If you haven’t been to the Lopez Heritage House in Jaro, popularly known as Nelly’s Gardens, you haven’t seen the best of Iloilo.
I first visited the city when I was still in grade school, and you can imagine how “jurassic” that era is. My parents would take my siblings and me to Iloilo during summer to visit relatives who lived in Jaro. Of course, we would pass by this heritage house often and every time we did, our parents would refer to it as “the palace.” The more I heard the tag, the more I became curious as to what “the palace” had inside.
It was not until a few years ago when my good friend, former Tourism Secretary Narz Lim who is from there, invited me to visit Iloilo. I grabbed the opportunity immediately because it has been decades since my last visit to the city, and my childhood curiosity on the interiors of “the palace” has remained unsatisfied through these years. The next thing I knew, I was already in Iloilo, overjoyed that I finally got the chance to see the interiors of “the palace” and an added bonus came with the visit. I had the best “tour guide” one could ask for—the owner, Nelly Hofilena Lopez.
Nelly’s Gardens, or the Lopez Heritage House, was built in 1928 and was owned by Don Vicente Lopez and his wife, Elena Hofilena. Named after Nelly, the couple’s eldest daughter, the house, which sits on four hectares of prime land, is reminiscent of Iloilo’s glorious and aristocratic past. Branded as the Queen of Heritage Houses, the National Historical Institute declared it as a National Historical Landmark and a Natural Heritage House.
During the war, the house was nearly burned down by Filipino guerrillas who were instructed by their superiors to burn every mansion they would see, so that the invading Japanese forces won’t use them as headquarters.
The third child of Don Vicente and Doña Elena, Lilia, together with her husband, were the occupants then. They begged the guerrillas to spare the house but they didn’t listen. Just as kerosene was being poured all over the property, Japanese soldiers arrived and fought with the guerrillas who no longer had the time to accomplish what their leaders wanted them to do. The house survived the war in one piece.
Thank goodness it did because its history became richer as it served as a popular venue for high-profile events through the years. After the war, the Governor-Generals of the Philippines including Frank Murphy and Teddy Roosevelt Jr. hosted several formal receptions in the mansion; so did Prince Chupra of Thailand, Imelda Marcos, and former President Cory Aquino.
Its Western Beaux-Arts style facade, with its ornately carved columns, and its cavernous family room inside, where all the antique furniture and priceless paintings are displayed, reflect the extravagant lifestyle of Iloilo’s old rich clans.
In the living room, the crystal chandeliers of European origin that adorn the ceiling conjure images of the ambassadors, esteemed politicians, and the elite and the beautiful who must have enjoyed waltzing around the hall during the high-profile celebrations hosted by the Lopezes. The poster beds in the rooms, up on the second floor, are still very well preserved. The two floors are connected by a beautiful winding stairway handcrafted from tindalo wood.
The dining room has a U-shaped table and its 15-feet high ceiling has another opulent crystal chandelier which immediately mesmerized me as I looked at it in awe. The windows are almost floor-to-ceiling, allowing a lot of daylight into the room.
Anywhere I turned, I saw beautiful pieces of antique furniture and expensive European items that easily point to the aristocratic past that this house has been a part of. If only this house could talk, I’m sure it will have awesome stories of how the pedigreed old rich of the past century spent their leisure hours, with luxury very much the trademark of their lifestyle.
I’m glad that Nelly Lopez has opened her house to the public, for tours, and for special events. In fact, so many grand celebrations of private individuals and corporate entities have been held there through the years. The expansive gardens fronting the house can accommodate hundreds at any given time. So if you want to have the feel of luxury experienced by last century’s old rich, head off to Nelly’s Gardens, Iloilo’s iconic landmark.
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