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Tales from the Paris of Negros

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 19, 2022 5:00 am

Heritage houses are always a source of fascination because of how much the architecture, interior design and furnishings reveal so much about the time they were built, how people lived then and how it says so much about how we are now.

One place with a wealth of these houses is Silay in Negros Occidental, where we visited Balay Negrense, the ancestral home built by the sugar baron Victor Fernandez Gaston in 1897 and turned into the first museum of Negros in 1990.

Joey Gaston, the great grandson of Victor, welcomed us to the house and related the family history, which began with the Frenchman Yves Leopold Gaston, the father of Victor, who was a sugar technologist trained in Mauritius and was commissioned by Domingo Roxas of the Roxas-Ayala-Zobel and Soriano families in 1837 to set up their sugar plantation and mill in Calatagan, Batangas.

The second-floor sala

The soil proved unsuitable, however, leading Roxas to abandon the project and Yves to find other options, which led him to Negros in 1844. He settled in Negros together with his wife, Prudencia Fernandez of Balayan, Batangas, and established his sugar hacienda in Buen Retiro, where by 1847 he had built a house and installed the island’s first steam-run iron sugar mill that produced export-quality sugar in commercial quantities. This effectively jumpstarted Negros’ legendary sugar industry, as well as its lavish hacienda lifestyle.

Victor was one of three children. “We are from the Victor line,” according to Joey. “He used to live in Buen Retiro outside Silay, but when his wife, Filomena Maquiling, passed away after bearing 12 children — one of them was Jose, my grandfather — he decided to build this house as a city home.”

A portrait of Victor Gaston above the staircase, with calado air vents above it

The house is a Spanish colonial-era bahay na bato with foundation posts made out of trunks of balayong, but there are some deviations from the typical one: The ground-floor walls, instead of using stone, are in concrete, reflecting American influence. The floors are in wood instead of stone because in lieu of using it as a carriage depot, the lower floor was used for office and living quarters. There’s a foyer to receive and process guests, encargados and messengers and on both sides of this vestibule are three rooms each with one that was used as Victor’s office and the others for the boys’ bedrooms.

Close family ties were always a priority, a tradition that is observed to this day when grand family reunions of up to 500.

Another difference is the use of galvanized iron for the roof instead of tiles, indicative of the 19th-century trend from Manila after the use of tiles was discouraged due to the aftermath of the 1880 earthquakes.

A Chickering piano with Dutch pendant lamp on the ground floor

Dominating the back of the foyer is a staircase that splits to the left and right from a landing, or descanso, where ladies, with their long, elaborate gowns typically rest before completing the ascent to the second floor. Above the staircase is a portrait of Victor, a reminder of the old days when he would be there watching as guests arrived from below.

The second floor has all the bahay-na-bato features ideal for tropical living, done in wood with four-meter-high ceilings, wide windows to bring the air and light in, supplemented by ventanilla balustrades below the windows. The layout is the same as below, with the sala flanked by three bedrooms on each side. From the sala one can look out to the main street.

A bedroom with an Ah Tay bed, a dresser, an urna altar and Dutch pendant lamp

Lourdes Gaston Dalupan, a fourth-generation descendant, once recalled how in the years immediately preceding WWII, she would come during Lent and “standing by the wide living room window, holding lighted candles, to watch the slow-moving carossas that depicted in stately procession the dramatic stages of the Passion and Death of Christ. The elders, overcome with religious fervor, would intone prayers under their breath or speak in hushed voices.”

Rituals like this were part of the traditions observed by the original patriarch, whose typical day would begin with a visit to Silay church to hear mass and pray his devotions and novenas.

A phonograph, carved mirror and console in the sala

Another recollection was how Victor’s daughter, Asuncion, would mischievously paint pigeons to transform them into exotic-looking birds and release them from the same window into the town plaza, delighting as well as baffling Silaynons with the sudden appearance of “rare” birds.

We could almost see these family members again coming to life as we admired the calado tracery above the walls, a feature that repeats in the bedrooms during a time when the sound of conversation flowed between rooms that all had connecting doors, “suggesting the Filipino concept of privacy: A separation of areas but not a shutting off of light, air, sound or people.”

Proceeding to the comedor at the back, a long table with a chandelier above and plateras on the side displaying fine china, silver and crystal brought back those festive dinner parties when the principalia, the clergy and town officials would come to celebrate with the Gastons, reflecting a lifestyle of gracious entertaining.

The long table in the comedor with chandeliers above and plateras on the side

Behind the dining area is an open-air pantaw with stairs leading to the ground level, giving servants their own access to the house without being seen by the guests. This would also be the area where workers from the hacienda would gather to help in preparing for the party, from cooking to washing dishes. You could almost smell the fragrant inasal and lechon being roasted for the big feast.

As we were about to conclude our visit, we espied luggage in one of the bedrooms, bringing to light another tale when Victor’s son, Jose, was packing to leave for studies in the US in 1906, a painful decision that the father was not at ease with. Close family ties were always a priority, a tradition that is observed to this day when grand family reunions of up to 500 are regularly held with Gastons attending from all over the world. The doting parent that Victor was, he had a lingering concern: “Would Jose find enough rice to eat?” Despite all the assurances that he would, as he was locking his leather trunk, the looming presence of the grand patriarch came into view, proffering a bag of the grain, saying: “Esto es, por si acaso, no podras encontrar arroz en seguida al llegar alli (This is for, just in case, you don’t find rice right away upon arriving there).”

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