The Haunting Story Behind Grand Heritage House MiraNila
At the top of MiraNila, a heritage house owned by the Benitez family, is a tower that overlooks the city from one of the highest points of the New Manila area. Long before condominiums and townhouses obstructed the view, and before urbanization stripped its hills of verdant pastures, one could see from this vantage point the beginnings of Quezon City, the sunset dancing on the waters of Manila Bay, and the fire that razed Ateneo de Manila’s original campus.
Helena, the daughter of constitutionalist Conrado Benitez and Philippine Women’s University co-founder Francisca Tirona-Benitez, had come up to the room where her brother Alfredo spent much of his time. It was the evening of August 13, 1932: three years after their new home was built, and just a few months after she moved in at the age of 18. The fire raged red in the distance, spreading through the southwest parts of Intramuros.
“Mira a Manila!,” she cried. Look at Manila! The city was on fire. It was this incident that would give her home its name; one that her children and grandchildren would use as they opened its doors to the public.
Fred’s Room, from where Helena first called out, “Mira a Nila!”
Years after the disaster, on many an All Saints Day, the children of the household would climb the tower’s precarious steps, a coffin in tow. They set it up in the center of Alfredo’s room not for mourning, but for stories. With the lights out, in this small room overlooking a city still developing, the Benitez grandchildren and their classmates swapped tales of terror with each other, long after the horrors of World War II had decimated much of the surrounding area.
Petty Benitez-Johannot, Helena’s niece, has moved back to MiraNila to supervise the house’s operations, along with Bebet Benitez-McLelland and Rosary Benitez. She stands on the balcony of Conrado’s reading room up on the second floor, and shares a story of how her grandmother defied foreign invaders out of love for her home.
Helena lays at rest inside a chapel on the grounds of her longtime home.
“When the Japanese came, they came in great force. They moved into the house. They were officers of the Imperial Army,” she says, looking out towards the neighborhood. “The gardener here was a lieutenant. He told Francisca, ‘Move to PWU because we're taking over the house.’ She did not. She moved to the bungalow.”
“She wouldn't move until she was sure that the Japanese would take care of the house,” Petty adds, laughing. “When she saw that they would take off their boots when they came into the house, and people were cleaning, she moved out.”
After the retaking of Manila, the Benitez family slowly started moving back in. Jose Abad Santos’ home next door was in ruins, but theirs was spared—out of sheer luck, it would seem. Seventy-two landmines were found in and around MiraNila, and yet not one of them detonated. The last was found nearly 20 years later, when a gardener in the 1960s came across a metallic oddity among the flowerbeds.
After World War II, the Benitez family discovered 72 undetonated mines planted by Japanese forces across the estate.
Over time, thousands of other artifacts found their way into the mansion, though they were of decidedly happier origins. Helena and her siblings were, after all, art aficionados, much like their parents before them. Petty has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the treasures inside, thanks in large part to notes she would painstakingly scribble as Helena shared her memories of each item. As of writing, she’d personally catalogued over 2,000 books, paintings, antiques, and other objets d’art.
Petty walks back into the reading room to share some of the paintings she’d discovered during her surveys. On the left-most part of the room, sitting on a shelf next to Conrado’s desk, is a portrait by Fabian de la Rosa, his contemporary. Overhead, paintings from de la Rosa’s mentees—brothers Fernando and Pablo Amorsolo—are at the start of a visual timeline of Philippine art, featuring works by Macario Vitalis, Mariano Madarang, Raul Lebaco, and Raul Isidro. Towards the end of it are pieces by members of the Benitez family, including Jolly, Jana, and Bien Benitez; each with a style that sharply contrasts the others.
The Reading Room, where constitutionalist Conrado Benitez conducted much of his work, now houses a collection of paintings by artists with connections to both the family and MiraNila itself.
A rare painting by Pablo Amorsolo—Fernando’s brother—hangs above Conrado’s desk.
The story it tells—that of Philippine history’s ties with the people who once lived in this house—is ever-present throughout MiraNila’s halls. Just outside the reading room, at the foot of the stairs that lead to the tower, Petty plans on displaying one of Douglas MacArthur’s canes, left behind after one of his visits. A nearby glass case will house an album of letters from Baby Quezon, daughter of Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon and his wife Aurora, written to Helena.
The two were great friends, as were their fathers. Baby would write to Helena about life in Malacañang from the perspective of an 18- to 20-year old, often with a sense of fun behind her stories. But as history would have it, their time together was cut short by tragedy.
The bedroom where Helena would spend time reading letters from her dear friends.
“Her mother, herself, her brother-in-law were going through Baler,” Petty shares. “They were going through a certain part that was controlled by the Huks. They were told not to go there, but Baby said, ‘What do they have against me? I have nothing against them.’ They were massacred.”
“Part of the Quezon letters was a comb with a lock of hair, along with a note from Helena saying that this comb was used by Aurora and Baby when they last came to visit. In the old days, when you’d send your condolences, you’d send a little bit of a memorial as well. They sent this lock of hair.”
Down the main corridor of the second floor, where the family’s bedrooms greet each other, is a wall filled with photos of the Benitezes throughout the generations, as well as those with whom they shared MiraNila. The hall leads to a flight of stairs heading down to the dining room, where a mural by Diego Rivera serves as a backdrop to the family’s meals. Originally designed for Conrado’s and Francisca’s immediate family, the room is very scramped these days, as more seats and tables were added to accommodate their growing brood.
A mural by Diego Rivera graces the dining room, where the Benitezes continue to spend their Christmas dinners.
To this day, the Benitezes still celebrate the holidays here. Marton, Petty’s nephew, has fond—and embarrassing—memories of singing with his cousins as part of the family Christmas program. Like his parents and grandparents before him, he, too, would climb up the tower to tell scary stories. The house, he shares, has always been a central part of their family.
Just outside the main dining room is a parlor that opens up to the main hall. Here, Petty says, was where the Citizens’ League for Good Government and the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement—civil action groups of which Conrado was an active member—were established. Helena, during her tenure as a senator of the Republic, often held meetings in this room as well.
The parlor where Conrado established civil action groups, and where many of MiraNila’s esteemed guests were received.
Portraits of Francisca, Helena, and Alfredo by Vitalis, Fernando Amorsolo, and Diosdado Lorenzo are hung high up the walls of the parlor, and display cases of porcelain and glasswork—many of which are centuries old—show Helena’s penchant for collecting antiques. The chandelier above the center table, it’s suspected, was made by the same craftsman behind similar pieces in Malacañang, still in pristine condition. Helena, Petty says, had a tale for nearly every piece, many of which Petty hopes to share with the public during tours of the house.
The main hall itself, to the right of the parlor, has one of the Benitez cousins’ favorite stories.
“I remember one time when we were really young, during one Sunday lunch, we had a pillow fight among the cousins,” Rosary shares. “Of course, the feathers started flying. The older kids were so scared! They thought we were getting punished. But Lola Francisca said, ‘Nope, you will sew them all back.’ So all of us had to stuff the pillows back. Later on, I found out they had to take them out again because we did it wrong!”
The Main Hall contains, among items from the family’s past, a selection of books written by several Benitezes.
In the nearby library, a loveseat where several dignitaries met their partners.
Countless memories, created by four generations of Benitezes, fill the halls and rooms of MiraNila. Petty recalls the many dinners held as final examinations for aspiring diplomats. Bebet fondly remembers learning to dance with her cousins out on the terrace. Rosary can still see her Lolo Conrado cutting the tall blades of cogon grass that used to grow where an outdoor pavilion now rests. Quezon, MacArthur, Jose Abad Santos, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and a plethora of other dignitaries have shared occasions both somber and joyous behind its doors.
The terrace, where the Benitez cousins learned to dance, offers shade underneath a picturesque trellis.
And as the Benitez family opened those doors to the public, so too did the community around them become a part of their home’s 90-year history. Today, as a National Heritage Cultural Site, visitors in groups of seven to 20 can arrange for a tour of MiraNila, as well as add to its library of stories by celebrating special events on its grounds. The house’s past continues to live on in every inch of its walls, ready to greet whatever the future may bring.
There are ghosts in MiraNila, but not the sort that cause nightmares. They are instead imprints of a family’s history, tied intimately with the country’s own. The house’s wooden floors, bearing scuffs and scratches from the marches of war, have been tickled by feathers scattered in the wake of children’s play. Its walls, which have heard many a great speech for civil action and diplomacy, still resonate with the voices of families singing during Christmastime. Gardens once littered with explosives now celebrate joyous weddings, with tragedy averted time and again in favor of love.
The plaza, once covered in cogon grass that Conrado would cut for exercise, now hosts weddings and other functions.
Look at Manila!, Helena’s voice echoes from the tower. In the years since that night, Manila has changed tremendously. The world around MiraNila itself has grown. So too, has the Benitez family, as they open a new chapter in the story of a home that has, through four generations, been at the core of their lives.
MiraNila Heritage House and Library is open to the public by appointment. Contact +632 7220243, +63945 4876827, or [email protected] for tours; and +63945 2577674 or www.facebook.com/BizuCateringStudio for catered events.