In 1898, the United States defeated Spain in a struggle that resulted in the United States’ gaining possession of strategically significant islands that stretched from Cuba to the Pacific. These included the Philippine archipelago in Southeast Asia. For the next two years, the United States engaged in fierce armed conflict with the Philippine Republic -- a newly-declared nation led by President General Emilio Aguinaldo. The United States declared the Philippine-American war finished in 1901. On July 4, 1902, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed amnesty for those who previously had committed acts of rebellion. Filipino leaders, however, continued to direct a resistance movement from exile in Hong Kong, and guerrilla-style fighting continued in the countryside until 1913.

Despite this opposition, the U.S. government quickly began to impose its authority on the Philippines by establishing an American presence that was both powerful and progressive. Officials wished to demonstrate the benefits of the new imperial government to the Filipinos, and they developed ambitious plans for improvements in health, education, and infrastructure. Among the most significant projects were the remaking of the existing capital city of Manila and the creation of an entirely new summer capital in the mountains 155 miles to the north. Though Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., and Charles McKim were also considered, it was Daniel Burnham who won the commission to generate plans for the two cities.

Burnham visited the islands in 1904, in the midst of conflict between Filipino nationalists’ struggle for independence and the American assertion of political, economic, and cultural authority in the colony. Having already designed the 1893 international exposition at Chicago, as well as improvements for the capitol city of Washington, D.C., Burnham surely understood the opportunities for building national and imperial political and cultural power into the urban environment. In Manila, the aesthetic of the City Beautiful would become a mark of foreign institutional power and of unity among the diverse peoples of the Philippine archipelago’s thousands of islands.

In keeping with the principles of the City Beautiful movement, Burnham applied successful aspects of earlier urban designs -- particularly his 1901 plan for Washington, DC -- to the modernization of Manila, which had functioned as the Spanish colonial capital for more than 300 years. Burnham recommended improving Manila’s transportation routes by imposing diagonal arteries radiating from the new central civic district--an idea he had used in his design for the United States capital and would employ again in the Plan of Chicago a few years later.  Burnham also suggested expanding the city’s parks to provide space for healthful recreation. 

On arriving in the Philippines, Burnham found a burgeoning nation and capital city that could serve as a commercial crossroads between East and West. The Escolta, Manila’s primary commercial district, had already developed a uniquely dynamic, hybrid character under Spanish rule. The city as a whole, however, remained surrounded by largely undeveloped countryside. Burnham’s plan would provide for the future development of a national capitol and international business nexus, with an additional emphasis on park-like spaces, in order to create a new “Pearl of the Orient.”