The garden was not as lush as I had seen in photos, but I understood. The recent water crisis affected almost all, and MiraNila was not spared.
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The fire that named it
MiraNila is one of a few family residences in Manila dating back to the American Colonial Era which survived WWII and the vicissitudes of rampant development—with most of its original furnishings intact. Built in 1929 by spouses Conrado Francia Benitez and Francisca Paredes Tirona, both of whom were eminent educators and civic leaders, it has remained with the same family for generations, a definitive heritage house not only significant for its beautiful architecture, but even more for being the living legacy of a family steeped in history, culture, arts, education, diplomacy, public and social service, and civic-mindedness.
Perched atop what was once a hilly three-hectare site said to have been the highest point in San Juan Del Monte, the house originally had a commanding view of Manila and its glorious sunsets and night sky from its torre. It was from this height, on 13 August 1932, that 18-year-old Helena Z. Benitez saw the raging fire in Intramuros which totally ravaged and destroyed the old Ateneo de Manila Campus. Summoning her brothers, Tomas and Alfredo, she shouted, “Mira à Manila! Mira à Manila!”
Having watched many a magnificent view of Manila from this torre, the Benitezes henceforth decided to name their home, MiraNila.
From the start, Conrado and Francisca Benitez were very much involved in the design and construction of the house. The exterior architecture was Italian but on the inside, it was quite Filipino. Patterned after Florentine villas illustrated in magazines given to Francisca by her sister, Felicing Tirona, who had just come from a European tour with her other sisters after pursuing voice studies abroad, the two-storey reinforced concrete structure with tegula tiled roofing and a tower was the first residential structure built in the area.
Serving as their consultant was Francisca’s cousin, Gregorio Melchor Paredes. Gregorio, according to his grandson, Zeus Paredes, was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the same time that Architect Juan M. Arellano was studying architecture at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and doing postgraduate studies in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. According to the same source, Paredes worked with Arellano in the Manila Post Office Building and The Manila Metropolitan Theater projects.
Being a painter and sculptor, he was apparently more involved with the design of architectural details and sculpture. Contrary to some published accounts, he was not a registered architect in the Philippines. It was his son, Aquiles Caesar Paredes, father of Zeus, who was an architect but started his career only in the 1950s. The builder was Cornelio Pineda, master foreman of Pedro Siochi & Co., one of the most reputable contractors of its time which also worked in projects together with Architect Juan M. Arellano and other prominent architects of the time, among which were The Manila Metropolitan Theater, the Rizal Memorial Sports Coliseum, and the Manila Post Office buildings.
According to Benitez granddaughter, art curator and educator, Purissima “Petty” Benitez Johannot, MiraNila’s original plan, before the addition of the big dining area, was a perfect Palladian Cross, which allowed cross ventilation and cross breezes to flow throughout the house. In the early days, when San Juan Del Monte was still largely undeveloped and sparsely populated, the climate was so cool. The Araneta-Alcuaz House in Campanilla Street, New Manila, then still a part of San Juan Del Monte, even had a fireplace with matching chimney to heat the house. It was only much later, when the heat became unbearable as a consequence of overdevelopment, that airconditioning was installed in MiraNila.
Birds and butterflies
In MiraNila’s earlier days, there were yet no roads leading to the property which could be traversed by cars. Those headed to the house aboard vehicles would park them on a lot belonging to Doña Sisang de Leon at the site of the future LVN Pictures compound. Guests then would have to walk on foot for less than a kilometer towards One Mariposa, MiraNila’s original address. Right across One Mariposa was Two Mariposa, the three-hectare estate of future Secretary of Justice Jose Abad Santos, which he was able to acquire at 50 centavos per square meter in 1932, upon the entreaties of his best friend, Dean Conrado Benitez.
As recounted by his son, Pepito, in Desiree Cua Benipayo’s excellent biography, Honor, The Legacy of Jose Abad Santos, “the place was a bird sanctuary and had a lot of wild quails wandering about. Big butterflies abounded in the area, hence the place was called Mariposa, the Spanish term for these beautiful, majestic creatures...the family would come for weekend camp-outs, clearing the area and planting fruit trees...being a country lad at heart, Abad Santos enjoyed the rustic ambience of Mariposa...and built a small and simple wooden country house...with an Olympic size swimming pool and a very extensive library...where he spent a lot of hours and in later years would be joined by President Quezon. The two would be lost in thoughtful conversation for hours.”
When visiting Abad Santos, President Quezon would also drop by MiraNila to be with his friend, Dean Conrado Benitez. Unfortunately, these convivial visits would abruptly end with the arrival of WWII. Quezon would be exiled never to return alive; Abad Santos would be captured and executed in 1942; while Conrado continued to live to the ripe age of 81 until his passing in 1971. In 1945, the Abad Santos house was razed to the ground by the Japanese along with the thousands of books in his library.
As recounted by the late heritage architect, Augusto F. Villalon, in his book, Lugar, San Juan Del Monte was originally known as a weekend retreat where Manila residents built country houses as a respite from city life. Unlike these country houses, however, MiraNila was purposely built as the principal residence of the Benitez family who previously lived in the gentry side of Paco, Manila, in a block bounded by Santo Sepulcro, Peñafrancia, and Union Streets, with the Laurel and Yulo families as their neighbours. It was likewise made to house the family’s collections of heirloom furniture from the Benitez-Francia ancestral house in Pagsanjan, Laguna. There were also furniture commissioned by Francisca Benitez from craftsmen in Nagcarlan and Liliw, Laguna, and from the Old Bilibid Prison workshops in Manila, most notably the distinctive carved wooden bookshelves and the imposing wooden frame of Simon Flores’ Portrait of Judge Higinio Benitez in the downstairs library . The collection also included a rare heirloom early 20th-century Steinway half grand piano, porcelain, glassware, objets d’art, paintings, and books on law and travel, dictionaries, and encyclopedias from the library of Judge Higinio Ortega Benitez, father of Conrado F. Benitez, which Conrado, Helena, and other book-loving Benitezes built on.
To date, some 4,000 books comprise MiraNila’s extensive library, which also includes periodicals and an archive of precious documents, letters, photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings. A selection of books and articles by and about the Benitez family and MiraNila are displayed prominently in a round table in the living area for visitors to see and peruse. Family photographs including those taken in the company of historic personalities line opposite walls of the second floor Picture Gallery.
Among the priceless treasures in MiraNila’s collections are ancestral portraits of the Benitez-Francia-Tirona families. What could have been the oldest portrait of a family member is a copy of Antonio Feliciano Malantic’s portrait of Soledad Francia (1876), mother of Conrado F. Benitez, who was one of five members of the Francia family painted by Malantic during the artist’s stay in their Pagsanjan home. However, this and the portrait of Inocencia Francia (1876), Soledad’s sister, are no longer with the family as they were acquired by the late National Artist for Architecture, Leandro V. Locsin, and now form part of Del Monte Phils., Inc.’s art collection.
The second is the majestic Portrait of Judge Higinio Ortega Benitez (1899) by Simon de la Rosa Flores, originally from the Benitez ancestral house in Pagsanjan, now the centerpiece of three portraits of family members who helped frame our country’s three constitutions: Judge Higinio Ortega Benitez for the Malolos Constitution of 1899; Conrado Francia Benitez, one of the Seven Wise Men who drafted the 1935 Constitution (his brother, Eulogio Francia Benitez, was Representative for the Philippine Constitution of 1935); and Tomas Conrado Tirona Benitez for the Philippine Constitution of 1973.
Former Senator, PWU Chairperson, and Bayanihan founder, Helena Zoila Tirona Benitez, is depicted in two contrasting portraits: first in a traditional style by National Artist Fernando C. Amorsolo dated 1953 and in a modernist style by the France-based Filipino painter, Macario Cruz Vitalis, dated 1963. A smaller portrait of Helena Benitez found in her former bedroom was by her high school classmate, Anita Magsaysay Ho.
Portraits of family matriarch, Francisca Tirona Benitez, grace the walls of the grand staircase, one of which was by the Superrealist Filipino painter, Ely Gajo, from the early 1970s.
Just as priceless are two significant artworks installed in the Large Dining Room: a mural by Carlos “Botong” V. Francisco commissioned in 1945 by George Hodel for his daughter, Diana, and a large pastel study for a mural on paper dedication dated 1921 by the renowned Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera.
Specific pieces of furniture and objet d’arts from the MiraNila collection have their own stories to tell. A beautifully curved double-caned sofa was originally owned by the first Filipino Chief Justice Cayetano Arellano, whose daughter, Rose, was the wife of Dr. Gregorio Singian. Dr. Singian became the friend of Judge Higinio Benitez and gave him the sofa in honor of his friendship with Justice Arellano.
On a love seat, in the ground floor library, once sat the widower, President Elpidio Quirino, who gamely had his photos taken with prospective brides at a party hosted by the Benitezes in MiraNila. A Llladró porcelain figurine of a Singkil princess and her attendant entitled, Folklore Filipina, No. 728 out of a limited edition of 1,500, no doubt inspired by the 1961 performances of the Bayanihan Dance Company worldwide, is displayed on the piano. It was purchased by Bayanihan costume designer Isabel “Bills” Santos and choreographer, Dance Director and National Artist, Lucrecia “Inday” Urtula, as a surprise gift to Helena from the Christofle store in Cannes. The Bayanihan dancers often performed little concerts at MiraNila with the side porch as stage and the audience seated in the garden, often inviting their guests to dance with them. And the beautifully carved Ah Tay Bed, which PWU alumna and then First Lady Imelda Marcos fancied on a visit to the ailing Francisca Benitez at MiraNila. She had no less than ten copies made by Viring de Asis of Jo-Liza for the family rest house in Paoay.
Displayed at the end of the Picture Gallery on the second floor are Douglas MacArthur’s cane left behind on his visit to MiraNila and letters sent by an impressionable Maria Aurora “Baby” Quezon to Helena while the latter was studying Art History in Washington, D.C., discovered in a locked closet after Helena passed away.
Though widely written about, MiraNila remains an inexhaustible treasure trove of stories and some urban legends. One persistent urban legend told was that every Halloween’s Eve, the Benitez children would go up to the torre carrying a coffin, lay it in the center of the small room in the torre, and sit around it swapping ghost stories. Petty Benitez Johannot dismissed this story: “If there are any ghosts,they are of the friendly kind. Our grandfather, Conrado, who was so much of a Freemason and rational, never encouraged us to believe in ghosts.” And about the coffin being brought up to the torre? “That one never happened because if you go upstairs to the torre using that steep stairway, you cannot bring up a coffin there. According to my brother, a coffin was placed by the sunken tennis court and someone dressed as Dracula would be lying in the coffin. But our older sister, Rosary, doesn’t even remember it anymore. I think it is all oral history. Urban legend!”
Today, where the sunken tennis court was, is a chapel where four of Mira-Nila’s former residents were laid to rest: “Papa B”, or Dean Conrado F. Benitez, “Mommy B.” or Francisca Tirona Benitez, Helena Tirona Benitez, and Emma Lavadia Benitez Araneta Valeriano. The beautiful Emma Benitez, daughter of Rep. Eulogio Benitez (the first to address the House of Representatives in the English language) and Rosenda Lavadia, and sister of TV and radio personality, Leila Benitez, was a PWU alumna who was a famous stage actress who performed in Dramatic Philippines productions at The Manila Metropolitan Theater during the Japanese Occupation, together with two other legendary beauties, Susan Magalona and Elvira Ledesma. She was the wife of the architect and legendary art collector Luis Ma. Araneta and mother of their three children, Gregorio, Patricia, and Elvira.
She was later remarried to Brigadier General Napoleon Valeriano of the Philippine Army and lived in the United States thereafter. Napoleon Valeriano was a WWII veteran and commander of the Nenita Squad who was once President Ramon Magsaysay’s aide-de-camp and later worked with the CIA’s Edward Lansdale in counter-insurgency operations worldwide. She lived in MiraNila while studying at PWU during her high school and college years and was like a younger sister to her first cousin, Helena. According to Emma’s daughter, Patricia Araneta, when her mother passed away in 2012, her family followed Emma’s wishes by inurning her remains at the MiraNila Chapel. Helena earlier conveyed her invitation, through her niece, Rosary, for Emma to “come home to MiraNila” and make it her final resting place. Helena passed away four years later, in 2016.
A resident of the torre was Alfredo T. Benitez, youngest son of Conrado and Francisca Benitez, who had an ailment which benefited from the fresh breezes coming in from the torre’s windows each of which faced perfectly North, South, East and West. A writer and advertising executive, he was the founder of Philprom, one of the foremost advertising agencies of its time. He was married to Lourdes Bibby Baltazar and had four children: Amelou B. Reyes, Maritza B. Canto, Noel Benitez, and Jose Conrado “Jolly” B. Benitez. Jolly Benitez, who had an M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University, was a T.O.Y.M. awardee and one of the top technocrats during the Marcos era. He was married first to Betty Bantug and later to Joanne de Asis. He had two sons by his first wife: former PWU President Francisco Bantug Benitez and Rep. Alfredo “Albee” Bantug Benitez.
Another accomplished son of Conrado and Francisca was Tomas Conrado Benitez, a lawyer and diplomat who served in the military shortly before and at the start of WWII. A commandant of the ROTC of U.P. and the De La Salle College, he earned a place as an officer in the reserve forces which was later incorporated into the AFP. Before WWII, he became the Chief Liaison Officer between President Manuel L. Quezon and General Douglas MacArthur and later served under Secretary Jorge Vargas in Malacañang. He later served as an assistant in the office of General MacArthur and later at the HQ of General Dwight Eisenhower. Called to active duty in the AFP in 1942, he was not imprisoned after his company disbanded, thanks to Secretary Jorge Vargas who vouched for him.
Throughout the Japanese Occupation, while his wife and family were staying mostly with her wife’s relatives in Balayan, Batangas, he continued to work in Malacañang as technical adviser in the legal division, first under Secretary Jorge Vargas then later under President Jose P. Laurel. After WWII, he was appointed secretary in the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. under Philippine Ambassador Joaquin Elizalde and later as Consul for the Philippines in the District of Columbia. He was also Chief of American Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs up to 1952, a business executive of People’s Surety and Insurance Co., Travellers, Benitez & Co., Inc., and a member of the board of directors of PWU. He was married to Conchita “Nenabo” Lopez Liboro, who was a VSAC member during WWII together with Helena and Emma Benitez, and had nine children: Conrado, Rosario, Ramona “Bebet”, Lydia Francisca “Lyca”, Asuncion “Sunny”, Purissima Helena “Petty”, Guilllermo “Willy”, Juan “Jet”, and Giovanna “Genny”.
It was under the supervision of Mrs. Conchita Benitez that the final practical exam for foreign service graduates was held in MiraNila. The students, who had already taken their civil service examinations, were asked to go to MiraNila with a companion (not their boyfriend or girlfriend) and to come on time. They would be served a formal dinner and were expected to conduct themselves as they would in formal occasions. They would be given topics written on slips of paper placed beneath their plates and would be asked to speak extemporaneously.
So stringent was this exam that a future diplomat failed it on first try as he was late and brought along his girlfriend. He did not case the place beforehand as others did and had a difficult time finding 26 Mariposa, MiraNila’s current address. Recounted Petty: “So he missed that round of ambassadorship. While the others became ambassadors, he came behind mostly from failing that exam. Imagine the frustration. Kawawa naman!!”
But he apparently learned well and became Consul General and later, Ambassador.
A movie backdrop
According to film and art historian and U.P. Art Studies professor, Patrick Flores, as told to Petty, MiraNila, less than a kilometer away from LVN Studios, was the location of the LVN Pictures movie, Satur (1951), directed by National Artist, Lamberto V. Avellana. A costume movie based on a Pilipino Komiks serial by National Artist, Francisco V. Coching, Satur starred National Artist Manuel Conde in the title role of the devil incarnate, Satur, who desires a beautiful woman named Cristina (Delia Razon) who is in love with a farmer named Sendong (Jaime De la Rosa). Cristina spurns Satur and is transformed into a hideous hag. In the end, good triumphs over evil when Satur is vanquished and Cristina, restored to her former beauty, ends up in Sendong’s loving embrace.
Unfortunately, only a short video clip of the movie’s ending and some still photos are available online, none of them showing scenes shot in MiraNila.
On another realm, also memorable was the small dining room where the germ of the idea of establishing Bayanihan was hatched and where meetings of civic groups like the Quezon City Citizen’s League for Good Government were held during the term of then long-running Quezon City Mayor Norberto Amoranto who served from 1954-1976.
As recounted by Bebet Benitez McClelland: “The Quezon City Citizen’s League for Good Government, founded in the 1960s by a group of six wise men, including my grandfather, Conrado, were able to influence what the Quezon City Council would pass. So this was the model for citizens’ leagues all over the country.” It also comprised a chapter in a dissertation that Dr. John Sidel, who lived some years in the compound, successfully submitted to the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London.
Under the himbabao tree in the garden, the first NGO in the Philippines was conceived in 1952 when the Huk Menace was at its height. Founded by Dr. Y.C. James Yen, the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM) was a non-political, non-racial, non-sectarian private organization devoted to the cause of harnessing the manpower and natur
al potential of barrio folk for rural development in a determined war against poverty, disease, illiteracy, and civic inertia. It likewise aimed to develop self-reliance and self-government in the barrio level. Among its original Board of Directors were Conrado Benitez, Salvador Araneta, then Secretary of Commerce Cornelio Balmaceda, Paul R. Parrette of the Philippine Manufacturing Corp., Senator Gil J. Puyat, and Albino Z. SyCip of China Banking Corp. Among other personalities associated with PRRM were its former President, the late Horacio “Boy” Morales, and the late Senator and Health Secretary Juan Flavier, also know as “Doctor to the Barrios.” After many years, PRRM exists to this day.
Precious, too, are memories of family: Christmas Eves; Sunday lunches where pochero, lechon, and puto would be served; children’s parties; learning to dance on the borax-swathed side patio; going to and from school with Daddy B and Mama B; gathering fruit seeds in tin cans and planting them in the family farms in Baluktot in Cavite and Pugad Lawin in Laguna; pillow fights; and family discussions where children were allowed to speak and be heard, to discuss but not argue.
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Helena Benitez’s former bedroom at MiraNila.
Antique carved wood frame chairs with caned backs and seats at the Second Floor Library.
From left: Bookshelves at the Ground Floor Library; Small Dining Room with the family’s priceless collections of antique European and Oriental ceramics, porcelain, and glassware.
From left: Folklore Filipina, a limited edition (No. 728 of 1,500) Llladro porcelain group figurine of a Singkil princess and her attendant designed by Vicente Martinez, inspired by the worldwide performances of the Bayanihan in 1961 MiraNila Collection; Living Area by the main entrance of MiraNila with vintage caned Mariposa sofa and Friar’s Chairs in carved wood acquired or commissioned by Francisca T. Benitez from wood craftsmen in Laguna.
Greens are a big part of the MiraNila atmosphere.
A hallway in white.
An image of the hallway and a vintage electric fan
One of the bedrooms and its accompanying comfort room.
More books and antiques.
An elegant room and an image of the Blessed Virgin at the chapel.
Helena herself dictated a letter to Petty Benitez Johannot to successfully petition the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) for declaration of her home as a heritage house which was granted on 7 April 2011 preparatory to its opening as a museum and library. To raise funds for the upkeep and maintenance of MiraNila, the Benitez-Tirona MiraNila Foundation is conducting tours and partnering with companies to run an events place and cafe-restaurant in MiraNila’s premises.
MiraNila is a legacy of Helena not only to her descendants but more pointedly to the Filipino people whom the family has continued to serve in the fields of education, public service, social service, culture, and the arts. Maintaining a heritage house like MiraNila without support from the government in terms of financial assistance and real property tax incentives and exemptions is an enormous challenge for private owners.
By sheer providence, MiraNila survived WWII unscathed despite having been occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII, thanks to the timely action of the U.S. First Cavalry in decommissioning 71 landmines. And thanks to the love and care of family members and their loyal staff, MiraNila still stands proud today, welcoming visitors to witness history come alive within its hallowed premises.
Photographs by Jar Concengco
Special thanks to Ms. Petty Benitez Johannot of the MiraNila Benitez Tirona Foundation for her generous help in the making of this article by way of providing information and archival photos and clippings from MiraNila's extensive archives. Many thanks, too, to Benitez family members, Bebet Benitez McClelland, Lyca Benitez Brown, and Freddie Benitez Reyes for graciously welcoming us to MiraNila. To Petty, Bebet, and Freddie for touring us around and patiently sitting with us for the interview. And to Patricia Araneta for allowing us to include her mother's photos in the article.