The story of El Hogar Filipino’s founder Don Antonio Melian

In February 2014, a hot topic of debate was the sale of the iconic El Hogar Filipino building in Binondo, Manila, to an undisclosed buyer. The fear of conservationists was that the Beaux Arts building, built in 1914, would be demolished despite its architectural and historical significance (it was built by the Spanish priest credited for the country’s first earthquake-resistant building, and it was occupied by Japanese troops during World War II).

The more pragmatic and profit-oriented property developers, however, see no point in preserving a building that is already crumbling and would cost millions to rehabilitate. The last time we heard, the new owner, a former tenant of the building, was going to turn El Hogar Filipino into a warehouse. 

There was also talk about the missing contents of a time capsule. Coconuts Manila has confirmed that among the artefacts inside are a photo of the building’s inauguration and a copy of the speech given by the owner. They are now in safe hands.

In this article, we go beyond the issue of preservation and the architectural importance of El Hogar Filipino and talk about Don Antonio Melian, the man responsible for building El Hogar and whose vision is still kept alive by one of Metro Manila’s most exclusive families.

READ: 15 heritage buildings that should be turned into hotels or something

When I started researching about El Hogar’s building some 20 years back, one of the first things I learned was that the man behind it was a Peruvian count by the name of Antonio Melian. But as I started to take a closer look at Don Antonio’s life I realized that he was not Peruvian but a Spaniard. He was born in Las Palmas, former capital city of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, on May 21, 1879. As for the nobility part, that may be partly true as his mother, Maria de los Dolores y Pavia y Van Halen, held a minor title.

The Melian family later moved to Madrid where the young Antonio earned a Bachelor Arts degree at San Isidro Institute. In 1894, he took the exam for the Spanish civil service and began a career with the Spanish bureaucracy. He was senior clerk at the Council of Public Works after nine years in public service, when he left for Argentina and then Peru, where he worked an insurance agent and later set up his own import and export company.

In 1907 Don Antonio set foot in Manila for the first time.

He was in search of a business opportunity and came in contact with the Zobel family, who was by then already deeply entrenched in Philippine society.

Don Antonio met Margarita, only daughter of Jacobo Zobel y Zangroniz, the mayor of Manila. It was a whirlwind romance. The two were married at San Agustin Church by June of the same year. A local magazine, The Excelsior, gave it a six-page coverage. The couple left for Lima, Peru, and returned to Manila three years later.

It was upon their return that Don Antonio founded El Hogar Filipino. The company issued mortgage and returned the earnings among its member in proportion to their investments. Under his management he was able to make the initial capital of PHP280,000 grow to about PHP28 million. Huge.

The company’s print advertisements at that time boasted that it was a company that can be trusted, with prominent businessmen like Francisco Ortigas, and Melian’s brothers in law, Fernando Zobel and Enrique Zobel, on its board. Three years later he opened Filipinas Campania de Seguros, the first local-owned fire insurance company.

It was groundbreaking then as fire insurance companies in the Philippines were owned by foreigners, with varying premium rates depending on whether the policy holder was Asian, American or British. It was not uncommon for policy holders to experience long delays in receiving their settlement as this had to be decided by the company’s head offices in London. Don Antonio’s company is still around and has since merged with other insurance companies; it is now known as BPI/MS Insurance Company.

Some of the earlier written accounts that I have read about El Hogar’s building in Binondo claim that it was built by Don Antonio as a wedding gift to his wife — which is why the staircase inside the building bore the couple’s initials. Don Antonio hired architects Don Ramon Jose de Irureta Goyena Rodriguez and Francisco Perez Muñoz.

When it opened in December 1914, the magazine Dia Filipina proclaimed the three-and-a-half-story structure as the best of its kind in Asia. It was one of the first buildings in Manila to be built entirely out of concrete. Because of this distinction, it attracted tenants like Eastern Extension Cable Co, Commercial Pacific Cable Co, shipping firm Smith, Bell and Co and his own insurance firm, Filipinas Compania de Seguros.

A prewar business directory listed Don Antonio’s religion as Catholicism. However he could have been a member of the Masonic Lodge, too, if we were to dissect El Hogar’s architecture.

It was common practice then for building owners who were members of the Mason to put the foundation stone on the northeast side of their building. This is to signify the unity of north, associated with darkness, and the east, associated with light. In the case of El Hogar, the foundation stone is located just next to the main entrance. This is where the original signage and the time capsule of the building were located. 

If you were to bring your compass or take a look on Google Maps, you will see that this stone does indeed face northeast. Another hint that he may have been a Mason: His father in law, Jacobo, was head of the local Masonic lodge.

In 1913 Don Antonio was elected as the first president of the Casino Español, even though the social club had been around since 1893 (or 1843, depending on which account you believe). Comprised of the local Spanish community, it did not have an organizational structure until Don Antonio Melian came along. He was apparently a very popular president as he served four terms (not consecutively, though). He was later given the title of “Perpetual Honorary President.”

By the 1920s Don Antonio’s place in local society was secure. He was on the board of some of the top business firms then, such as Ayala y Cia, San Miguel Brewery and Banco de Islas Filipinas (today’s BPI). He was also behind the construction of the Metropolitan Theater and the forerunner of today’s mall, now-defunct Crystal Arcade in Escolta.. He helped establish civil aviation in the country by founding the Aviation Corp of the Philippines. He was also appointed the Spanish Consul general in 1920 and the honorary consul general for Peru in 1930.

In 1923 Don Antonio was appointed by a royal decree of the King of Spain as the Conde de Peracamp or the Count of Peracamps. The title comes from a region in Catalunia, Spain. It was first awarded to Don Antonio’s grandfather, General Antonio Van Halen, who participated in a battle that occurred around the village of Peracamps, during the First Carlist War (a Spanish war of secession) in 1840. The title may appear to be a very minor as it does not appear in the official Spanish list of nobility or in the Catalan list of nobility.

Don Antonio retired from the business world in 1932 and moved back to Madrid. He and his wife had five children: Sylvia, Leopoldo, Edmund, Raul and Alfredo. He made periodic visit to the Philippines up until 1950. He died in January 19, 1956. According to his obituary, at the time of his death, his children were involved in various local companies. Sylivia, Leopoldo and Eduardo were on the board of San Miguel Brewery, Raul was on the board of Caltex, while Alfredo was working with the Ayalas.

At least three of the brothers helped Col. Joseph McMicking in setting up Forbes Park for the Ayalas. Leopoldo, Eduardo and Alfredo’s names can be found on the cornerstone of the Santuario de San Antonio church along McKinley Road. After Don Antonio’s death, it was his son, Leopoldo, who inherited the title of the Conde de Peracamp. He also served for a year as the president of the Casino Español.

In the early 1960s, Colonel Joseph McMicking sent Alfredo Melian to Spain to scout for land that could be develop into the most luxurious housing development in the Mediterranean. Located on the Costa del Sol, Sotogrande is now home to some of the richest and most powerful families in Spain. It is known that at least one of Don Antonio’s son, Raul, moved to Sotogrande when he retired in 1969 after working for Caltex in 1969.

From what we were able to find so far, many of Don Antonio’s grandchildren are now scattered across the globe. As to who among them holds the title of Conde de Perecamps? It now belongs to Leopoldo’s son Enrique Ugarte Melian, uncle of Rogue editor Josemari Ugarte. He inherited the title after his father died in 1978. While reporting on the 2012 wedding of his cousin Bianca Zobel, Ugarte briefly mentioned his uncle attending the wedding. So it would appear that the Melian are still in touch with the relatives here and have not forgotten their Philippine roots.

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