The House on Marella Street
A revolutionary icon continues to tell her story through a beautifully restored home showcasing period pieces against a backdrop of contemporary artistry.
The original tin ceiling from Europe was retained, as well as the decorative crystal chandelier ventilation
To push open the metal-crafted gates of Casa Villavicencio in the town of Taal, Batangas, is to raise the curtains on a period of romance, revolution, and patriotic impulse. The brief walk across the red clay of the zaguan (porch)where horse carriages and church carosas used to park draws out one awestruck thought: history was made here. We pause on the descanso (landing area), as the heavily clothed guests of yesteryear must have done, our breathing affected not by the steep stairway but by the dignity of the structure.
Today, the casa is the most prominent domain on a street that is named after its mistress, Gliceria Marella de Villavicencio. The main house, a geometric bahay-na-bato (traditional Spanish colonial house), was built some time before 1850, and the adjacent house was built two decades later as a wedding present to 19-year-old Gliceria from her husband Eulalio. At the time, the gift house stood on top of a hill and commanded a glorious view of Balayan Bay. It was made from narra and mulawin, the period’s most sought-after hardwood. Six children—Jose, Mariquita, Vicenta, Rita, Sixto, and Anton—were raised there.
The antesala (anteroom) has huge windows for better air
Our guide, Juliet Villar, directs our attention towards the main double doors, the original reddish narra perfectly preserved, having frames tall enough to let carriages in. To our right, the doors are made of galvanised-iron sheets that were installed as a precaution in the 1990s. These doors were commissioned to a carver from Quezon by Ernesto Fajardo Villavicencio (a descendant of Sixto) and his wife, Ria Benedicto-Villavicencio. “They [the doors] cost eighty-thousand pesos,” Villar divulges, before pointing to a land title that announces the original cost of the 6,375-square-metre property: 930 Philippine pesos.
Villavicencio adds that the exterior of the existing house used to be painted a mustard yellow, commonly used in government buildings. “When we chipped off the layers of paint on the ventanilla (window) panel, we found the original pigment to be a lighter lemon yellow with green accents.” Thus, they painted the acanthus leaves adorning the windowsills a cheerful mint green.
A little farther upward, we come upon the entrasuelo, which used to be a mezzanine storage area for rice bins, jars, and chests. It is a new bedroom with an en suite bathroom. The split-bamboo flooring has been preserved. Villar leads us up the stairway, which in the old days was held together by wooden pegs. After the 1997 restoration, it is a much safer climb. Still we hold on to the pumpkin-shaped barandillas (wooden balusters) and upon Juliet’s suggestion, test the staircase against the oro, plata, mata (gold, silver, death) superstition. “The topmost rung had to coincide with oro or plata to attract good luck,” says Villar.
The barandillas (wood blusters) with a typical kinalabasa (pumpkin or squash-shape) were common in Taal
Fortune or no, one thing was certain: the local revolution flourished on Villavicencio’s watch. Gliceria’s efforts were instrumental in putting up the Maluya Batalan, a battalion that played a pivotal role in the surrender of Spanish forces in Batangas, Tayabas, Capiz, Panay, and Iloilo. Her husband later joined the propaganda movement, travelled to Hong Kong, and contributed 18,000 pesos to the publication of novels like the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, the newspaper La Solidaridad, and the by-laws of La Liga Filipina.
Five years later, in 1896, the Spanish generals in charge of military operations in Batangas and Cavite converted the gift house into a personal residence and military office, forcing Gliceria and Eulalio to move back into the ancestral house. We step into its sala (living room), which features the original calado, cut out in the shapes of plants for ventilation. The crystal chandeliers remain decorative. Gliceria and Eulalio gaze upon us through their portraits, which are reproductions of the original art by Juan Luna.
In her lifetime, Gliceria stayed in this room to keep an eye on her ships, which would sail out on rice and commodity trading trips and dock at Balayan Bay. By the huge, capiz-filled windows, she and her daughters Mariquita and Vicenta sewed the first Filipino flag to be raised in the province of Batangas. Some of the original furniture remains: a spindle-type cane chair for three, a side table with French rococo lines, and a Victorian-aged piano. Villar says the Villavicencios preferred to use lightweight pieces in the living room so they could be moved to the side on special occasions. “This room was often used for dances and tertulias (get togethers). Friends would gather here to discuss art, music, politics, religion, and current events.”
Next, we squeeze into the galleria volada, a covered narrow passageway that runs behind the bedrooms and faces the street. We imagine the Villavicencio children spending their afternoons here, doing embroidery work or watching people and fiesta processions. From the galleria, we are able to manoeuvre our way into the master bedroom, which has a mirrored aparador (cabinet) and dresser. The 1930s cast-iron tub has been re-glazed, and a kamagong four-poster bed has been added to the room. “The four-poster is made in the design of Ah-Thay, a Chinese craftsman who became popular during the Spanish period,” says Villavicencio.
In the dining room, the old narra flooring has been replaced by recycled mulawin from the 1970s. In its heyday, this area was kept cool by the presence of a well underneath the adjoining azotea. The long dining table was made in Bohol and acquired from an antique dealer in Quezon, while the long benches are the same ones farmers used to sit on when bringing their harvests through the main entrance. We admire the vajillera (glass cabinet), mesa platera (silverware cabinet), and trinchante (serving shelf), which are all original to the house. Finally, there is a beautiful painting of the Taal Basilica from the early 1900s.
Villavicencio’s fully-restored black 1949 Plymouth sedan
Villar saves the best for last. She walks to the end of the room and lifts the floor boards to reveal the bodega (dungeon) of the ancestral house, rattling off the names of the men who held council there: Andres Bonifacio, Feliciano Jocson, Vito Bellarmino, Felipe Calderon, Miguel Malvar, Eleuterio Marasigan. “They would talk inside a huge bamboo bin with dimmed lights, away from the prying eyes of the Spanish authorities in the next house,” Villar narrates, thrilling us to the bone.
Though the story did not end well for Eulalio, who was imprisoned in Old Bilibid for a year before his death, Gliceria and her children continued to safeguard the cause of Philippine freedom, sheltering Filipino soldiers and making generous contributions to local industries. It is only fitting for the house to have in its address the name of the woman Emilio Aguinaldo called the “Madrina-General de las Fuerzas Revolucionarios” (the godmother of the revolutionary forces), and it is a privilege to have been invited into her home. “We restored the house for the simple purpose of using it and preserving it for the next generation, but every day brought new discoveries about Gliceria and Eulalio, and it became a fulfilling experience for everyone involved,” Villavicencio says. “We are happy to share their story with anyone who knocks on our doors.”
Photography by Albert Labrador | Printed in Philippine Tatler Homes Volume 6