Family legacies

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Text and photos by Michelle Anne P. Soliman, Reporter

An agriculturist who never got to travel outside the country built the first Art Deco building in the country in 1936; a kapitan del barrio’s widow strategically equipped her home so she could see everyone’s movements; and a frequent traveler erected a mansion for his unmarried children and in memory of his deceased wife. The legacy of Negros Occidental’s sugar barons lives on in the stories of their homes.

During a recent trip to Bacolod to mark the opening of a Seda hotel, the brand’s seventh in the country, members of the media took a tour which brought them to three homes of prominent Negrense families as an example of what the city has to offer visitors.

The Boat House on Burgos Street

Negrense sugar baron Don Generoso M. Villanueva had the Art Deco-style Daku Balay (big house) on Burgos Street built in 1936 for his family. Designed by architect Salvador Cinco from Cebu, all the materials used in its construction came from Bacolod but the skilled workers needed to build it came from all over the country — the carpenters were from Nueva Ecija, the metal workers from Negros, and the hand-marbling was done by workers from Sorsogon and Romblon.

It was the tallest building in the city until 1959.

One of Don Generoso’s granddaughters, Maria Lilia V. Villanueva, now uses it as an office.

Ms. Villanueva described her grandfather as a “visionary.” Despite not being able to travel abroad, Don Villanueva got inspiration from his travels in Manila and wanted to “make Burgos Street the modern boulevard of Bacolod.”

Because of the nautical feel of the house’s design elements — the elliptical balcony with hand-marbled details of half-moons on the floor, water-themed bathrooms, and rows of portholes in several rooms — Don Villanueva’s home is popularly known as the Boat House.

Other features of the house include wall carvings depicting a farm which represented Don Generoso’s 30-hectare orchard plantation, an open deck for parties with orchestra pit, and an elevator.

Guests to the house are greeted by the sculpture of a dog at the entrance. Ms. Villanueva noted that her grandfather loved to take care of animals and channeled that love through various animal references found all over the house such as the animal figures in the hand-marbled flooring.

During the Second World War, General Takeshi Kono, the Japanese commanding officer in charge of Western Visayas, occupied the house. The hand-marbled floors of peach, white, and green; other floors made with seven types of Philippine hardwood; and cloud-like details in the house were said to have appealed to the Japanese general.

“I was told that his strict instructions were not to destroy the house, that’s why the house was returned to the family intact [after the war],” Ms. Villanueva said, adding that the general had conversations with Don Villanueva.

When Ms. Villanueva returned to Bacolod in 2012 after 35 years of living in the United States, she vowed to clean the house and set up her office in her favorite room — the billiard room at the third floor.

As the president and COO of Marosvill Development Corp., Ms. Villanueva established BelleArte residential condominiums, a 67-unit Art Deco-inspired project located at the back of the original house, — the condominum’s design is a homage to her late grandfather’s house. BelleArte is part of her plans to establish the area as an Art Deco district, as well as, make the daku balay a landmark destination in Bacolod.

It was always just a matter of when to come back, she said. “I was always sensitive about losing my identity. I think it has a lot to do with an experience like this, belonging to a family who had a very strong sense of who they were. My grandfather was Pinoy na Pinoy (a true Filipino), very Pinoy, very Bacolodnon. And then he built something like this. It’s part of me. There are people with vision, and it doesn’t matter where they come from,” Ms. Villanueva said.

“I think this is the largest Streamline Art Deco structure in the Philippines left,” said Ms. Villanueva, who hopes to carry forward the house’s legacy. “It (the house) has to be shared.”

Sayang (What a pity) if other generations will not want to be part of it. For me, that’s what I tell my nieces and nephews. Everybody’s experience is different but I think that the most valuable thing that one can always carry wherever they are is your identity. When you say identity, for me, it’s daku balay,” she said.

Balay ni Tana Dicang

The “house of stone” — a mansion set on a 6,000-square meter property along Rizal Street in Talisay, Negros Occidental — was built in 1883 for Efigenio Lizares who was the kapitan del barrio (then the equivalent to a city mayor), and his wife Enrica Alunan.

The mansion of 18 rooms — with interiors of Filipino hardwood and painted with hints of blue — was where they raised their family of 17 children (10 girls and seven boys) and an adopted nephew.

When Mr. Lizares died of pneumonia in his 50s, his wife, popularly known as Tana (short for kapitana) Dicang, took his place as head of the family and took charge of the operations of the family’s sugar production.

The first floor of the house still has the original Machuca tile flooring, the room that housed the old convenience store, and the parking area for carriages and, later, cars. The steps to the grand staircase were built in consideration of the old tradition of oro, plata, mata (gold, silver, death) that says one must have the right number of steps on any staircase, and they should never end in mata. While most people would make sure their last step would be oro, in this house it ends in plata as Tana Dicang believed that it would not be difficult for her to help her family with finances.

The mansion’s staircase railings have rose vine designs as Tana Dicang believed that way visitors climbing the stairs would leave their bad luck behind before officially being welcomed to the house. The guests then had to wait at the receiving area where they were served either rich chocolate eh meaning they were welcome, or the watery chocolate ah which indicated they were not.

The mansion’s second floor has large intricately carved wooden windows for ventilation and which also let in the helped the music of the orchestra that played on Sundays surrounding the home.

Tana Dicang also had her version of surveillance cameras — peepholes set up around the house which allowed her to monitor her visitor’s actions and the activities of her workers.

A modern day visitor to the mansion can admire the old photographs and a sculpture of Mr. Lizares by National Artist of the Philippines for Sculpture Guillermo Tolentino in the living room, and enter the room used by President Manuel Quezon which still holds the original bed he slept on.

Tana Dicang died of old age in 1942. She left a will indicating that the revenue earned from her hacienda would go to the restoration and maintenance of the house.

The house still stands as one of the province’s best preserved ancestral homes and now serves as a lifestyle museum.

The Balay ni Tana Dicang Museum is everyday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Ruins

The last stop on the tour was not a house, but the remains of one.

As an avid traveler who frequented Hong Kong, sugar baron Mariano Ledesma Lacson met Maria Braga, a Macanese (Portuguese-Chinese) woman during one of his visits. Mariano successfully courted Maria and brought her to Talisay where they were blessed with 10 children.

“When she was pregnant with her 11th child, she slipped in the bathroom and began to bleed. Immediately, my great grandfather sent his horse-drawn carriage to Silay (then the center of trade and commerce) to call the doctor. But it took days before the doctor came. And by the time he arrived, Maria and her baby were already gone,” said Raymond Javellana, Mariano and Maria’s great grandson and head operator of The Ruins.

His great grandfather then fell into a deep depression. “The one day, he said, ‘I’m going to build a house for my unmarried children,’” Mr. Javellana said.

To achieve his goal, Mariano traveled back to Hong Kong to meet with his father-in-law, a Portuguese ship captain, to ask for his help.

“And the house became a mansion,” Mr. Javellana said.

Built in the 1920s within a 440-hectare sugarcane plantation, the mansion had a floor area of 903 square meters.

But the house did not last for very long.

Early in 1942, the Americans instructed the local guerillas to burn all structures that could possibly be used by the Japanese — and these included Mariano’s mansion which at that time had only two occupants.

The story goes that it took three days for the well-built mansion to burn down to an empty cement shell.

“We were lucky that this house was never used by the Japanese. They (guerillas) simply burned it. What you see today are the remains of the skeletal frame of the mansion,” said Mr. Javellana.

He speculated that the mansion’s floor plan was based on that of a house in Portugal. “Since there was no architect, we believe that the plans of his (the father-in-law) own house in Portugal, he must have probably given to his son-in-law.”

The Italianate design and details of the remains of the house help support Mr. Javellana’s claim, including the cornices, Romanesque columns, details of shells carved on the roof, the belvedere with a 180-degree view of the area, and the location of the mansion facing west to the coastal waters.

A unique feature of the mansion which survived the conflagration are the molded initials of Mariano and Maria — two M’s facing each other — which are carved into all posts around the mansion.

After world War II, The Ruins were abandoned until Mr. Javellana arrived in 2005. His branch of the family — the children of Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson and Cora Maria Osorio Rosa-Braga — acquired the 3.6 hectares where the burned mansion stands by lottery.

“With my exposure to tourism in Manila, it gave me the idea to convert it into a tourist attraction,” Mr. Javellana said.

The family has kept The Ruins — which still stand in the middle of a working farm — intact as a tourist attraction that can be visited for a fee or hired for events. It is open to daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is an entrance fee of P100 for adults, P50 for students, and P20 for children.