Art Deco Laperal Apartments retrofitted, now a student dorm

August 18, 2021



Carla Gamalinda

For someone used to walking under the dark, soot-covered arcades of Recto Avenue at night, passing by a gleaming, well-lit walkway under the newly renovated Laperal Apartments comes as a pleasant surprise. Stretching 80 meters, its arcade has become once more a safe, clean, and walkable public space for pedestrians, a far cry from the filthy state the current owners found the 70-year old Art Deco building in.

The owners, a couple in the appliances business, had been scouting for historic buildings in Manila to conserve for their first commercial real estate venture. They had had unsuccessful dealings with heritage property owners who were all too quick to sell their buildings to the highest bidders only to see them torn down. Upon learning of the Laperal Apartments, the couple reached out to the heirs of the original owners, Benjamin Laperal and his sister, both nonagenarians.

The Laperal Apartments before the renovation | Photo courtesy of the owners
The Laperal Apartments before the renovation | Photo courtesy of the owners
The Laperal Apartments stands along front of San Sebastian College Recoletos. Its location within the university belt makes it an ideal place for a student dormitory. Three bands of steel were added to the façade to hide unsightly rows of air conditioning units. The new owners and their architect were reluctant to do so, but in the end, they felt it was more respectful of the building.
The 80-meter arcade before the renovation | Photo courtesy of the owners
The newly renovated arcade of Laperal is now fenced off from the street with Art Deco-inspired grillwork. The walls were painted a fresh coat of antique white and fitted with soft lighting fixtures to make the walkway feel safe and welcoming at night. The owner posted three security guards to watch over the place 24/7 and keep peddlers and pickpockets away.

Securing the title was the easy part. After the sale, they found themselves fighting tooth and nail to drive out the trespassing vendors colluding with corrupt public officials illegally renting out the abandoned space. Before they were finally evicted, the tenants defaced and looted the building of its wrought iron stair balusters, windows, and doors.

Undeterred, the couple sought to save the four-storey building and turn it into a student dormitory with commercial spaces on the ground floor. They hired architect Patrick Apacible to lead the renovation project. Apacible set out to trace the original architect and find old pictures and plans of the building. Unsuccessful, he relied on the recollection of one of Laperal’s old tenants, Gina Navarro of the famous Estrel’s Caramel Cakes. For 50 years, Navarro’s family occupied a unit on the second floor of the apartment. By her account, their neighbors would wake up to the pleasant smell of freshly baked homemade cakes wafting through the corridors all the way up to the fourth floor. She described the building as having tall narra doors, staircases with intricate Art Deco grillwork, and freestanding enamel and cast-iron tubs inside bathrooms fitted with 1950s ceramic subway tiles.

According to Apacible, the original cast-in-place concrete walls were so strong it would have taken months just to embed the water and electrical lines. They deliberately left the utility lines running through the ceiling exposed to maintain the three-meter ceiling height.
Sturdy steel doors and stainless steel grills were installed to ensure the resident students’ security. Residents can unlatch and open the window behind the grills to view the corridor or speak with people without opening the door to their apartment.

Despite heavy deterioration, Apacible saved as much as he could of the original building. It would have been cheaper to demolish and build anew, but the clients were determined to maintain the building’s heritage value. The Laperal Apartments had a straightforward plan with generously sized rooms along a single-loaded corridor.

There were three staircases, one in the middle, and two at the ends of the building. Apacible worked around the existing walls and replanned the spaces to accommodate six retail spaces on the ground floor and 29 air-conditioned en suite dormitory units of varying sizes on each of the upper floors. For him, the biggest challenge was retrofitting the building’s utilities. The walls were made of solid, cast-in-place concrete with oversized rebars. Embedding the utilities was not an option, so he decided to leave the pipes exposed, lending an industrial character to the interiors.

The Laperal Apartments, rebranded as Youniversity Suites, will provide its tenants more than a place to sleep. The clients envision the building as a residential and recreational hub for its community. On 13 February 2018, they officially opened the 14-storey dormitory and a four-storey commercial building called L.A. Village at the back of the old structure. “The whole development should function as a continuation of the students’ education; it must help them set their minds in a state of concentration for studies and provide the tools for them to become their best selves,” says Apacible.

READ MORE: Old Jaro city hall in Iloilo restored and now National Museum satellite

The Laperal Apartments, now known as Youniversity Suites, is a co-ed dormitory. Male and female friends can be assigned a shared room upon their request. According to the owners, the gender-neutral policy is designed specifically for those who identify with the LGBT community and who may feel more comfortable sharing a room with the opposite gender. Each dormer gets a study table and chair, bed and beddings, cabinet, and shelf space.
The student’s lounge on the top floor of the L.A. Village

Streamlined Art Deco

Built in 1946, the Laperal Apartments represents Manila’s post-war architecture, just as the city was rising from the ruins of World War II. After the Battle of Manila in 1945, the glittering “Paris of Asia,” which used to be dotted with Spanish Colonial, Beaux-Arts, and Art Deco buildings, was barely recognizable. It was a period of emotional havoc. The nation had to muddle through emerging communist activity and an economy marred by desperate foreign policies. Despite all these, a semblance of normalcy was felt a year later when stores opened in batches along Avenida Rizal and its side streets. People flocked the city in search of jobs. Consequently, demand for housing increased and real estate prices in Manila quickly doubled their pre-war rates. Laperal Apartments was one of the buildings that emerged, signaling the recovery of Manila.

Looking up at the student dormitory corridors from the atrium of the new Youniversity Suites.
Looking up at the student dormitory corridors from the atrium of the new Youniversity Suites. Detailed grill-work evoke the original Art Deco design of the Laperal Apartments.

Telling of the austere economic times and the psyche of the people, Laperal’s architecture was streamlined, limiting the use of geometric ornamentation to square studs on the façade and simple bands on the arcaded columns. Compared to the extravagant Art Deco variant of the 1920s, the post-war strain was almost spartan. A decade after Laperal was built, the area was once again teeming with students from the newly reopened schools, and the streets were alive with cinema palaces, fashion boutiques, pizza places, ice cream parlors, photo studios, and shoe shops. Downtown Manila fully recovered as a thriving economic center until it was eclipsed by the sprouting Makati financial district in the 1960s.

Sustaining social value

Despite looking like the oddball of Recto Avenue now, the new owners of the Laperal Apartments are keen on preserving the district’s social value. Collaborating with the Save San Sebastian Foundation, they are organizing sustained year-round programs to be hosted in the Laperal arcade and other heritage sites in Manila. The plan includes hosting fundraising dinners and a Santa Cruzan, and participating in several community events like the Q Festival (Quiapo) celebrated four times a year, hoping to get participation from the surrounding schools, and consequently, convincing the city government Recto Avenue is worth saving.

The grand launch of the Youniversity Suites and L.A. Village last 13 February 2018 featured a performance by local band Up Dharma Down.

The Laperal Apartments is pioneering hope for Recto Avenue as it has done 70 years before. By helping the people look at the place with the dignity it deserves, the blighted district might just get another shot at life. In the spirit of post-war Manila—of reinventing and hoping—we hope the rest of the nation would soon follow suit. 

This article first appeared in BluPrint Vol 1 2017. Edits were made for

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