FAST BACKWARD: Davao’s link to Luneta Hotel

Fast Backward by Antonio V. Figueroa

Already over a hundred years since its opening, the six-story Luneta Hotel in Manila is more than just a notable edifice honored with a historical marker by the government in 2014. It was once owned by James L. Burchfield, the first American abaca plantation owner in Davao.

Burchfield, a native of Kentucky, USA, was a serviceman assigned in Davao right after the Americans took over Manila in 1899. He was part of the troops aboard S.S. Manuence and assigned with the ‘I’ Company under Capt. Hunter Liggett with a mission to contain Moro insurgency in Davao region. He was honorably discharged from the service with a rank of captain.

Even while in the service, he already saw the potentials of Davao by acquiring 100 hectares of farmlands such that after his discharge on July 3, 1901, he developed part of his property and named it Daliao Plantation. He later sold it to the Japanese in 1914 for a princely sum of P200,000, the equivalent of today’s P5.14 billion! It was the first transaction of its kind in Davao.

After selling some of his assets, Burchfield chose to make his first visit to his birthplace since arriving in the Philippines but only to be surprised by the huge changes that made life unattractive. Unlike in Davao where life was slow and there was time to enjoy tea, life in Kentucky was in a hurry. This made him decide to return to Davao and developed his remaining land assets.

Apparently interested in acquiring Burchfield’s highly successful hemp plantation, the Japanese presented him in 1919 a tempting offer, which, given that he was already in his middle age, he accepted. As a result, he moved to Manila and acquired the 60-room Luneta Hotel from Spanish engineer-architect Salvador Farre, the hotel builder and owner who also designed the Montalban Dam in Rizal Province. To ease the burden of handling the daily affairs of the establishment, he hired F.M. Lozano as general manager.

Bored by the kind of life he had to endure in Manila, Burchfield did not last long as a hotelier. He decided to sell Luneta Hotel to Robert Lee Hobbs, an American who was managing the adjacent 44-room University Building, built in 1929, at corner Dewey (now Roxas) Boulevard and Kalaw Street, Manila, in 1920.

When Burchfield yielded the hotel to its new owner, it was already featured in the 1920 Yearbook of the Philippine Islands as being “known to serve rich breakfasts and luncheons, exotic among foreigners at that time… [and was] the most sought-after address and lodging for city’s visitors, foreign dignitaries, the adventurers and merchants.”

On his return to Davao, Burchfield bought the 37-hectare estate of P. C. Libby, the American capitalist killed in the 1909 Philippine Constabulary mutiny in Davao, and renamed it Talomo Plantation Company, Inc. The war-time Libby Airfield at Ulas was also named after him.

In his younger days, Burchfield also owned the area at corner Bolton (now Cayetano Bangoy) and Magallanes (now A. Pichon S.) streets, where a post office and an ice factory once stood. It is now home of Magallanes Central Elementary School.

As for Luneta Hotel, it was used a brothel by the Americans; today, it proudly stands as one of two oldest landmarks in Manila, the other being the renovated Metropolitan Theater near the old Mehan Garden in Manila. Accordingly, the hotel “is the only remaining example of French Renaissance architecture with Filipino stylized beaux arts in the Philippines to date.”

From 1935 to 1939, during the Commonwealth, future US president Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, then military aide of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, stayed in the hotel. It was also the official resident of the delegates to the 33rd Eucharistic Congress, the first congress in Asia, in 1937. The building survived the war because it accommodated non-commissioned officers of the US Army and later on became a shelter for the Red Cruz.

In 1953, the hotel ownership changed hands from Austin and Rosalia Farre to V.E. Lednicky, president of the Chamber of Mines in the Philippines. Later, it transferred management again after it was bought by Toribio Teodoro, famed as owner of the iconic Ang Tibay shoes. In 1971, the Associated Hotels of the Philippines Directory name the owners of the firm, renamed as Luneta Park Hotel, as Cecilia Dayrit, daughter of the shoe magnate.

When Martial Law was declared, hotel management was passed to H.E. Heacock Resources, successor to the H. E. Heacock Company, and later sold to the Panlilio family, owner of the defunct Grand Air International. Briefly, it was a costume museum. When the Marcos sway fell, it was sequestered by the state and later closed to public use—that is, abandoned—in 1987.

In 1998, during the centennial celebration of the Philippine Independence, the hotel , which was previously the shooting site for the movie Missing in Action, was declared a national historical landmark by the National Historical Institute (now Commission) under Presidential Decree No. 260, issued on August 1, 1973. Almost a decade later, it was acquired by Beaumont Holdings, owned by the Lacson family of Malabon, Metro Manila.

In 2014, after almost seven years of restoration, the retrofitted and reconfigured hotel unveiled its 27 guestrooms and suites, plus a restaurant, coffee shop, and function rooms.