Helena Z. Benitez was in her teens when her parents built a house on a hill, a stately white structure in a rural corner of San Juan now known as Cubao.
The 40-foot-tall house with the terra cotta roof stood solitary on a field of green where carabaos grazed. With her siblings, the young Helena often clambered up the tower to lie on the canopy, where, she said, they gazed at the sky “trying to find the Big Dipper.”
Over the decades, generations of Benitez children would continue the tradition of climbing the tower to survey the landscape, for which the house was named “Mira-Nila” (for “mira,” Spanish for “behold,” and Manila).
Mira-Nila is now 82 years old. Tomorrow (Monday), Benitez, a former senator and daughter of the late constitutionalist Conrado Benitez and educator Francisca Tirona, will turn 97.
Benitez can no longer climb the steep stairs to the tower and instead carefully works her way up or down the floors in a tiny elevator. But her memories of her home and its past occupants remain ever strong.
On June 22, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) unveiled a marker declaring Mira-Nila a “heritage house.” Benitez and members of her immediate family from the third and fourth generations witnessed the occasion.
In accepting the heritage declaration, Benitez dedicated the honor to her kin, whom she described as people who treasured relationships and honored traditions.
“The [younger generations] don’t have the same intimacy that my parents, siblings and I had in Mira-Nila, but I think they have attended enough gatherings to have an appreciation for the tremendous honor and recognition of this ceremony,” she said.
A lot has changed in the surroundings of the house since it was built in 1929, family members said.
The meadow has given way to a slick road that leads to other gated houses with manicured lawns and immaculate gardens. The panorama of Manila as viewed from the tower—a cozy square room with sliding windows on each of the four sides—is now obscured by the high-rises of Makati and Mandaluyong Cities.
But like an old painting, Mira-Nila has not faded.
The four-tiered residence at 26 Mariposa Street, which was inspired by a catalogue of homes in the Italian city of Florence, has been preserved almost in its original state, from the spiral pillars, porch lights and cast-iron windows to the antique cabinets, burnished wooden staircase and white arches dividing the space between the library and the living room.
In an interview, Benitez said she hoped the declaration of Mira-Nila as a heritage house would entice more Filipinos to visit and appreciate its greatness. She now lives alone in the house with a staff of 15, and spends most of her waking hours in her study in the master bedroom, reading books and periodicals.
(In the bedroom, next to a cushioned chair where Benitez does her reading, is a side table. Atop it lay a copy of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, neatly folded, along with a magnifying glass, pens and framed black-and-white photos.)
Her favorite part of the house is the library, where the family keeps part of its immense collection of Filipiniana, reference and law books and manuscripts, some dating back to the 1800s.
“I am almost afraid to touch them,” said librarian Delia Pineda, whose task is to organize the 5,000 or so books and manuscripts in the collection. The oldest of these will be encased in glass, she said.
Strolling into the main living room, one is immediately drawn to treasures of a time long past: portraits on the walls, a tall grandfather clock in a corner, wooden couches with elegant curved backs, and antique jars with intricate designs on the floor or tabletops.
It seems that one may find something old or quaint in every nook and cranny, like the Botong Francisco mural in the main dining room, or the ancient piano that the Benitez children played under a neighbor’s tutelage.
The neighbor was Rosario Licad, mother of the renowned Filipino pianist Cecile Licad, according to Benitez’s niece, Purissima Helena Benitez-Johannot.
“Mrs. Licad used to live down the street on P. Tuazon. She used to come here and perform 9 o’clock piano lessons. She told us she had many success stories, but we’re one of the few that did not hit the mark … I think she was more frustrated than we were,” Johannot said, laughing.
She pointed out another irreplaceable piece in the living room— the “lovers’ seat,” a pair of antique wooden chairs facing each other and connected by the left leg, and a favorite seat for picture-taking among her relatives.
“We associate it with the continuity of the family. The [people who sit there] are bound by love,” Johannot said.
Benitez herself told a funny story about the lovers’ seat and her matchmaking attempts for a former Philippine leader whose name she initially could not recall (“Who was that widower President again?”).
“I put him there in the lovers’ chair, and I had all the widows and all the eligible and single ladies sit down and be photographed, then I sent him a collection [of the photos],” she said of the late Elpidio Quirino, her face lighting up at the memory.
In a letter to NHCP Executive Director Ludovico Badoy dated February 17, in which she first presented her proposals on Mira-Nila, Benitez detailed its dramatic beginnings and heyday.
“A tour of Europe by my aunts Ramona, Joaquina and Felicing Tirona and their impressions of homes on the outskirts of Florence, Italy, inspired my parents to build this house, paint the exterior in light terra cotta, and build a tower high enough to see Manila,” she said.
A catalogue or magazine brought home by her aunts gave her mother some ideas, Benitez told the Inquirer. She said people found it hard to believe that her parents never hired an architect and designed the home themselves.
She said her mother commissioned the furniture-maker Irure to craft couches, tables and chairs, as well as a large frame to showcase a life-size portrait of her grandfather, Judge Higinio Benitez, by painter Simon Flores.
“Our neighborhood grew slowly,” Benitez said in the letter to Badoy, noting how neighbors moved in one by one, starting with her father’s best friend, Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos, who built his house across from Mira-Nila.
The Marquezes, who, along with others in the neighborhood, were related to the Benitez clan, maintained a garden of African daisies and other blooms, eventually earning for the street its name, Mariposa.
“Until the 1950s, surrounded by rice fields and grazing land for carabaos, our house on top of the hill was No. 1 Mariposa,” Benitez said.
Mira-Nila also bore witness to the family’s civic works and professional interests.
Benitez’s father was founder and first dean of the University of the Philippines’ College of Business Administration, and cofounder of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement.
Her mother was cofounder of the Philippine Women’s University (PWU), the first university for women in Asia founded by Asians, where she was president for 45 years.
To date, the family has retained management of the nonstock, nonprofit and nonsectarian school.
Benitez herself, who served as a senator from 1968 to 1973, founded the acclaimed PWU-led Bayanihan folk dance troupe on the request of President Carlos P. Garcia, who needed a group to represent the Philippines in the 1958 Brussels World Fair.
“The house should be considered a historical place because a lot of advocacies and ideas were born [here],” said Amelou Benitez-Reyes, another of Benitez’s nieces and the eldest of the third generation.
In her letter to Badoy, Benitez recalled how the 1930s “saw Mira-Nila welcome Commonwealth officials, and the Second World War saw us evacuate its premises and the Japanese Imperial officers occupy it.”
The family reclaimed Mira-Nila in the 1950s, and was relieved to find that the 16 bombs the Japanese had planted in the property had not exploded, Benitez said.
Fely Clemente, 77, one of the housekeepers, said she could still remember when the members of the household hid in the bomb shelter, an expansive basement space that could hold three families or more in the event of an air raid.
She was about 7 years old at the time, Clemente said. “The Japanese were here for maybe a year. Then they were gone,” she said.
Now the bomb shelter, which is lined with tiles, has become a storage room for stuff too valuable to throw away.
“Mira-Nila stands with few additions through the years,” Benitez said in her letter. “The oldest structure is the pump house that today serves as a garden house; the porch dining room, once screened, is now air-conditioned,” she said.
Francisco B. Benitez, a grandnephew of Benitez and the PWU president, said the house evoked in him a certain sense of propriety.
“It’s the place where [we felt we would have to behave] … For example, when we were very young, we would have to show off our table manners,” he said. “There’s a certain formality to it, but it’s not rigid. There’s a certain gentility, an expectation.”
His favorite place is the living room, where the family gathers every Christmas.
“The requirement is you have to [give] any kind of public performance. You have to have a representative of each generation. [I did it] a long time ago, but that’s the advantage of having children, [I don’t have to perform again],” he said with a laugh.
According to Pineda, the librarian who helps in the upkeep of the house, the monthly expense in preserving Mira-Nila and the things in it sometimes reaches P300,000.
Benitez’s goal is to see Mira-Nila become a museum and library, Pineda said, adding that that should help defray the costs of maintaining the house.
Johannot said that while she cherished spaces in Mira-Nila that remained private to the family, she found nothing wrong in opening it to the public.
“You cannot stop progress … You have to change with the times. Some things do not change with the times, which is why we have heritage houses. This is a marker of those bygone days,” she said.
Johannot said she did not foresee Mira-Nila being taken away from the family: “No, not at all. Our family has grown to be a clan … In fact, we are a nation among a larger nation. We are just sharing Mira-Nila with the larger nation.”