Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — What do a Spanish Colonial bahay na bato, a massive Art Deco “boathouse,” and an Italianate mansion have in common? Not much when taken at face value, yet combined they tell part of the story of Negros Occidental’s rich, almost mythic past.
For centuries, the Philippines was one of the largest producers of sugar worldwide, with Negros Occidental accounting for about half of the nation’s total production due to the so-called exodus of Iloilo planters to the island in the 1850s for the promise of cheaper land. Cities like Silay and Talisay, neighbors of the more well-known Bacolod, were fertile ground for thousands of hectares of sugarcane plantations, and for class divide, where hacenderos had sacadas (migrant farm workers) toiling away in the fields for little to no pay. Whenever it came to tiempo muerto or dead season, lasting around 3 months, the sugar workers would have no work and virtually no income.
Meanwhile, the business of running a hacienda afforded the Dons to build the most beautiful and modern houses of their time, meant as gifts to their wives and unmarried children, and as optimal vantage points to observe the ongoings of their plantations.
When the sugar industry declined around the 1970s and the 1980s, Negros took a hard blow, and many sugar barons lost power, resulting in the closure of many farms and widespread unemployment among the sacadas.
On a recent trip to Seda Capitol Central, a new hotel in Bacolod built in the complex that houses the province’s seat of government, the Negros Museum, the historic Capitol Park and Lagoon, and a soon-to-open Ayala mall, the province might be experiencing an economic resurgence of sorts.
Seda took us on a tour of Bacolod and its neighboring cities and allowed us to take a glimpse of what Bacolod is priming itself to be. The 154-room hotel, which boasts meeting rooms that can seat up to 250 when combined, and a newly launched Straight Up rooftop bar, has become a destination for business travelers working on nearby developments, as well as tourists who wish to get the best view of the yearly MassKara festival.
The province’s tourism industry allowed Negros Occidental to uplift itself through the help of the MassKara festival, which was created in the 80s as a means of uplifting the spirit of the Negrenses from the tragedies of the sugar crisis and the sinking of a ferry that claimed many Bacolodnons’ lives. Today Bacolod is known as the City of Smiles, and perhaps will have more to smile about in the coming years, as other industries make their rise, such as in the BPO industry. Bacolod currently ranks among the top five cities outside of Metro Manila catering to BPOs.
Though sugar is no longer king, these days the mansions of Negros Occidental stand as a time capsule to the glory days of the Philippines’ Sugarbowl, whose architectural feats reveal the opulence afforded by the hacendero life. Here are a few of these houses.
Balay ni Tana Dicang
Less than 20 minutes from the Capitol Central, in neighboring Talisay, is Balay ni Tana Dicang, a Spanish Colonial bahay na bato named after its matriarch, Kapitana Enrica Alunan-Lizares, who raised 18 children (17 were her own while one was an adopted nephew) with her husband Efigenio Lizares, who used to be the Kapitan del Barrio, the equivalent of the town mayor, before he died young, leaving the care of their haciendas to his wife.
The home was built from 1872 to 1883, and was made with bricks and coral stone that were covered with lime plaster for the base, and different kinds of hardwood for the upper portions of the house. The interior design is characterized by the floral design of the 19th century stone houses, which can be seen in the floral tracery designs of its transoms, and ornate carved air vents, which allowed the music of their personal orchestra to flow through the house.
Many of the design elements are also revealing of the Kapitana’s personality, such as her cleverness, tight-fistedness, superstitious and spiritual nature, and commitment to both her family and her business
For example, the main staircase’s balustrade is carved into a rose vine pattern which are said to absorb any bad luck brought in by visitors. The carpet that was draped over the stairway during special occasions was blue rather than the usual red, because the Kapitana was a devotee of the Virgin Mary. The house’s interior walls are also painted in shades of blue.
A thrifty woman, the Kapitana converted the expensive chandeliers that once held candles when there was no electricity yet in the province by turning upside down to hold bulbs.
Politicians and hacenderos were in constant business with one another, and thus Tana Dicang received many visitors, including President Manuel Quezon and then-Vice President Sergio Osmena. Due to this, Tana Dicang devised many ways to avoid unwanted visitors.
One such trick was to have guests wait in a sitting area where they would be served either of the two types of tsokolate: tsokolate eh (espresso or thick) meant you were welcome, tsokolate ah (aguado or watered down) meant you were not. She also has a trapdoor underneath her bed which leads to a small room with a sewing machine — her hiding place where she can pass the time as unwanted guests are sent away.
The Kapitana was a businesswoman who took her role as hacendera seriously, to the point where she had holes bored into the wooden flooring so she could watch the workers down below. And as a testament to her forward-thinking, she noted in her last will and testament that the earnings of two of her haciendas go to the restoration of the house.
Closeby, the remains of a much larger structure stand in a manicured garden, with acoustic renditions of popular music being sung by a local musician, and dozens of visitors milling about the compound. Yet this structure looks nothing like the balay na bato. Instead, it boasts Italianate architecture, complete with dentil cornices, Neo-Romanesque columns, and arches all over its facade.
In the middle of what used to be a 440-hectare farm, the Mariano Ledesma Lacson Mansion, more popularly known as The Ruins, is one of the more popular ancestral homes among tourists of Bacolod, whose origin story is as charming as its unique architecture.
The story goes that Don Mariano built the mansion in the early 1900s as a tribute to his wife, who had died delivering their eleventh child. The home’s design was, as speculated by Raymund Javellana, the heir looking after the property, modeled after the home of Don Mariano’s father-in-law, who was a Portuguese ship captain. Thus the mansion’s many nautical elements, including shell decors atop the roof, and a belvedere which offered a 180 degree view of the Don’s hacienda, as well as the coastal waters of Talisay.
An impressive fountain stands nearby the mansion, which, according to Javellana, used to be surrounded by lilies, and was tended to by a Japanese gardener, who was later found out to be an informer of the Imperial Army during WWII.
Unfortunately, one can only speculate on the interiors of the mansion, for what remains is the concrete skeleton, as the structure was burned down by guerrillas in World War II on the orders of the US Air Force, who were trying to keep Japanese forces out of any buildings that could be converted into garrisons or headquarters.
The Art Deco house
Along Burgos Street, once known as “Millionaire’s Row” for being the location of many of the mansions owned by Bacolodnon elite, stands a large structure resembling a boat, from its shape to its porthole windows.
The “boathouse,” or Daku Balay (big house) was created by Generoso Villanueva, a sugar planter, in 1936 when Art Deco was at its peak in Manila. Three floors high with a multi-level garden, a private elevator, and an orchestra pit, the house was the tallest building in Bacolod until the 1950s, and remains to be the largest Art Deco private residence in the country.
Inside, the first thing you would notice is the colorful marble flooring, which was said to be hand-marbled using the scagliola technique. The marbling in this house is said to be unique for its use of many colors, as opposed to the usual monochromatic design. The walls carry the same designs.
Another interesting feature of the house are the many animal references embedded into the marble and on the walls as wood reliefs. Generoso was a lover of animals who collected exotic pets, from emus to massive crocodiles. Aside from representing animals he owned, many of the animal designs represented Hiligaynon folklore, especially those in the recreational room, which housed reliefs depicting “The Foolish Monkey and the Wise Monkey” and the “Spider and the Fly.”
The house was built by Architect Salvador Cinco, but the family believes that many of the details, especially the interiors, were products of Generoso’s imagination. In fact, Lilia Villanueva, the granddaughter of Generoso who took us on a tour of their house, often referred to her grandfather as a visionary and said that his dream was to transform Burgos into an Art Deco boulevard.
Seda Capitol Central is located at Lacson Street, Corner North Capitol Road, Bacolod City, Negros Occidental. For inquiries and reservations contact Seda Capitol Central at (034) 703-8888, email firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, or visit their website.