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Tracing Zamboanga City's Rich History: A Journey Through Its Heritage Structures

The Zamboanga peninsula is the traditional home of the Subanon, but by the 16th century, migrants from Sulu like the Sama and Badjao made their moorings and established villages on stilts along the southern tip of the peninsula. In 1593, the Spanish sent troops to secure the area. A palisade was built at La Caldera (presently Recodo), 15 kilometers northwest of Zamboanga City, in the direction of Ayala. The palisade was built to garrison troops to protect the trading route and to serve as an advanced station for the ambitious plan to conquer Sabah, whose sultans were trading competitors of the Spaniards. The Sabah plan failed, and La Caldera was abandoned.

Plaza Rizal fronting the Zamboanga City Hall
Plaza Rizal fronting the Zamboanga City Hall, 2015 (Jeffrey Pioquinto)

A new center of Spanish presence was established in what was to become Zamboanga City’s heritage area. The area is today defined by the city hall and Plaza Pershing to the northwest and Fort Pilar to the southeast. It is roughly demarcated by three parallel streets, Legionaire, Rizal, and N. S. Valderosa and perpendicular to these, Calle Guardia Nacional, Don Pablo Lorenzo, and Lustre.

In 1635, Jesuit missionaries began evangelizing this district. While the Spaniards hesitated to settle in the area, Father Melchor de Vera, SJ, a builder who had fortified Jesuit churches in Leyte, built Fort San Jose that same year. Troops were garrisoned there and Spaniards eventually settled in the area. The fort contained threats from slave raiders and protected the community of Lutao (Christianized Badjao) who had gravitated toward the area now known as Rio Hondo and the former site of Pettit Barracks outside the fort. The fort was abandoned in 1663, when the troops were pulled out and sent to Manila to prepare for an attack by Koxinga, which never materialized.

Demolished in 1663, the fort was rebuilt in 1719 by Juan de Ciscara, a military engineer, and renamed Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragosa. To the north of the fort was a palisaded area protected by bastions, one of which was called Santa Barbara, the name also given to the area. With the reconstruction of the fort, the Jesuits returned to Zamboanga and built a church and college at the palisaded area, roughly the area presently defined by N. S. Valderosa, Legionaire, and Santa Barbara streets, where Plaza Pilar and the adjoining areas are located.

In 1768, when the Jesuits were expelled from the Philippines, all of Mindanao was turned over to the Augustinian Recollects, who were already in charge of the eastern half of Mindanao.

When the Americans arrived in Zamboanga, they laid claim to the fort and the formerly palisaded area of Santa Barbara. By the 1900s the palisade was gone. At an adjoining site the Americans built Pettit Barracks and a water system for Zamboanga.

The area around the Zamboanga city hall on N.S. Valderosa Street and Plaza Pershing were developed as a new urban center. Around and near Plaza Pershing was the Jesuit-built Immaculate Conception Church and Ateneo de Zamboanga, established in 1912. The Ateneo moved north to a developing district called Jardin de Chino and the church followed. The church was raised to a cathedral in 1910, when the Diocese of Zamboanga was established. Michael James O’Doherty served as the first bishop from 1911 to 1916.

Heritage Structures in the Urban Center

Fort Pilar

Outer walls of Fort Pilar
Outer walls of Fort Pilar (Wikimedia Commons)

Fort Pilar, built in 1719 by Juan de Ciscara, follows a typical bastioned fort plan of the 18th century. Three bastions have straight walls while a fourth bastion, on the south and facing the sea is in the ace of spade shape, known as orillon or orejon. 

Relief of Nuestra Señora del Pilar
Relief of Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Wikimedia Commons)

The original gate faced east but was sealed by the early 20th century and is presently a shrine to Nuestra Señora del Pilar. Fort Pilar was repaired and remodeled a number of times. The latest remodeling, which gave the fort its present appearance, was done by the Americans who had earlier taken control of it. The fort is currently under the administration of the National Museum of the Philippines, which has opened a southern branch of the National Museum featuring the peoples of the south, trading routes of the south, and the artifacts from the trading ship, Griffin, discovered in southern Philippines. The barracks inside the fort are undergoing restoration to slow down the erosion of the brick substructure that has been exposed with the deterioration of the wall’s lime plaster finish or palitada.

Zamboanga City Hall

Zamboanga City Hall was built in 1905 and completed in 1907, as the seat of the Moro Province. It became the seat of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu in 1914 and served as capitol of the region. American governors of the region included Leonard Wood, Tasker H. Bliss, Ralph W. Hoyt, and Major John Pershing. When Zamboanga became a chartered city on 26 February 1937, it became the city hall. The building is in Spanish-colonial style, popularized by the American architect William Parsons. Its center was demarcated by a tall tower crowned by a hip roof with decorative corbels and cantilevered wooden balconies. The tower had a clock at the topmost floor. The ground floor with an arched entrance leads to the stairwell leading to the upper story. Flanking the tower are the wings, which have rusticated stone blocks, carved corbels, and cantilevered balconies. The wings end in faux facades with windows shielded by media aguas (awnings). These faux facades are the front of two wings perpendicular to the main wing and forming the u-shaped plan of the city hall.

Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) Zamboanga Office

Don Francisco Barrios residence, built in the 1860s, now Bank of the Philippine Islands Zamboanga main office
Don Francisco Barrios residence, built in the 1860s, now Bank of the Philippine Islands Zamboanga main office, 2017 (Eduardo Flores Jr.)

The Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) Zamboanga Office on N. S. Valderosa corner Corcuera Street was formerly the residence of Don Francisco Barrios, a businessman, appointed as Chinese Consul and holding the rank of Mandarin. It was built around the 1860s. During the American era, the house was the official residence of Major John Pershing, who expanded and remodeled it. In 1912, at Pershing’s encouragement, BPI opened a branch on the ground floor of this house. It was appointed the official depository of the government in Zamboanga. The heritage house has been restored and appropriated for architectural reuse. The lower floor serves as a bank. Meanwhile, the upper story, which had long ceased to be a residence and had been used for storage, has been restored to the time of Major Pershing and is used for BPI’s company affairs. Stars adorn the transoms of the house alluding to the stars and stripes of the United States (US). In 2014, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines marked the BPI building.

Plaza Pershing

Plaza Pershing was named after Major John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing (1860-1948). On 17 August 1899, Pershing volunteered for an assignment in Mindanao and Jolo. He was raised to the rank of major. Later, as a general, he led the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. A controversial figure for his firm and harsh attitude toward Muslims, American confreres honored him with a small park in Zamboanga. Shaped as triangle, the park has an octagonal gazebo at the northeastern apex of the triangle and roofed entrances, all from the American era.

Pettit Barracks

Built in the area adjacent to Santa Barbara, Pettit Barracks was built for the US Army’s 43rd Infantry Regiment. The site was formerly occupied by Spanish troops, but the Americans took over on 16 November 1899, when they captured Zamboanga. The barracks were named after Colonel James S. Pettit (1856- 1906), 31st Infantry US Volunteer Commanding Officer Inspector General and in-charge of Civil Affairs of Zamboanga from 1899 to 1901. The barracks fell under Japanese control from 1942 to 1945, and was recaptured by the Americans on 10 March 1945. The barracks was turned over to the Philippine government on 4 July 1946. The barracks was surrounded by a picket fence and its main gate had an arched cement entrance flanked by sentry posts. Inside the enclosed area were the quarters of the commanding officer, the subordinate officers and the soldiers. There was a two-story wooden building of the YMCA, a parade ground, and an octagonal kiosk at its perimeter for viewing parades.

The quarters of the commanding officer was a two-story structure, very much like a bahay na bato (stone house). Beside it was a two-story watchtower. Those of subordinate officers’ quarters were one-story tsalet (chalet) types, raised above the ground by about a meter. A balcony was built in front of the house. Like other American-era military installations elsewhere, for instance Camp John Hay in Baguio, the buildings in Pettit Barracks were mostly wooden with a galvanized iron roof.

Heritage Structures Outside the Urban Center

Rio Hondo

In the 17th century, Rio Hondo was the Sama Dilaut (Badjao) mooring place. It is now a village inhabited mostly by migrants from Jolo and Sulu. Migration accelerated beginning in 1974 when a massive encounter between Philippine military and the Mindanao National Liberation Front (MNLF) occurred in the town center of Jolo. The ensuing battle from 7 to 8 February resulted in the devastation of Jolo and a death toll placed at 20,000. Fleeing from the aftermath of battle, many Tausug from Sulu migrated to Zamboanga. Eventually, the Sama Dilaut were eased out.

While the houses at Rio Hondo use modern materials like galvanized iron roofing, plywood, and reinforced cement posts instead of more traditional materials like thatch, bamboo, wood planks for walls, and tree trunks for posts, these more modern houses still retain the basic form of dwellings built on stilts over the shallows of the sea. Typical is Maharlika Hall, the village center. Although made of modern material it rests on cement stilts anchored to the sea floor. Several mosques in the area are also on stilts over water.

Rio Hondo suffered major destruction of houses and buildings because of a military encounter between the Philippine Army and the MNLF in September 2013 to date (2015). Rio Hondo has not yet fully recovered from this, and many residents who fled the area are still homeless or in temporary shelters. The site of the battle of 2013 is popularly called “Ground Zero.”

Gabaldon Schools

The Gabaldon schools are known in Zamboanga as “Burleigh schools,” after Private Albert L. Burleigh, a pioneer teacher-soldier, killed while detailed in Jolo. Its two remaining buildings are presently called East and West Central Schools. The Gabaldon school was named after Representative Isauro Gabaldon (1875-1942), representative of Nueva Ecija (1907-1911), and senator (1916-1919). He authored Philippine Assembly Act No. 1801, allotting one million pesos annually from 1907 to 1915 for the construction of school buildings. These buildings followed a template put together by the Bureau of Public Works. The typical Gabaldon school was raised from the ground by a meter or so. It has a galvanized iron roof, walls made of wood, and generous openings to let in air and light. Its windows were awning-type and were made of wooden slats and Capiz shell panes. The typical classrooms opened to a wide corridor. On the corridor side, the walls had operable transoms to allow a free flow of air.

Zamboanga Normal School Building

Zamboanga Normal School building on Normal Road was constructed between 1917 and 1921 for teacher training. It was to become the permanent home of Provincial Normal School which was established in 1914. This building is now the College of Teacher Education, and part of the Western Mindanao State University. The school building, costing 200,000 pesos in 1917, followed the design by Juan Arellano. In typical neoclassical style, it is characterized by the use of rounded arches for windows and doors, which define both the first and second stories. This longitudinal building has its center section, where the main door is placed, jutting forward, thus mitigating the block-like effect of the building. Softening the severity of the plain neoclassical designs are transoms and windowpanes, which are covered with glass bounded by wooden lattices, and wooden corbels that support the roof in the style of mission architecture.

Ateneo de Zamboanga

Ateneo de Zamboanga was established by Spanish Jesuits in 1912 and officially and formally named Escuela Catolica. It was a parochial school attached to Immaculate Conception Church. Its first director was Father Manuel Sauras, SJ. It held its classes in a wooden building opposite the cathedral, which also housed a barber shop and the garage of Mindanao Transit. In 1916, the Escuela Catolica was renamed Ateneo de Zamboanga. Because its old wooden building was being torn down, the school moved to the convento of the cathedral, occupying the ground floor. The building, which the school had previously occupied, was replaced by a plain, straightforward, three-story structure, named Mindanao Theater Inc. In 1928, the Ateneo opened a high school department in this building, which had been purchased by Bishop Jose Clos y Pages, SJ, (bishop of Zamboanga, 1920-1931) for 80,000 pesos and renamed Knights of Columbus. By 1932, the school, now under the American Jesuits (who had replaced the Spanish Jesuits in 1930) and with Father Thomas Murray, SJ, as director, had its first high school graduates. The school buildings located downtown were bombed during the liberation of the city on 8 and 9 March 1945. In 1947, the high school reopened at the Jardin de Chino along Camino Nuevo (presently La Purisima Street), where Father Eusebio Salvador, SJ, had bought 18 adjoining lots before the war. In 1948, the school was officially recognized as a Jesuit school separate from the parish. The school became a university in 2001. Nothing of the prewar structures has remained. Before the war, the school was at two sites, beside the Church of the Immaculate Conception (near present-day Sunken Garden), and the Knights of Columbus building, now the site of the City Theater.

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a new structure built between 1998 and 2002, and was designed by Abarro and Associates. It replaced an earlier structure built in 1956 which had been badly damaged by termites. This 1956 structure hewed closely to the pre-World War II design, which was shaped like a barn, with the central nave rising higher than the flanking aisles. A colonnade of hardwood separated the aisles from the central nave. The facade, which rose to two stories terminated in a triangular pediment. It was flanked by twin towers; the Epistle side tower had a clock. In front of the main entrance was a porte cochere. Like all the Jesuit built churches of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the structure was made of wood and roofed in galvanized iron sheets. It rested on a foundation of concrete.

Talaksungay Mosque

Taluksangay Mosque, built by the Nuño family
Taluksangay Mosque, built by the Nuño family (CCP Collections)

Located 18 kilometers northeast of Fort Pilar and outside the Zamboanga City center, Talaksungay Mosque is an important landmark, being the oldest mosque established near Zamboanga poblacion. The mosque dates back to 1885, when Hadji Abdullah Maas Nuño built it for the Sama converts to Islam. The mosque was a center of learning and jurisprudence that catalyzed the spread of Islam in Zamboanga, Basilan, and the Sulu archipelago. It was recognized as a center of Islam by Islamic countries like Turkey, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Borneo. The National Historical Institute marked it in 1992.

Over the years the mosque has been remodeled and expanded. The present mosque is in the Arabic style with onion-shaped domes, not in the traditional langgal style, which is a boxlike structure with a pitched roof, capped by a small turret with the crescent moon and star of Islam. The langgal style prevailed in Mindanao until it was gradually replaced by the Arabic style, characterized by onion-shaped domes. The present mosque has two minarets of unequal height in front. The mihrab, the niche that marks the qiblat or the direction of Mecca, is right under an onion dome surmounted by the crescent moon and star of Islam. The main hall and the minarets are likewise crowned by domes and crescent moons.


CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art. Title: Zamboanga City Poblacion Author: René B. Javellana (2018). Publication Date: November 18, 2020

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