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Mira Nila: A historical past blends beautifully with the present

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 25, 2022 5:00 am

The few times that we visited Mira Nila were always delightfully engaging and reassuring, not just because members of the Benitez family were so gracious but because you felt that the family heritage was alive and celebrated, hand in hand with the history of the Philippines, which is embodied within the ancestral home’s walls: From welcoming prominent officials during the Commonwealth to World War II when the Japanese Imperial officers occupied it and after the war as host to government, cultural and civic group meetings, which gave birth to many brilliant ideas and advocacies that shaped the nation through the years.

It was the wish of the late educator and legislator Helena Benitez, the daughter of educational pioneers and civic leaders Conrado Francia Benitez and Francisca Paredes Tirona, that Mira Nila be declared a heritage house by the National Historical Commission so that more Filipinos could visit and “appreciate the greatness” of their home.

Portrait of Helena Benitez by Macario Cruz Vitalis, 1963

This was granted on April 7, 2011, paving the way for its opening as a museum and library, which the Benitez-Tirona MiraNila Foundation made a reality.

Although tours helped support the upkeep of the museum, it was not sustainable in the long run, leading the foundation to find solutions which, “after meeting the right people, made everything fall perfectly into place,” according to art historian and museum curator Petty Benitez-Johannot, niece of Helena, and daughter of Tomas Benitez. The “new” MiraNila was inaugurated recently — a marvel of creative, adaptive reuse of a heritage site.

Portrait of Helena Benitez by Fernando C. Amorsolo, 1953

Built in 1929 at the highest point of San Juan Del Monte district, which is now part of the Cubao district of Quezon City, Mira Nila is one of the few surviving houses in the city that dates back to the American Colonial era with most of its original furnishings intact. Originally surrounded by rice fields, the estate has maintained an idyllic charm with century-old trees shading its gardens and chapel that seem a world away from the commercial centers of Greenhills and Araneta Center nearby.

Although The Gallery Mira Nila by the Blue Leaf was already running since 2020 to host events, weddings and other celebrations, the big news is that Henry Hotels & Resorts has now established their latest boutique hotel at Mira Nila, complemented by a Bizu café that makes the enjoyment of the heritage property a complete experience, ideal for weekend getaways.

A music alcove under the staircase with a portrait of Soledad Francia, the mother of Conrado Benitez, a bust of Helena Benitez by Dr. Antonino Raymundo, a 1904 Steinway grand piano with the limited-edition Singkil figurine by Lladró commemorating the successful Bayanihan Dance Company world tour in 1961.

The welcome addition to the country’s list of must-see and must-stay destinations couldn’t be stressed enough in the opening remarks of outgoing Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, who came to grace the opening. Petty, who took notes from her Tita Helen through the years, brought guests on a tour of the house-museum and library to share its history.

The ground floor library with Oriental lacquer screen and furnishings.

The house is on Mariposa, a street that got its name from the butterflies that came for the many blooms in the neighborhood. For the design of their new home, Francisca was inspired by Florentine villas in catalogues brought home by her sisters after a trip to Italy and asked her cousin Gregorio Paredes to help in drawing the architectural plans. The original layout, before the dining area was expanded, was a Palladian cross that allowed cross-ventilation, and was topped by a tower, an observation point from where the young Helena witnessed Manila burning from a distance in 1932. Her cry of “Mira a Manila” at the heartbreaking sight gave the house its name.

For the design of their new home, Francisca was inspired by Florentine villas in catalogues brought home by her sisters after a trip to Italy.

Entering the living room, one feels an air of gentility — with elegant period furniture, a grand piano, ancestral portraits by Filipino masters and a sweeping staircase. A big round table at the center displays books written by and about family members. To the left is the ground-floor library with a huge lacquered Oriental screen at the back and a love seat by the entrance where the widower, President Elpidio Quirino, sat once to gamely have his photo taken upon the prodding of Helena, who assembled all the single ladies and widows to pose as prospective brides.

The 1899 portrait of Judge Higinio Ortega Benitez (father of Conrado Benitez) by Simon Dela Rosa Flores, originally from the Benitez house in Pagsanjan

Heading towards the dining room is a parlor where Conrado would hold meetings of his civil action groups like the Citizens’ League for Good Government. Later, Helena would also hold meetings here as Senator of the Republic. Her portraits by Fernando Amorsolo and Macario Vitalis, hanging on the walls, are both unusual: The former has muted shades, unlike the vibrant shades that the artist is known for, which is explained by the fact that this was executed right before he underwent cataract surgery. The second is in a modernist style that veered away from her parents’ predilection for the classical.

Ah Tay four-poster beds in the bedroom

The dining room was also the scene of many significant events, but one close to Helena’s heart was the hatching of the Bayanihan Dance Company, which introduced Philippine folk dances to the world. It was such a success that Lladró created a porcelain figurine of Singkil dancers, inspired by the dance company’s 1961 world tour. One of the limited-edition pieces sits on top of the piano by the stairwell.

The upstairs Reading Room with some of the 4,000 books in the Mira Nila Library

Upstairs, the Reading Room houses some of the 4,000 books from Mira Nila’s extensive library, which also has manuscripts, documents and periodicals. On this floor is Helena’s bedroom, a picture gallery and other rooms displaying many interesting paintings and objets d’art, aside from historical pieces like General Douglas McArthur’s cane, which he left behind during a visit and letters from Maria Aurora “Baby” Quezon, daughter of President Manuel Quezon and his wife, Aurora.

Going out of the house to the garden, even a tree was not spared of historical significance, since the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement was conceived under it in 1952 to empower and develop rural communities at the height of the Huk menace.

A lounge and bar at Henry Suites Mira Nila, designed by Eric Paras

Moving on to the present, we proceeded to the latest addition to the complex: The Henry Suites Mira Nila, which was right next to the house museum, occupying a building that Petty said she and her siblings called “Mira Namin,” (Our “Mira”) as their own living quarters in the ’80s, separate from the original ancestral home. It has now been transformed into seven contemporary suites designed by Eric Paras, with touches of the Old World, like a vintage-style bathtub and some original furniture pieces from the old house, but all in a modern setting with all the amenities for a most comfortable stay.

The newly opened Henry Suites Mira Nila right next to the house museum

From the top terrace you may not see Manila as Helena did in the 1930s, but you can see the original Mira Nila, its gardens and chapel, and relive the many glorious events that transpired during that time. You will also be happy to know that this legacy can be enjoyed for generations to come.

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Mira Nila is at 26 Mariposa St., QC. Log on to miranila.org or contact +639454876827 +63287214942/ quezoncity.thehenryhotel.com @thehenry.quezoncity, tel. +63272160325.