The Most Alluring Stories From The Manila Hotel's Colorful Past

U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and many others, once stayed at the historic hotel.

“It’s a good story if it’s The Manila Hotel,” Ernest Hemingway once said of the now 106-year-old landmark. Obviously, the award-winning author of The Old Man and the Sea possessed a natural talent for sniffing out a great story. The hotel’s celebrated walls have borne witness to a century’s worth of prominent guests, downfalls and triumphant comebacks, and an impressive share of glamour.

Building the 'Grand Dame'

With the goal of Americanizing the capital city of Manila after the Spanish-American war, the Americans set out to build a metropolis, and commissioned architect and city planner Daniel Hudson Burnham to help them do it. Burnham drafted plans for the city, with brilliant ideas that included the eradication of the moats around Intramuros to give way to sunken gardens and the establishment of Luneta Park.

Burnham and the Americans recognized that a luxury hotel was necessary to receive and host dignitaries so he included a hotel on one end of the boulevard. In 1908, construction of The Manila Hotel began, under the appointment of architect William Parsons, whose California Mission vision for the hotel remains similar to the façade we see today. The hotel, then only five levels high not including the rooftop, housed 149 guest rooms, half of them with private baths, which were a luxury back in the day.


The lobby

The cherry on top of an already elaborate creation was the rooftop garden terrace, which was the venue for various functions, and which provided guests with spectacular views of the developing city.

The covered section of the roof garden terrace

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The Manila Hotel opened its doors on July 4, 1912, just in time for America’s Independence Day. It was praised by U.S. Consul General Lewis Gleeck, Jr. as the “finest hotel in the Far East.”

Architect William Parsons

General MacArthur’s grand residence

While the rooftop garden was a guest favorite, it was not meant to last. In 1935, President Manuel L. Quezon requested that General Douglas MacArthur be both his military consultant and advisor on defense. The general agreed to the terms with some conditions of his own—one of them was to have accommodations that rivaled the president’s own quarters in Malacañang Palace.

Manuel L. Quezon and Douglas MacArthur

Celebrated architect Andres Luna de San Pedro, who contributed to the beautification of Escolta’s skyline with his Art Deco designs, was tasked to cater to MacArthur’s request. The architect built over the rooftop garden and transformed the entire sixth floor into an ornate, fully air-conditioned penthouse suit. (In addition to this, Luna de San Pedro also designed an annex to accommodate 80 more guests due to high demand). The seven-bedroom suite for the general, his wife, Jean, and son, Arthur, came complete with a stately dining room and a custom study.

MacArthur and his family arrive in Manila.

It’s been said that to justify the cost of building of his accommodations, MacArthur was named general manager of the hotel. The title came with no specific responsibilities on his part, though eventually he played a role in the management and attended certain meetings.


Hotel guest rooms

Destruction and salvation

During the Japanese invasion, MacArthur moved the government to Corregidor and the hotel was occupied by high-ranking Japanese officials. It’s been implied that Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo used MacArthur’s suite during a visit in 1943. In the final days of battle, The Manila Hotel sustained serious damage from a bomb attack, which left it stripped down to its foundations. MacArthur’s home was destroyed. Of this tragedy, he said, “I watched with indescribable feelings, the destruction of my fine military library… my personal belongings of a lifetime… I was tasting to the last acid dregs the bitterness of devastated and beloved home.”

The Manila Hotel swimming pool

After the war, the hotel was rebuilt and MacArthur’s former home was renamed the MacArthur Suite. The remodeled suite boasts of ample arched windows, ivory paneled walls, and antique furniture. It contains a master’s bedroom, one guest room, two bathrooms, a study, and a dining room and balcony, both overlooking Manila Bay.

The renovated MacArthur Suite


MacArthur Suite's study in 2004

Earning the trust of dignitaries, royalty, and celebrities.

Apart from hosting Ernest Hemingway and other military legends, the star-studded hotel has President John F. Kennedy, Prince Charles, King Juan and Queen Sofia of Spain, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Neil Armstrong, and Prime Minister Anthony Eden on its roster of guests.

When Hemingway stayed at the hotel with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, he mingled with some of the members of the Philippine Writers League.

Ernest Hemingway

During Michael Jackson’s visit in 1996, former Manila Hotel PR office Gwen Cariño recalls in an article for Philippine Star that the pop star had heard of a Christmas party that the hotel was organizing for orphans and wanted to help out. Jackson readily agreed to hand out loot bags to over 300 children.

A place of celebration

While the well-appointed guest rooms were a delight, the ballrooms and function halls were the highlights of the social season. The annual Kahirup Ball, hosted by wealthy sugar barons, was held at either the hotel’s Fiesta Pavilion or the Winter Garden in the 1920s. Filled with ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines, the ball usually kicked off with a fashion show followed by the rigodon de honor, a traditional dance introduced by the Spanish.

The Kahirup Ball

The Fiesta Pavilion

Later, in 1935, the hotel held a dinner in celebration of the Philippine Commonwealth. Dignitaries joined President Quezon, Vice President Sergio Osmeña, and Commissioner Frank Murphy, at a formal dinner at the Fiesta Pavilion.

It was also in the 1930s that jazz music became a trend. Jazz bands were booked to play during social events, including many parties at the Pavilion.

Various historical events also took place in the hotel’s other function rooms—the illustrious Maynila and the distinguished Centennial Hall. Today, because of its history of tradition and classic charm, the Manila Hotel continues to be a coveted venue to celebrate milestone events and parties of a lifetime.


The Manila Hotel in 1915

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