The MiraNila Heritage House and Library is found hidden in winding roads of Barangay Bagong Lipunan (New Society) in the Cubao district of Quezon City. The house was built in 1929, by the educational pioneers and civic leaders, Conrado and Francisca Benitez, during the time that the American colonial government was selling the former friar lands for development, to local and foreign elite. Conrado and Francisca purchased in San Juan del Monte, an area comprised of the Hacieda Mandaloyon of the Ortigas family, the Magdalena Estates of the Ysmael family, and the Diliman Estates (now called Cubao) of the family of Justice Pedro Tiangco Tuazon (born 1884).
Taking advantage of the development of the North–South Circumferential Road (now known as Epifanio de los Santos Avenue) to the east, and the Carretera de Santolan (now Colonel Bonny Serrano Avenue) to the south, Conrado Benitez and his friend, Justice Secretary José Abad Basco Santos (1886-1942), purchased the parcels of land to build their homes. The road that ran between the Benitez and Abad Santos estates “Mariposa” was so named because of the many butterflies in the lush flowering gardens that their neighbor, Socorro Marquez Zaballero, nurtured in her home at the bottom of their hill.
During the construction of the Benitez and Abad-Santos estates, the land was still part of the Municipality of San Juan del Monte. Only with the creation of Balintawak in 1939 (later renamed Quezon City) was the area included into the new city boundary.
The Art Deco styled home was inspired by the modernariato Stile Liberty homes that were the rage in Florence, Italy. Francisca Benitez’s sisters, Joaquina, Ramona, and Felicidad “Felicing” Tirona, had come from a tour of Europe, and a catalogue of old Italian houses they brought with them served as a reference for the home. The house was affectionately named “Mira Nila”, a use of the Spanish word “mirar” (to view) and a shortening of the name “Manila”, as the house was built on a hill with a good view of old Manila, which was roughly 10 kilometers away. Thus “MiraNila” meant “To look at Manila,” coined by their daughter, Helena, as she and her brothers were looking at the rising flames that engulfed the Ateneo de Manila in Manila’s Intramuros district in 1932.
The MiraNila home was constructed 10 years after the Benitez family and friends had had established and opened the Philippine Women’s College (now the Philippine Women’s University or PWU), the first university in Asia for women and founded by Asian. And from then on, MiraNila not only became home to the Benitez family and a meeting place of dignitaries and civic luminaries, it also served as housing for guests of the Benitez clan and PWU.
During World War II, MiraNila was taken over by officers of the Japanese Imperial Army. The Benitez family was spared by the invaders as their Japanese gardener was a sleeper agent and lieutenant who respected Mr. and Mrs. Benitez for their kindness. At the end of the war, the Japanese left 72 land mines as traps for the returning American forces from the U.S. First Cavalry who defused the mines and resided in the house for a brief period. The last landmine was found by a gardener in the 1960s.
After the war, the Benitez family continued to be innovators in Philippine education, as well as in business, even promoting Philippine culture locally and abroad. Conrado and Francisca had four children: Helena, Tomas, Alfredo, and Angel. Angel died at a young age and Alfredo right after the war. Tomas pursued a career in the foreign service and Helena carried on the family’s legacy in education, among other endeavors.
Displayed in MiraNila are artworks from the family collection. The residents were patrons of the arts and in 1947, PWU opened the College of Music and Fine Arts. In the family library is a 1953 portrait of Conrado Benitez by Ricardo B. Enriquez (b. 1920). Conrado Francia Benitez (1889-1971) was an educator, lawyer, journalist, civil servant, historian, athlete, and politician who served as the first Filipino dean at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Manila, when he headed the College of Liberal Arts, then becoming founding dean of the College of Business Administration. As a student, Conrado won three gold medals during the 1913 Far East Swimming Olympics held in Manila. Conrado was also noted for penning some of the first Philippine textbooks in history, economics, civics, and sociology, occasionally co-authoring with H. Otley Beyer who wrote about prehistory. As a civic leader, Conrado helped found the Philippine Columbian Association in 1907 and the Philippine Young Man’s Christian Association (YMCA) in 1911, the latter he served as President and Chairman of the board from 1956 to 1971. As a journalist, Conrado served in 1920 as the first editor of The Philippines Herald; and being the first Filipino newspaper in English, Benitez is considered the Father of Philippine Journalism. As a public servant, Conrado was one of the “Seven Wise Men” who drafted the 1935 Philippine Constitution during the Constitutional Assembly of 1934. He also was appointed as assistant executive secretary to the President of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1938 and later served as the Philippine representative to the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1948 and 1955. As a Mason, Conrado was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the Philippines in 1936 and Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite of Free Masonry from 1961 to 1969. After the war, Conrado helped in the rehabilitation of Manila, serving as the first president and original co-incorporator of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM) that helped the rural poor rebuild their lives after the destruction of the war. Conrado continued to serve in PWU as well local politics. In the 1960s, Conrado was one of the founders of the Quezon City Citizen’s League for Good Government that aimed to combat corruption in the Quezon City government, serving as city councilor until his death in 1971.
Conrado Benitez hailed from a prominent family in Pagsanjan, Laguna Province, where he was born. Also in the library is a life-size portrait of Conrado’s father, Judge Higinio Benitez, by Simon De la Rosa Flores (1839-1904). The painting was completed in 1899, when Judge Higinio Ortega Benitez (1851-1928) was appointed as a judge to the Land Registration Court. Higinio was a representative of Pagsanjan to the 1899 Malolos Congress that drafted the constitution of the first Philippine Republic. Higinio married Soledad Francia Benitez with whom he had six children: Ceferino, Teofilo, Francisco, Conrado, Eulogio and Antonia. Francisco(1887-1951) served as the first dean of UP’s College of Education and married noted writer and poet Paz Márquez (1894-1983).
Simon de la Rosa Flores (1839-1904) is a Manila based classical painter and portraitist, who hailed from a family of artists from the town of Balayan, Batangas Province. He first was instructed in painting by his uncle, Pio de la Rosa, before enrolling at the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, studying under Lorenzo Guerrero (1835-1904) and Lorenzo Rocha (1837-1898). Flores career as a master portraitist was launched when his painting of King Amadeo I of Spain (1845-1890) was presented to the governor of the Pampanga Province. From then Flores was introduced to many of the wealthy families of the province, which he would create many of his famous portraits. Aside from his finely detailed minutarismo portraits, Flores is also noted for creating religious works and genre painting of everyday life. During the 1876 Philadelphia Universal Exposition, Flores won the silver medal for the “La Musica del Pueblo” (The
Music of the Town), making him the first Filipino of native blood to garner an international art prize. From then on, Flores would receive more honors, such as the 1891 Tercentenary of San Juan de la Cruz in Poland, the 1895 Exposición Regional Filipina, and posthumously participated in the 1904 Universal Exposition of St. Louis, USA.
In the MiraNila Music Alcove is a portrait of Conrado’s mother, Soledad Francia, when she was still a young lady. The original portrait was created in 1876 by noted painter Antonio Feliciano Malantic (1821-1886). The Francia family invited Malantic to stay for several months in their home in Pagsanjan to paint the individual portraits of Pagsanjan’s Gobernadorcillo (mayor), Don Hilario Francia, his wife, Teresa Rosales, and their children, Soledad, Inocencia, and Prudencio. The paintings of Soledad and Inocencia are typical of the portraits of young women of that period that employed subtle symbols that would promote their virtues, possibly to future suitors. They were also rendered in what was then in vogue, the minituarismo style, showing intricate details of lacework and weaving of their upper garments. After the Francia home was damaged by the bombs of World War II, only the portraits of Soledad and Inocencia survived of that collection because these had already had been inherited by their progeny. Both portraits would later come into the custody of the of the National Artist Arch. Leandro Valencia Locsin (1928-1994) and his wife, Cecille Yulo Locsin. Both the Soledad and Inocencia Francia portraits are now in the Del Monte Corporation collection. These Malantic paintings are listed as part of the 60 masterpieces of Philippine art by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Philippine Central Bank).
Antonio Feliciano Malantic (1821-1886) is a noted portrait painter, who hailed from the Province of Bulacan. Migrating to Manila, Malantic studied at the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, when it reopened in 1845, under the tutelage of Agustin Saez, Enrique Nieto y Zamora, Ventura del Arco, Luis Perez Domine, Nicolas Enrile, Jose Bosch, and Manuel de la Cortina. Upon finishing his studies, Malantic became known for his minute details of the intricate embroidery and weaving patterns on his subjects’ portraits, as well as a few religious works of equal craftsmanship.
In MiraNila’s main stairwell is an early 1970s portrait of Francisca Tirona-Benitez by Eli Gajo (b. 1950), who graduated from PWU’s College of Music and Fine Arts. In 1919, Francisca Tirona-Benitez (1886-1974) cofounded the Philippine Women’s College with Clara Aragon, Concepcion Aragon, Paz Marquez Benitez, Carolina Ocampo Palma, Mercedes Rivera, and Socorro Marquez Zaballero. Francisca, an educator, humanitarian, civic leader, and administrator, was also one of the founding members of the Gota de Leche (1906) foundation that provided nutritional and medical assistance to indigent mothers. She also cofounded other women’s organizations like La Asociacion de Damas Filipinas (1913) and the Civic Assembly of Women in the Philippines (1946). During World War II, Francisca headed the Women’s Bureau.
Ely Gajo (born 1950) is a classical genre painter, who came from the Province of Sorsogon. Transferring to Manila, Gajo completed his formal art education at the Philippine Women’s University College of Fine Arts, then he would later join the Magic Realist group of Stevesantos, Ger Viterbo, Nestor Leynes, Efren Lopez, and Agustin Goy. From his first solo exhibition in 1979, Gajo would continue to exhibit locally and abroad.
In the Small Dining Room is a 1953 portrait of Helena by the National Artist, Fernando Cueto Amorsolo (1892-1972). Helena Zoila Tirona Benitez (1914-2016) served as the president of the Philippine Women’s University after her mother, Francisca, stepped down. Helena led a distinguished career in the United Nations, chairing the UN High Commission on the Status of Women in 1966 in Geneva where the Draft Declaration on Discrimination Against Women was passed and subsequently adopted by the UN General Assembly. She also presided over the III Governing Council of the UN Environmental Program in Nairobi (1975). Like her parents, she received recognition for her contributions from various sectors: Presidential Awards for her work in education (1952) and international cultural relations (1959); with the Bayanihan Dance Company, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding (1965); the Tandang Sora Award for Education (1977); the Outstanding Citizen of Manila Award for Education (1978); and the Romulo UN Achievement Award (1978). She served as senator from 1968 to 1972 and as Assembly member from 1978 to 1986 in the Philippines’ unicameral legislature. She drafted bills that became important laws in education, youth, culture, the environment, and human settlements. In her early years, Helena was one of the 1939 founding charter members of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines and had been supporting and leading the organization until her death. For her work in civil service, politics, education, and culture, Helena was honored with the Order of Sikatuna with the rank of “Datu,” becoming the first woman to receive such a distinction.
Fernando Cueto Amorsolo (1892-1972) is one of the most important artists in the history of painting in the Philippines. Fernando, along with his brother Pablo, lost his father at an early age; and they were “adopted” by their uncle Fabián de la Rosa. Born in Paco, Manila, Amorsolo earned a degree from the Liceo de Manila Art School in 1909, before entering the U.P. School of Fine Arts and graduating in its first batch in 1914. Amorsolo’s portrayal of the beautiful and dignified peasants of the Philippine countryside, as a form of silent nationalistic protest against the rapid adapting of American styles and attitudes among Filipinos in the city, and thus he was showing the true spirit of the Filipino was to be found in the provinces. He was declared the first National Artist, by Pres. Ferdinand Marcos, in 1972. Amorsolo is also known for designing the label of the very popular gin, Ginebra San Miguel.
In 1956, Helena founded the Bayanihan Dance Company. Based in PWU and with a staff headed by ethno musicolorgist Lucrecia Kasilag and choreographer Lucretia Urtula, among others, Bayanihan documented, performed, and promoted Philippine folk dances locally and around the globe. The two staff members would later be declared National Artists. After local and international accolades, Congress in 1998 would designate Bayanihan the title National Dance Company. To celebrate Philippine folk dance and in recognition of the cultural impact of the Bayanihan, famed Spanish ceramic figurine company Lladró created a limited-edition series of two Maranao women dancing the traditional “Sinkkil,” titled it “Philippine Folklore,” and based it on dancers from the company’s 1961 World Tour. Some 1500 pieces were produced between 1980 and 1995, with this pair proudly displayed on top of the family piano. Vicente Martinez, one of Lladró’s top designers, sculpted the original cast of the piece.
In 2006, Helena built a small chapel in the MiraNila grounds that would become the final resting place of Conrado, Francisca, their daughter Helena, and their niece, Emma Benitez-Araneta-Valeriano (1922-2012). Aside from the burial niches, the chapel also houses some of the Helena’s religious ivories. The Kraut company created the stained glass window portraying the Holy Family, after which the chapel was named.
The Kraut Art Glass started in 1911, when Matthias Kraut arrived in the Philippines from Germany. Starting with a business of house painting, Kraut would open his stained glass business in Quiapo, in 1912. Soon the Kraut Glass Art company would be the leading stained glass company in the Philippines, creating masterpieces for churches, homes and business. Some of the major pieces created by the Kraut Glass Art company are the Archway of the Philippine Pavilion in the 1917 St. Louis Exposition, with Galo Ocampo for the 1954 Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City and the 1958 Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica in Manila, and the Santo Niño Basilica in Cebu. Now-a-days, the business is managed by Matthias’ grandchildren: Robert Kraut Jr., Ronald Kraut, and and Rochelle Kraut-Barrinaga.
Visiting MiraNila is not just a step into an old house, but a look back into the lives of a family spanning nine decades. It is also a treasure trove of historical memorabilia, outstanding artworks, 4,000 books, and over 2,000 antique furniture, glass, and ceramics. Many of these pieces tell the very story of the Philippines, as well as a collection of colonial artworks, including masters as Spanish era masters José Honorato Lozano (1815-1885), Antonio Feliciano Malantic (1821-1886), and Simon De la Rosa Flores (1839-1904); American period masters Fabian Cueto de la Rosa (1869-1937), and his nephews National Artist Fernando Cueto Amorsolo (1892-1972), and Pablo Cueto Amorsolo (1898 -1945); modernists Macario Cruz Vitalis (1898–1990), Diosdado Magno Lorenzo (1906-1984), Carlos “Botong” Villaluz Francisco (1914-1969), Anita Corpus Magsaysay-Ho (1914-2012), PWU alumni Ricardo B. Enriquez (born 1920) and Eli Gajo (born 1950), former PWU Fine Arts deans Mariano Madarang (1937-2008) and Virgilio “Pandy” Arguelles Aviado (born 1944), David Cortez Medalla (born 1938), Raul Lebajo (born 1941), Raul Gomez Isidro (born 1943), Mariano “Chito” Madarang (1937-2008), and Rosario “Charito” Bitanga (b. 1938); painter-printmakers Hilario Francia (1928-2003) and Juvenal Sanso (Reus, Catalonia 1929); sculptors Eduardo De Los Santos Castrillo (1942-2016) and Dr. Antonino ‘Ton’ Raymundo; as well as painting by Benitez family members Jolly (d. 2015), Jana, and Bien. Displayed from their international works are watercolors from the 1930s by Japanese painter Toyoharu, bronze figures by French sculptors Louis Justin Laurent Icart (1880-1950) and Fayral (Pierre le Faguays, 1892-1962), and a study of a peasant’s head for a mural by the Mexican Diego Rivera (1886-1957).
With such a history and collection, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines declared MiraNila as a Heritage House of national and historical significance in April 2011. Presently the legacy of the Benitez family is carried on by granddaughter, art historian/archivist Purissima “Petty” Benitez-Johannot, along with Ramona “Bebet” Benitez McClelland, Lydia “Lyca” Benitez Brown, and the MiraNila staff headed by Delia Pineda who manage the house and open its doors to share some of the family stories and treasures with visitors. Part of giving MiraNila a new lease on life, the home now conducts preappointed tours and provides spaces for events in a reconstructed function hall called the Pavilion that also houses a café and a gift shop.
Then next article will tackle some important artworks in the Mira Nila collection.