Thursday, July 31, 2014

University of Santo Tomás Main Building

The University of Santo Tomás Main Building during the pre-war years. © Old Manila Nostalgia via Ram Roy

If there were to be a competition on the best university building anywhere in the Philippines, the best bet would be the University of Santo Tomás in Sampaloc, Manila. Many have bear witness to the building's colorful history. It has gone through the darkest days of war up to the present problems of the university -- flooding. The main building of Santo Tomás has a lot to offer to the community.

The Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomás, or UST, is a Catholic university run by the Order of Preachers, or simply known as the Dominicans. It is also the oldest university in Asia, being founded in 1611, even older than Harvard University itself. Many of the Philippines' distinguished men and women have either graduated or have attended at this prestigious university. Heroes like Dr. José P. Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, and Emilio Jacinto; statesmen like Claro M. Recto, Manuel L. Quezón, and Sergio Osmeña have all attended Santo Tomás. 

Santo Tomás' new location in Sulucan Hills, now part of present-day Sampaloc. © Flickr/John Tewell

Before being located on its present site, Santo Tomás held its classes inside the walled city in Intramuros, where the old Santo Domingo Church also stood. The university had been wanting to move its operations outside Intramuros because of its ever-increasing student population. The move to a larger site was fulfilled only after three hundred years of being at its Intramuros campus. In 1911, a donation was given to the Dominican Fathers, a 22.1 hectare land located in Sulucan Hills, in the northeastern part of the city. The estate was then a property of the Sisters of Saint Clare, but in the early 1900s, they disposed off the land and sold to developers. One of the buyers, Doña Francisca Bustamante Bayot, donated the land to the Dominicans. The land was bordered by four streets: Calle España, Calle Gov. Forbes, Calle Dapitan, and Calle P. Noval. Because the new campus was more than enough to accomodate its population, the plan was that half of the property was originally intended for Colegio de San Juan de Letrán. However, the plan was not materialized.

Fr. Roque Ruaño, O.P., architect and engineer of the Main Building. © Wikipedia

The university received the donation of the Sulucan property in 1911, the tricentennial anniversary of Santo Tomás. In December of that year, the laying of the first cornerstone was made by the Dominican Fathers, headed by the university's Rector Magnificus Fr. José Noval, O.P., and other distinguished guests. 

The development of the new Sulucan property did not materialize until the 1920s due to lack of funds. However, the development of the design had already started. With the development of the new campus went into full swing, the project was handed over to Fr. Roque Ruaño, O.P., a Spanish Dominican who was a former rector of the Colegio de San Juan de Letrán. Ruaño, a civil engineer, had meticulously researched earthquake-proof engineering designs and had tested them when he designed Dominican friar houses in Baguio and Lingayen. 

Construction for the Main Building started in 1923. Rebars are being installed, as seen in the photo. © Manila Nostalgia/Prof. Vic Torres

Designed in the Renaissance Revival style of architecture, Fr. Ruaño's design for the Main Building was advanced in its time, as some say it still complies with today's National Building Code. Construction started in 1923, but Fr. Ruaño had already spent the last two years procuring building materials such as cement and rebars from Japan. 

"The Sulucan strata consisted of fine sand and loamy clay heavily interspersed with land and marine shells, a situation where the land layers moved at different directions during a tremor. This prompted Fr. Ruaño to combine two methods of laying foundations: Isolated piers were linked with a continuous slab foundation, so that the structures above would sway independently of each other during an earthquake. In five years, 200 workers from Pampanga slowly raised 40 separate small towers that provided the basic framework of what is today?s Main Building (it was called 'New Building' then, there being no other edifice in the campus). Fr. Ruaño kept revising his plans, the latest after a trip to Tokyo in 1926 where he observed the effects of the recent earthquake there and in Yokohama." (excerpt from

Construction of the Main Building taking place, circa 1923-1927. © Manila Nostalgia/Prof. Vic Torres

The Main Building has four floors, plus an additional nine-storey clock tower, which contained the water tanks for the hydraulic engineering laboratory. The building is seventy-four (74) meters wide and eighty-six (86) meters long, with two courtyards on each wing. The main engineering feat of the Main Building is that it was built in forty (40) separate structures so that the building would not easily crumble if an earthquake occurs. Also, an additional floor was added to accommodate laboratories.

The Main Building finally opened in time for the 1927-1928 school year. It was a relief for the university administration as they wanted to de-clog its Intramuros campus as fast as possible. After its opening in 1927, the Main Building, specifically the clock tower, served as the city's "Kilometer Zero" until it was replaced by the Rizal Monument in Luneta. 

Main Building, circa 1928. © Manila Nostalgia/Lou Gopal

After its opening, the university administration moved some of its operations at Sulucan. The colleges of Philosophy, Pharmacy, Education, Liberal Arts and Medicine held classes inside its halls. The university library also moved in Sulucan, occupying its northeast wing. 

Main Building during the 1930s. © Manila Nostalgia/Mon Ancheta

Because of the Main Building's grandeur, it was constructed right at the heart of the twenty-two hectare Sulucan property. It became the focal point of the university, in which the succeeding buildings were all built around it.

Pre-war Santo Tomás came into a halt in 1941 when the Japanese bombed the City of Manila. However, the Japanese occupation of the Philippine capital did not materialize until January of 1942 when the Philippine Commonwealth left Manila for Bataan. For Santo Tomás, war did not spare them from being dragged into occupation. The university was converted into an internment camp, being host to about four thousand Allied and foreign civilian prisoners-of-war, with nationalities such as American, British, Canadian, Australian, Dutch, Pole, Russian, Spanish, Cuban, Mexican, Burmese, Swedish, Danish, and Chinese.

After its establishment in 1942, the Santo Tomás Internment Camp became one of the largest in the Philippines.

Allied and other foreign internees made shantytowns in one of the Main Building's courtyards. © LIFE/Carl Mydans via Discovering the Old Philippines: People, Places, Heroes, Historical Events

An aerial view of the Main Building. Take note of the cramped shanties built in and around the Main Building. © Manila Nostalgia/Mon Ancheta

During the Japanese occupation of Santo Tomás, the university grounds literally became a miniature city. The Japanese had established a government inside, appointing an American named Lemuel Earl Carroll as its head. According to accounts, the internees owed so much to Carroll, stating that his leadership received favorable approval from the internees.

A Japanese propaganda photo depicting life inside Santo Tomás. © Santo Tomas Internment Camp/Lou Gopal

In February of 1945, the combined Filipino and American armies made an assault on the City of Manila. They first took Santo Tomás with the belief that the Japanese will execute all internees as they retreat from the capital. As the American tanks and troops advanced through the campus, they were met by Japanese resistance. The Japanese took the Education Building and held two hundred (200) internees hostage. After negotiations made by a British missionary named Ernest Stanley, the Japanese agreed to leave Santo Tomás and rejoined with other Japanese units in Manila.

The flag of the United States is draped at the canopy of the Main Building, signifying the liberation of the Santo Tomás Internment Camp from the Japanese. © LIFE/Carl Mydans via Wikipedia

The war had left most of the city into rubble. Santo Tomás, however, was not heavily damaged during the liberation as it was still host to a number of Allied war prisoners. After the war, life had returned to normal, students went back to school after a three and a half years hiatus. 

University of Santo Tomás Main Building circa 1945. © Flickr/John Tewell

In 1952, during the silver jubilee of the Main Building, an addition to the Main Building was made. Through the initiative of then-Rector Magnificus Fr. Ángel de Blas, O.P., fifteen (15) statues of famous saints, philosophers, and other personalities of the arts and sciences were installed at the pedestals made long before. In the original plan, Fr. Ruaño had purposely built pedestals to put in statues, but it was only made into fruition years after his death. The statues, measuring three meters in height, were sculpted by the great Francesco Riccardo Monti, an Italian expatriate and then-professor of the College of Fine Arts. Monti also made a number of significant works in Manila's buildings such as in the Manila Metropolitan Theater, Capitol Theater, Manila Electric Railroad and Light Company Building along Calle San Marcelino, and the Quezón Memorial.

THE INITIATOR AND THE SCULPTOR: The University's Rector Magnificus, Very Rev. Dr. Fr. Ángel de Blas, O.P. (left), and the master builder Francesco Riccardo Monti (right) © Anna Filippicci

In 2010, a year before the quadricentennial anniversary of the University, the National Museum of the Philippines declared the Main Building, along with other important structures in the University, as National Cultural Treasures.


  1. UST has become my home and this university has a rich history.

  2. Hello! My father attended UST in the early 60s. He is writing his personal memoirs and I was wondering if I could have permission to use a photo of the building to include with his biography that he is going to share with our family. Also, do you have any photos of the building from the 60s? Thank you.