The Oboza Heritage House At Rizal Street
A white wooden house from a bygone era with a well maintained garden in a sprawling area located at a busy intersection. Passersby can’t help but look in admiration at this beautiful abode, the Oboza Heritage House. Within its walls are fond memories of visiting Philippine presidents, a fugitive senator hid from Japanese soldiers during World War II and then Davao province’s political life and history.
Davao has been a backwater during the Spanish colonial era. It was only during the American period that it was developed and cultivated with abaca, employing many Japanese workers, the biggest in Southeast Asia, that made a few families prosperous. These prominent Davaoeños hired the services of Japanese daiku (carpenters) who settled in after working in the construction of Kennon Road in Baguio.
Admired for their precision and discipline, many of the few but still existing prewar houses in the Poblacion area were built by these foreign carpenters, including the residence of then Davao Province District Engineer (and later, first mayor of Davao Municipality) Alfonso Gallardo Oboza.
The 1929 House
The Oboza House, built in 1929, at the intersection of present day Rizal and Ponciano Reyes Streets. It was conceptualized by Alfonso with the help of a Bulakeño architect, Ulpiano Bonifacio and Oye Tokumatsu, the contractor. It’s posts are made of ipil from Palawan, a gift from his father-in-law, Feliciano Corcuera Iñigo. The floor joists of yakal and guijo; trusses of apitong; stairs made from yakal; and ceiling, walls and flooring of tanguile, all beautiful Philippine hardwood. One interesting feature of this structure, as can be seen in old photos, is the asian-style roof specifically the Japanese irimoya, decorated with talismanic finials said to purposely put to ward off fire. After World War II, the house was renovated and expanded by Chinese carpenters from Zamboanga City to meet present day needs (based from “The Engineer and Mrs. Alfonso Gallardo Oboza Heritage House,” Michael Ebr Dakudao, Mindanao Times, 26 October 2011).
From house to restaurant
Claude’s Le Cafe de Ville opened in 1996 just across the Oboza House. Known for its Mediterranean food and steaks by its French chef, Claude le Neindre, it convinced the then surviving son of Alfonso to lease out the 2,000 sq. meter space as the cafe was also looking at expanding. With the deal in hand, Tess Villanueva-Le Neindre, the wife of Claude had his brother, Edward Villanueva, an architect plan the house in tandem with Ivan Villanueva, landscape artist. The plan was simple. According to Tess, retain as much of the character and look of the house as possible but enough to accommodate patrons at the restaurant.
The expanded 50’s structure opens to an airy porch from the covered wooden stairs, and a caida. It had two rooms, two toilet and bath, a separate living and dining room and kitchen. Downstairs, what originally was the garage and maids’s quarter became the family den and boys’s rooms.
“We had to renovate the two rooms, the kitchen, toilet and bath, as well as the living and dining room. The boys’s rooms became our office and wine cellar. The den was sub leased,” Tess disclosed.
When it was finished, not much, actually, has changed. The ventanillas and transoms, with their beautiful latticed woodwork for ventilation, the capiz sliding windows and doors are still there but retrofit to accommodate interior airconditioning. The partition between living and dining room was removed to provide more space. In its place is a beautiful carved dark wooden arch. The two rooms became function rooms or spaces for intimate dinners, including historic Room 1. It is where then President Manuel Quezon slept. During World War II, it was where then Senator Manuel Roxas, with a bounty on his head was hid from the Japanese soldiers before he was spirited off to Samal Island and enroute to Malaybalay in Bukidnon where he was captured.
The kitchen became a bar. The new restaurant kitchen is attached to the back without touching the back wall and old staircase. The den was subleased and renovated to a smaller restaurant. The original Claude’s seated only 30. With the renovated space, it can now accommodate 80, including the garden, with minimal changes to the original structure.
A charming restaurant
There’s a charming and homey atmosphere in the Oboza Heritage House. There are newspaper clippings, old photos and old things scattered but appropriately placed within the spaces. Inside, there are interesting architectural details and accents. One might be surprised to know that he is sitting on the original 1929 chairs or gazing at the original aparador, now a covered wine rack. Tess then let out a secret. “Remember Room 1, that room where two presidents slept? Many of our patrons positively attest to have successfully brokered a deal there.”
The Oboza Heritage House is not only a landmark in Davao City. It is not only two restaurants serving good food but a good example of adaptive reuse. The new breathes into the old.
Text and photos by Estan Cabigas. Originally published in Bluprint Magazine, 2013.