The Manila Jai Alai Building was a building designed by Welton Becket and Walter Wurdeman. It functioned as a building for which jai alai games were held. Jai Alai – means “happy feast” in Basque, the game was initially the sport of Manila’s elite. The building was built in the Streamline Moderne style in 1940 and survived the Battle of Manila. It was considered one of finest Art Deco buildings in Asia. It was demolished in 2000 upon the orders of the Mayor of Manila Lito Atienza amidst protests, to make way for the Manila Hall of Justice, which was never built.
After leaving for a three-month stay in manila, Becket landed a $1,000,000 commission to design there a new Jai Alai Auditorium. The Manila fronton was erected in 1939 and with its sleek and streamlined design fashionable in the 1930s, the structure soon became an icon. The games were formally inaugurated on 1940 and became an instant hit with Manila’s elite. It slowly evolved into an exclusive sport for the rich, much like golf.
Adjacent to the old Congress building along Taft Avenue, the Jai Alai Club soon became the place to see and be seen. The four story building was said to be one of the most beautiful Jai Alai frontons in the world, complete with gaming rooms, 4 restaurants, 4 bars, a roof garden and imported Spanish and Filipino entertainers. The large playing court filled one side of the huge building. The vocal spectators watched on three levels behind a glass wall that lined on one end of the court. Dinner and cocktails were available at the top floor in the glass-enclosed and very air conditioned dining room called the Sky Room.
Jai Alai is a very competitive and sometimes, very dangerous sport played in a three-sided court similar to a handball or racquetball court, only much larger. The game is played with wicket basket-like slings that are attached to one hand of the players. Using these baskets, the players are able to throw the hard sheep hide ball at speeds that defy the imagination. The ball is allowed to play off the floor and walls but not the ceiling. Most of the Jai Alai players were originally Basques from Northern Spain. Tough, fearless men who played the game with total abandon.
The Jai Alai building had seen many uses through its lifetime. The Jai Alai palace was the only major structure in Manila to stand up under both the Japanese and American bombings. It was constructed so strongly and served so well as a shelter during air raids that it was used by the top staffs of both the American and Japanese Armies when they were in Manila.
Unfortunately, the building did not survive the post-war years, decaying to a sadly abandoned structure and was demolished in 2000 – defying preservationists who rallied to save the building, one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in Asia.