Spanish colonial period
The Paseo de Luneta in 1899
Rizal Park's history began in 1820 when the Paseo de Luneta was completed just south of the walls of Manila on a marshy patch of land next to the beach during the Spanish rule. Prior to the park, the marshy land was the location of a small town called Nuevo Barrio that dates back to 1601. The town and its churches, being close to the walled city, were strategically used as cover by the British during their attack. The Spanish authorities anticipated the danger posed by the settlements that immediately surrounded Intramuros in terms of external attacks, yet Church officials advocated for these villages to remain. Because of the part they played during the British Invasion, they were cleared after the short rule of the British from 1762 to 1764. The church of Bagumbayan originally enshrined the Black Nazarene. Because of the order to destroy the village and its church, the image was transferred first to San Nicolas de Tolentino then to Quiapo Church. This has since been commemorated by the Traslación of the relic every January 9, which is more commonly known as the Feast of the Black Nazarene. This is why the procession always start at Rizal Park. After the clearing of the Bagumbayan settlement, the area later became known as Bagumbayan Field where the Cuartel la Luneta (Luneta Barracks), a Spanish Military Hospital (which was destroyed by one of the earthquakes of Manila), and a moat-surrounded outwork of the walled city of Manila, known as the Luneta (lunette) because of its crescent shape.
West of Bagumbayan Field was the Paseo de la Luneta (Plaza of the Lunette) named after the fortification, not because of the shape of the plaza which was a long 100x rectangle ended by two semicircles. It was also named Paseo de Alfonso XII (Plaza of Alfonso XII), after Alfonso XII, King of Spain during his reign from 1874 to 1885. Paseo de la Luneta was the center of social activity for the people of Manila in the early evening hours. This plaza was arranged with paths and lawns and surrounded by a wide driveway called "La Calzada" (The Road) where carriages circulate.
Execution of Gómez, Burgos and Zamora
During the Spanish period from 1823 to 1897 most especially in the latter part, the place became notorious for public executions. A total of 158 political enemies of Spain were executed in the park. On February 17, 1872, three Filipino priests, Mariano Gómez, José Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora, collectively known as Gomburza, were executed by garrote, accused of subversion arising from the 1872 Cavite mutiny.
American colonial period
The execution of Jose Rizal on December 30, 1896
The bronze-and-granite Rizal monument is among the most famous sculptural landmarks in the country. It is almost protocol for visiting dignitaries to lay a wreath at the monument. Located on the monument is not merely the statue of the national hero, but also his remains.
On September 28, 1901, the United States Philippine Commission approved Act No. 243, which would erect a monument in Luneta to commemorate the memory of José Rizal, Filipino patriot, writer and poet. The committee formed by the act held an international design competition between 1905 and 1907 and invited sculptors from Europe and the United States to submit entries with an estimated cost of ₱100,000 using local materials.
The first-prize winner was Carlos Nicoli of Carrara, Italy for his scaled plaster model titled “Al Martir de Bagumbayan” besting 40 other accepted entries. The contract though, was awarded to second-placer Swiss sculptor named Richard Kissling for his “Motto Stella” (Guiding Star).
After more than twelve years of its approval, the shrine was finally unveiled on December 30, 1913 during Rizal’s 17th death anniversary. His poem "Mi Ultimo Adios" ("My Last Farewell") is inscribed on the memorial plaque. The site is continuously guarded by ceremonial soldiers of Philippine Marine Corps’ Marine Security and Escort Group
National Government Center
In 1902, William Taft commissioned Daniel Burnham, architect and city planner, to do the city plan of Manila. Government buildings will have Neo-classical edifices with Greco-Roman columns. Burnham chose Luneta as the location of the new government center. A large Capitol building, which was envisioned to be the Philippine version of the Washington Capitol, was to become its core. It was to be surrounded by other government buildings, but only two of those buildings were built around Agrifina Circle, facing each other. They are the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Finance (now the Department of Tourism and soon to be the National Museum of Natural History). These two buildings were completed before the Second World War.
Luneta National Park
In August 1954, President Ramon Magsaysay created the Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission to organize and manage the celebrations for the centennial of José Rizal’s birth. Its plans include building a grand monument of José Rizal and the Rizal Memorial Cultural Center that would contain a national theater, a national museum, and a national library at the Luneta. The site was declared a national park on December 19, 1955 by virtue of Proclamation No. 234 signed by President Magsaysay. The Luneta National Park spans an area of approximately 16.24ha covering the area surrounding the Rizal Monument. The Commission of Parks and Wildlife managed the site upon its establishment as a protected area.
In 1957, President Carlos P. Garcia issued Proclamation No. 470 transferring the administration of the national park to the Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission. In 1961, in commemoration of Rizal's birth centennial, the National Library was inaugurated at the park. Its management was then handed over to the National Parks Development Committee, an attached agency of the Department of Tourism, created in 1963 by President Diosdado Macapagal. In 1967, the Luneta National Park was renamed to Rizal Park with the signing of Proclamation No. 299 by President Ferdinand Marcos.
On June 12, 1998, the park hosted many festivities which capped the 1998 Philippine Centennial, the event commemorating a hundred years since the Declaration of Independence from Spain and the establishment of the First Philippine Republic. The celebrations were led by then President Fidel V. Ramos.
Rizal Park underwent renovations by the National Parks Development Committee aimed at restoring elements of the park. The plans included the rehabilitation of the old musical dancing fountain located on the 40 x 100m pool, which is the geographical center of the park. The fountain, which is set for inauguration on December 16, 2011, is handled by German-Filipino William Schaare, the same person who built the original fountain in the 1960s. Restoration also included the Flower Clock which was set for inauguration on the 113th Philippine Independence day; the Noli Me Tangere Garden and the Luzviminda Boardwalk, for the 150th birthday celebration of Jose Rizal.