Long before it became a typical, congested urban neighborhood, the area northeast of the City of Manila (which we now know as parts of San Juan and Quezon City) was a prime suburban address. Thanks to the then open fields and hilly terrain, that particular area gave a cool enough climate that has attracted many upper and middle-class families to reside there.
One of those families is the family of Conrado and Francisca Benitez, a family has made a mark in Philippine education. In fact, Conrado having served as the first Filipino dean in the old College of Liberal Arts of the University of the Philippines and wife Francisca being one of the co-founders of Philippine Women’s University.
The couple tapped the services of architect Gregorio Paredes to build the house on the top of what was known as Mariposa Hill. (named after the mariposa butterflies that used to abound in the area) The house was to be designed in the mix of Art Deco architecture and an Italian Florentine style that the couple encountered in their trips. What stood out though was the tower, which added two floors to the already wide two-floor base of the house, that served as a vantage point where one can see as far as Manila, especially back then when there were no high-rise towers in sight.
The house would be completed in 1929, as the couple were tending to a growing family that included daughter Helena, who would become a senator herself and eventually inherit the house. It would eventually have a name: “MiraNila”, a name that came about after Helena witnessed from the tower a huge fire in Intramuros which severely damaged the old Ateneo de Manila campus there. As the story goes, Helena cried out, “Mira a Manila!” (Look at Manila!) as she looked at the flames.
While the flames did not reach the house, it did not escape the war that would occur less than a decade later. The Japanese forces took interest in the house, most probably because of its strategic importance especially with its tower. It was eventually occupied by officers of the Imperial Army but was fortunately spared from destruction. In fact, the Benitez matriarch refused at first to leave the premises until she felt assured that the Japanese will take good care of the house.
After the deaths of Conrado and Francisca Benitez, ownership of the house went to Helena Benitez, who managed to preserve the house even in the midst of the urban sprawl and congestion that was already happening at that point. In fact, portions of the old Benitez property was sold to developers who built modern residential structures beside MiraNila. Upon Helena’s death in 2016, part of her will stated her wish to have MiraNila preserved and be open for the public to appreciate. In accordance with her wishes, the MiraNila was opened to the public early this year under the auspices of the Benitez-Tirona MiraNila Foundation.
MiraNila is one of the few houses in Metro Manila that has an official declaration by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines a heritage house. And it’s easy to see why. Not only are the exteriors still look as grand as they were when it was completed almost a century ago, but the interiors look grand as well.
The grand living room with the revolving staircase on the side exuded a sense of grandeur, accented by the presence of exquisite pieces from the finely-carved bookcases, to the grand piano, the centuries-old East Asian ceramics, and paintings by the likes of Fernando Amorsolo, Botong Francisco, Victorio Edades, and even Mexico’s Diego Rivera. Then there is the family’s library and study area at the second floor, which boasts thousands of books, many of them rare and long out of print.
Outside the house itself, the area has been maximized as well as a way to attract visitors and generate funds for the house’s maintenance. The old garage has now been converted into an events venue and a gift shop, while the open area beside the house can also be utilized for outdoor events.
At the moment, MiraNila is open to visitors upon prior appointment and for tour groups of at least 5, but is hoped that the house would be eventually become more accessible in the future. In any case, a visit to this rare gem in the metropolis is an opportunity that should not be missed.
For more information, visit MiraNila’s Facebook page