Formerly the Villaroman mansion, the Palacio de Memoria is a pre-war home built on what was once the seaside. Since then, Parañaque’s shoreline has been pushed back, creating the reclamation area where glittering resorts and casinos now stand. Decades of commuters have daily passed the abandoned property, curiosity unfulfilled. It was just one of the landmarks along Roxas Boulevard, en route to Coastal Mall.
What brought us there
Summer 2009. There was no City of Dreams yet, just vast patches of tall cogon grass swaying in the breeze. I was in high school, and had wandered thataways to visit three friends who lived in Baclaran. One of them suggested we explore the abandoned bay mansion nearby.
But when we got there, the lot was fenced up. We ended up just standing outside, gazing at the sprawling grounds and at the unique seven-story house. Finally, we saw someone inside — perhaps a caretaker. He told us that we couldn’t come in; it had been purchased by a member of the Lhuiller family, and was slated for renovation.
We were disappointed, but not too surprised: the city was changing so fast. Now, someone was going to live there, or more probably, totally transform the property, and that would be the end of it. Old places: they go away and turn into condos. That’s just what happens.
Years passed. I grew up, moved south, and in 2018, I married one of the friends I was with on that distant afternoon: Mao. One day, I was lazily scrolling through Instagram when I saw the house.
I’d been following the Casa de Memoria IG account for a while now, just to look at the antique collectibles. For the first time, I gave their logo a closer look. It was a line drawing of the former Villaroman mansion. I laughed out loud, put my phone down, and called my husband over. Who’d have thought?
During the American occupation, the Bayview Drive area was a rather dazzling locale. A strategic location with an exceptional view, Los Tamaraos Village was home to the cream of society. But war and the ravages of time haven’t been kind to the coastal area. By the time the 21st century dawned, the old glitter had all but faded away.
The identity of the original owners, as well as the original floor plan of this house, are lost to history. When surgeon and physician Dr. Francisco Villaroman, Sr., purchased the 3-hectare property after World War II, the house was two stories high and had survived the worst of the war mostly intact.
As his family grew, more floors (and an elevator) were added. Because each addition was influenced by whatever was in vogue at the time, the result was a more blocky, building-like look compared to purely Hispanic ancestral homes.
It’s an eclectic structure, which I imagine must have been a challenge to restore. Camille and Angelique Lhuiller oversaw the restoration, and Miguel Rosales was creative consultant.
When the Lhuiller family acquired the property in 2004, the place had been empty for decades. In a few short years, they’ve managed to turn it back into a piece of Manila I thought was lost forever. It’s not just about what the property is now like; a huge part of its magic is its location. (I can almost see Nick Joaquin’s characters hobnobbing in the garden, dancing late into the night and still making it to church next morning.)
For all that it’s an auction house and a veritable monument to culture, it still feels like someone’s house. Just someone’s big pretty home… especially when you’re standing in the grounds. There’s a party tonight, and your parents have forced you into your best clothes. Even they’re in awe of the huge property. You’re playing with the other children in the vast lawn, and the grownups are inside with their cocktails. Evening is falling, and soon it will be time for dinner. But first, it’s time to say hello to everyone…
Yup, that’s how it feels, except there are two airplanes in the backyard. Although somehow, once you’ve explored the house, the planes begin to feel like they belong.
The Casa Open
March 9th was the day of the Casa Open, the first of many auctions to be held in the newly renovated property. It was a busy day, but a marvelous chance to check out the lots featured on the third floor, a few of which caught my eye.
For the cinephile-slash-historian, the find of the day was undoubtedly the screenplay of Los Ultimos de Filipinas by Antonio Román. (Aside from the original 1945 movie, another take, 1898: Los últimos de Filipinas, was released in 2016.) For Pinoy movie buffs, we’ve got a local take of the same story: Baler (2008) starring Anne Curtis and Jericho Rosales.
There’s also no shortage of locally nostalgic pieces, like a pair of rattan weave paneled armchairs and a selection of ornate reliquaries, the kind cherished by only the most pious/fabulous of abuelitas.
For bookworms and chinoiserie lovers, there was a pair of quartz-and-amber bookends, carved into the form of two monks reading. Solemnly tongue-in-cheek, they’re weighty enough to prop up Voltaire and Murasaki Shikibu combined.
Fiinally, I was sorely tempted by a charmingly motley collection of fourteen pairs of porcelain cups and saucers. I hope whoever gets them actually puts them to use, because they were just begging for a morning’s tsokolate eh.
The entire catalog can be viewed online on Issuu — Auction 0015 The Casa Open.
Back on the first floor
In the sunset, we were able to see the terrazzo flooring in its full glory. Normally, I’m not a fan of terrazzo — it’s one of those design elements that you have to make work. On the Palacio’s floor, it’s a success: the lobby is filled with natural light, illuminating the quaint kubo and tinikling motif.
A startlingly red central floral arrangement leads the eye to what’s arguably the lobby’s pièce de résistance (if it’s not the flooring) — the Murano glass rosette chandelier.
On the first floor are a few rooms with different themes. There’s the oxblood-walled study in the northeast corner, with ebony furniture and accents of I-mean-business gold. In the bright southwest of the house is a dining room bright with crystal and sage upholstery, where the gold glints a happier yellow.
On the front lawn is the driveway, a fountain, and two sets of an outdoor dining set — table, chairs, and tree-supported chandelier. As the daylight faded, having unexpectedly fulfilled our childhood dream of getting into this house, we left the magical little pocket of time in search of some dinner.
Mao, who took the non-cellphone pictures in this post, grew up in Baclaran, just a short walk from this property. His family would tell us of the old days, when the houses of the old posh neighborhood lined the shore, when children could play and swim Manila Bay. My generation is witnessing the rise of the Entertainment City: in the blink of an eye, the City of Dreams, Solaire, and Okada burst like flowers from the ground.
So it’s wonderful to witness how people still vouch for culture and history in such a rapidly developing area. It means a lot, not just to antique collectors and art enthusiasts, but to kids like us who have heard our grandparents tell stories about Manila, a glamorous, bustling Manila they once knew.
Sentimentality aside, a money-where-our-mouths-are interest in history is a symptom of a maturing culture. Our thanks and congratulations to the Lhuiller family for doing just that by restoring the Palacio. It’s a good example of the diverse influences of the past century. Our national heroes, who died so that said past century could proceed, would be proud. ★
Visit the Palacio
There are more plans for the Palacio this year, like a gallery and restaurant. Meanwhile, a virtual tour of the house is available on Casa de Memoria’s website, and watch out for the next auction. You can also schedule an appointment by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow the Casa on Instagram to keep posted.