In 1933 my grandfather Generoso Villanueva, a native of Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, and a sugarcane farmer, embarked on an architectural adventure that would put the not-yet-chartered city on the map as a town with an eye for the future and a lifestyle to go with it. He built a streamlined Art Deco building, three stories tall with five gradually ascending towers on top, a solid structure of poured cement with graceful curves and parapets over steel-cased porthole windows of frosted glass. Our family patriarch’s vision of modernity was a Titanic-looking ship on land. Locals soon called it the “Boat House.”
Completed in three years (1936), my grandfather moved his family of five children into Daku Balay (the Big House as the family referred to it), and the house rules included suits and formal wear at dinner, which many times included guests from the political and sugar industry world. Belle art and deco furnishings were custom ordered from Manila, complete with blue mirrors. Daku Balay was the tallest building in the city until 1959 and the first to have an elevator.
Fast forward to the 1980s: After the last resident of Daku Balay, Tita Alice, passed away, her siblings decided to turn Daku Balay into corporate offices. Since then Daku Balay, which survived World War II when it was used as headquarters of the invading Japanese Imperial Army, had been minimally maintained. I watched with dismay during my yearly visits as the third floor with the vaulted ceilinged Billiard Room had been turned into a storage area and packed with decades-old files, office equipment and furniture. The leaky roofs went unattended and constant water drip had melted metal, wood, paper and other scraps into the marbled pavement, turning the entire floor into an inch-thick glob of blackened matter. I vowed to return someday and do something about it.
Living in New York City and its beautiful prewar buildings was a constant reminder of Daku Balay. I grew to appreciate the iconic architectural monument that my grandfather left as a legacy not only to his heirs, but also for the city. Its imposing presence was a constant reminder that back in the day, this small cow-town had dared to join the modern world and proved that a sugarcane farmer was just as sophisticated as his counterpart in Manila, the metropolis with a burgeoning appetite for art deco buildings in the 1930s.
But when to return to the Philippines to act on my nagging desire to “do something” with Daku Balay was a $64-million question. My husband and I had invested heavily into opening our own art gallery in New York City. The impending financial crash of 2008 was about to create total chaos in our finances and there was no way any project could be more immediate than saving our business. Returning to the Philippines seemed a million light years away from becoming a possibility. Even more of an impossibility to think about was how I would be able to move my plans forward to convince my new partners to consider an art deco-inspired residential condominium development on the lot we had purchased right behind Daku Balay. From email correspondences with the partners, there was talk of erecting a commercial building of the generic kind (for fast turnover) and other suggestions that, for me, did not consider the property’s proximity to Daku Balay and its architectural integrity. I was full of apprehension and helplessness.
Then the phone call came in late November 2011. My sister, Nena, the eldest in our family, fell into a coma from diabetes. I was on the plane a few days after the phone call and was on a layover in Narita airport when my brother called to say she was gone. I missed her by a few hours. I was consoled by the fact that a big white dove had flown into my departure gate at JFK airport, landing next to me and had stared at me for a few minutes before disappearing just as quickly. I am convinced that was my sister saying goodbye to me.
After the funeral, my world turned hazier and I was reduced to a near-catatonic state. My beloved sister was gone, our business in New York was crashing along with the rest of the world, my family was scattered with husband in New York and son in Los Angeles, a bleak future of financial ruin was becoming a reality. Everything was on hold. But I was back on Philippine soil—unplanned and without a plan. A newly acquired dual citizenship saved me from having to decide when to return to the U.S.
In 2012 I accepted to step into my sister’s role and responsibilities in the family’s businesses. My husband supported this challenge and moved to close our business in New York so we could focus on the work needed in the Philippines. I chose the third floor of Daku Balay as my office suite. I reclaimed the “billiard room” of my grandfather, and restoration of the building began.*
By the following year, the partners of Marosvill Development Corporation decided to adopt my recommendation to develop Belle Arte Residential Condominiums that would not only capitalize on being in the shadow of our unique ancestral home and enhance the city's architectural skyline. It would also seek to establish an Art Deco district in the city a vision that I know in my heart of hearts, was my grandfather's vision as well when he built a smaller version of his Daku Balay for his sister next door.
Belle Arte Residential Condominiums is an eight-story building with 67 residential units, each with a view of either Daku Balay to the north, the sea to the west and Mt. Kanlaon to the east. It is our small nod to a man of long ago that we share his vision for the city he loved.
I had to move back in order to move forward. This is the counter-intuitive, the paradox in my life. It is a beautiful surprise to experience and I am eternally grateful.