does not appear to be on the agenda of either side.

Although there are hard and fast rules followed both in preservation as well as in development, agreement might be reached that satisfies the requirements of both sides.

Who knows? An innovative solution might be reached that provides the smallest construction footprint to maximize open space in Mehan Garden or the Arroceros forest. Buildings and nature can be designed to coexist.

Countless architectural and environmental possibilities exist. It is just a great pity that none of these possibilities were given the opportunity to be talked about and tested.

The Philippines sorely lacks a model of how preservation and development go hand in hand. With the Jai Alai, Mehan Garden, and Arroceros Forest Park, we missed the opportunity to construct such a model. However, I still am hopeful that such a model will arise in the near future.

When all sectors of society join to complete a conservation project where all issues are discussed before the design of the structure is completed, then we will know that the Jai Alai building was not a senseless loss.

27 July 2000
Waiting for the demolition domino
“After Jai Alai building, what’s next?”
By Alfred A. Araya Jr.

Last Saturday, close to a hundred protesters could only watch helplessly outside the compound of the Jai Alai building on Taft Avenue, Manila.

Repeated pleas to stop the demolition fell on deaf ears. The wrecking crew, using a backhoe, a mean-looking machine equipped with what looked like a huge hammer, continued to pound on the concrete wall of the old structure. Some tried to reason with the man controlling the machine, but to no avail. They were answered by loud methodic thuds produced with every pounding that tore up portions of the wall.

Manila Mayor Lito Atienza ordered the building torn down to give way to a 12-story Hall of Justice for Manila that would house 100 courtrooms and prosecutor’s offices, now packed into the nearby City Hall. The project, expected to cost P500 million, has the blessings and financial support of Malacañang,

The building had seen better days, and better treatment.

‘Game of a thousand thrills’
The old building was where jai alai, the Basque game of handball, was played. Almost every night, at the peak of the game’s popularity, the building and its premises attracted not just aficionados of what was touted as the “game of a thousand thrills” but hundreds, sometimes thousands, of bettors pinning their hopes on the winning combinations.

Its famous Sky Room drew the city’s elite as a place for receptions, ballroom dancing and other social affairs. It was at the Sky Room, too, that well-heeled patrons dined and wined while watching the game.

But Atienza, rejecting calls for the retention of at least the building’s façade, had said: “We want the new structure to represent respect for justice and rule of law, not promote memories that tend to venerate gambling.”

Art Deco design
The demolition drew the ire of artists, students, urban groups and others concerned with protecting not just an old structure but something they strongly consider as “pamana ng bayan (national heritage).” The building was held up as an example of the Art Deco style, popularized during the Commonwealth era and the early years of the Republic, and therefore worth preserving for present and future generations.

Expectedly, the protesters’ anger was directed mainly at Atienza, whom they accused of wrecking a part of the country’s architectural heritage.

Bambi Harper, president of the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS) which headed the protest rally, accused the mayor of lying, saying he had promised not to tear down the building in a meeting a few weeks back, and reneged on his promise. The HCS is a non-profit organization advocating the protection of the country’s historic buildings, districts, and sites.

The promise turned out to be “lista sa tubig (written on water),” said HCS legal counsel Attorney Rose Beatrix Cruz-Angeles said Filipinos should realize that a structure like the Jai Alai building is part of their culture. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone [forever].”

‘Manifestations of history’
Backing up Harper, sculptor Carlos Celdran described such structures as “physical manifestations of our history.” Destroying them is like destroying one’s culture, “the very foundation of society,” he said. “You cannot be united as one people unless you have a culture.”

The conservationists are worried that the destruction of the Jai Alai building could happen to other historic buildings in the country. “After the Jai Alai building, what’s next?” asked one banner held by a protester.

Warning of “a domino effect”, Celdran said: “If the Jai Alai building goes down, another one will later go down, and then another. The demolition of historical buildings should be stopped now. If not, all will eventually be lost.”

The past as pictures
Or all will be reduced to just being pictures in coffee table books, warned Gigi Salome of Dakilang Pamana Project, a group doing a photo-documentation and inventory of architectural structures around Metro Manila that are considered part of the national heritage.

At the rate cultural relics are being ruined, she said, present and future generations wishing to see structures of the past may later have to make do with looking at souvenir photographs.

Why destroy the Jai Alai building when it can be restored? the protesters asked. They made it clear that they were not against Atienza’s plan of putting up a justice building. But they said there’s nothing wrong with preserving the building’s façade.

To Atienza, however, a preserved or restored façade would only serve as a reminder of the building’s “negative past, when it gained notoriety as a place of game-rigging, syndication and other forms of cheating, and as a place where people’s lives were ruined due to addiction to gambling.”

And so the demolition continued
Several elderly people who joined the protest appeared to cringe with each pounding of the mechanical backhoe. What used to a very popular landmark in their younger years was now being reduced to rubble.

Gone were the days when the four-story building was “the place to be in.” It was built in 1939 just before the outbreak of World War II and designed by the American architect Welton Becket.

‘It was always elegant’
“It was always very elegant,” Sister Christine Tan, who came with members of the urban group Alay Kapwa, said of the Sky Room. “I remember the dancing. My parents went there to see jai alai. It is heartbreaking to see it demolished.”

Even before the demolition started, the Jai Alai building was already not much to look at, some observers said. Old and dirty, it hardly appealed to those who knew nothing about its history.

But those in the know say it was the government that allowed the structure to deteriorate. “In 1986, that building wasn’t like this,” Harper said. She disclosed that when the government sequestered the building and placed it under the Presidential Commission on Good Government after the Edsa Revolution, it became neglected and soon became a haven for squatters.

Angeles said this only shows how the government hardly gives any weight to the national heritage. Instead, she said, it allows the putting up of structures that “do not conform with the historic fabric of the area,” citing as an example a newly built mall near City Hall.

Related Articles
The Game’s Over
Bye-bye Jai Alai


32 Responses to “Jai Alai Building (Taft Avenue, Manila)”

  1. Raul S. Ibay said

    I had an argument with my father years ago about the wisdom of demolishing the bldg. since accdg. to him these only symbolizes the prostitution and gambling that was prevalent during its heydey. No matter how unpleasant the memories may have been, we should have preserved the bldg. since it is a symbolism of our glorious past. We could even keep the facade of the bldg and make it into a hall of justice, all its takes is a little imagination. How I use to admire that bldg. when I was going to school taking up architecture in Adamson University. I wish we could have done more to preserve it than give in to wishes of someone who prides himself in preserving the beauty of Manila.

  2. […] some other landmarks from the past that already gave way to the modern structure we see now (the Jai Alai bldg for example), they call the exhibit […]

  3. mark said

    is there a clearer picture of the Jai Alai building? i wasnt much aware the fact that i was only 11 years old when this was demolished.

  4. Vince said

    Starting at the Metropolitan Theater, walked up Taft Ave last week and passed this site. There isn’t even anything built here except for a few girders driven in to the ground.

    And that’s over eight years later.

  5. Manny said

    My father used to work there from the 60’s to the 70’s.

    I use to tag along to work with him. I’ve seen it’s back interior offices. I remember the walls were so massive (or was I just small then).

    I used to enjoy watching the pelotaris practicing at the court.

    The walls at the lobby entrance then were decorated with small pelotaris in different throwing and catching poses if remember right.

    The last time I was there was during the early 80’s. It was the first time I went up to the Skyroom. The elevator did not have buttons. An operator positioned a brass-handled lever to either the up or down position to make the elevator move to the desired direction (haha). The view of the games from up there was something I would never forget. Too bad my kids will not experience something like that.

    My late father just shook his head at the narrow-minded people who ordered the place torn down. He loved his job there and the place was special to him.

  6. Dondie said

    I was one of those lucky enough to see this truly historic building albeit in it’s already deteriorated state. It’s truly sad what happened to it. Shame on Atienza for demolishing a truly historic monument. It is times like this that makes me wish for an Imelda Marcos. I just hope that the same thing never happens to the Metropolitan theater.

  7. Kat said

    It still upsets me to this day when I think about Atienza’s heartless demolition of this heritage building. I recently found some wonderful photos from the LIFE Magazine Archives and posted them on my blog. The first photo is of the Jai Alai building in its heyday. The photos were taken a week before Japan declared war, so the Jai Alai building is in its original pre-war (and most glamorous) state:


  8. […] to him, restoring the plaza revived the business around area but I still cannot forgive him for the Jai-Alai  building along Taft Avenue in Manila 10 years ago. Oh, and may I add,  changing of  historic street names […]

    • ruben s. Hernando said

      The biggest crime committed by Manila lawmakers is the changing of the old street names. If I name names, I would incur the wrath of the relatives of those whose names have replaced the old ones.Azcarraga, Magdalena, Herran, Camarines, Misericordia,Tayabas, Requesens, Mayhaligue, Rosario, Trabajo, Bustillos, Echague, and so many more. Makes my blood boil every time.

  9. pursue said

    atizienta or whatever that idiots name is, is the biggest asshole in the country. he allows illegal underage girl prostitution in ermita bars but demolishes a beautiful building. he looks like a clown in his stupid shirts. luckily he was ousted by lim.

  10. Jimmy Fernandez said

    I really don’t know if we have a commitee or agency that safeguard structures with historical values.The demolition of the Jai Alai Bldg was a classic example of our local officials total disregard for the preservation of such beutiful edifice.

  11. chris santos said

    i miss this site. curse the people who paved the way for the demolition of this building. what you can find on the site now are piles of steel columns and weeds. good thing the former mayor did not win in the mayoralty post.

  12. andre calizo said

    hi. this got me thinking – is the (detailed) architectural/engineering design plan of the Jai Alai still available? who knows, it might be rebuilt into what it was then…

  13. Dondie said

    That’s an awesome idea Andre. That practice is being done in Europe (e.g Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow). I think we can safely assume that the original plans are still with Welton Becket’s family or better yet with the U.S Federal Government. One problem though is who will fund it?

  14. hec camacho said

    filipinos are stupid people

    • Pelotari: Pena said

      Not the Filipino people Just the stupid corrupt politicians that’s all. I’m one of the most against the demolition of that building Jai Alai, For I have started my Amateur pelotari days in that same place 1972 and comeback as professional pelotari back in 1981 after my stint @ Cebu Jai Alai. So sad so many stupid politician in this country thinking about nothing but, Money making venture to thicken their wallet. So, proud to be a Filipino ashamed of my Government..

  15. carlo said

    i missed this building,the metropolitan theater,the goodearth dept.store,the avenue and galaxy theater in avenida popularly known as rizal avenue,whopper burger store whew i’ve really missed those days.

  16. andre calizo said

    @Dondi – the government (or GOCCs) can fund it. I know for a fact that the lot on which it stood is now owned by GSIS.

  17. andre calizo said

    @Dondi – the government (or GOCCs) can fund it. I know for a fact that the lot on which it stood is now owned by GSIS.

  18. […] Manila’s Jai Alai stadium. Among the jewels of that period was Taft Avenue, a mini-Champs Elysee, with grand homes, sparkling movie houses, colleges and spectacular Art Deco buildings. One of the finest buildings was the Jai Alai stadium, opened in 1940 as a home for the Basque game of the same name and quickly adopted as a playground by the rich and glamorous. heritagesentinel.wordpress.com […]

  19. i always watch jai alai every night! .. thanks for this post

  20. Ruben S. Hernando said

    The Jai Alai building used to be a landmark in the old days. When one rode a jeepney from Pasay or Sta. Cruz, and wants to get off in the vicinity of San Luis (T.M. Kalaw now) one only has to tell the driver, “getting off at Jai alai,” and lo and behold the jeepney will stop there.

    But that is not all. Jai Alai paved the way for Filipino pelotaris to develop and make their names in the sport. Hence, we have Filipino (most appropriate) Cuevas, (Lito as we used to call him in Araullo High) and others.

    Also, Jai Alai provided employment for many people. Not only the pelotaris, but the staff, the maintenance people, etc.

    Since the area is now just an ipil ipil plantation, why not simply restore the building (with a few additions here and there of course) bring back the games (the fastest game in the world as they say) and lets relive the old days. Who knows, maybe Manila can regain some of its luck and glory, And, friends and neighbors, before any self righteous, sanctimonious crusader damns me for being an advocate of gambling culture in the country, any sport or game, whether you like it or not, involves some side betting. And, Jai alai is legalized gambling. What makes it different from the casinos, may I ask? So I say, restore Jai Alai.

  21. Anderson said

    “Jai Alai Building (Taft Avenue, Manila) Philippine
    Heritage Watch” was in fact a really good post, .
    Keep authoring and I will keep reading through! Thanks -Douglas

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  23. jewel said

    nadadaanan ko lamang ito, after 13 years, dun ko lang na appreciate ang yaman na natatago ng pilipinas. nalulungkot ako at nanghihinayang,. na hindi na natin masusulyapan ang buhay ng nakalipas, mga modern art deco structures unti unti nawawala, panahon ng glory days ng manila, sabay ng trend sa paris. mga kuturado mga tao, nag papakita ng katanyagan ng maynila nung pre war 1930s to 1945

  24. A ball court arena opened in 1940 in Manila during Pres.Manuel Quezon era was destroyed during the Japanese occupation and repaired then back to normal after the war and the 1950’s to closed in 1986 since the ascension of Pres. Cory Aquino after the ball arena moved to its new location in Malate Manila near Harrison Plaza is the new home of New Jai Alai Arena which opened in 2000.thanks for the information about your comments in your opinion.From:Wayne

    • ruben s. Hernando said

      With the Estrada administration now in Manila, let us hope for a more objective and stronger political will to preserve historical landmarks in the city. What we need is a far reaching program to make sure that our heritage will not be obliterated in the name of “progress”. Instead, let us promote Manila as a tourist attraction.

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  27. miles said

    Anyone who has the results of jai-alai during 80’s I would like to use it in time travel so i can be a winner back then cheers 🙂

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