Where dreamers dreamed at the house of Pablo Antonio

When I was a child the Zamora house was my playground and test kitchen, then in my twenties it was a source of fashion inspiration. It later became my home for a season and the place where romance was sealed.

On a quiet street in Pasay, hidden behind brown gates and ivy-covered walls stands a residence that not a few have described as an oasis in this metropolis. The 70-year-old ancestral home of National Artist for Architecture Pablo S. Antonio has just been declared an Important Cultural Property of the Philippines, under protection by the government for the benefit of future generations of Filipinos. The house, a stunning example of environment-conscious tropical architecture, has many design merits relevant in an age of unpredictable and worsening climate. Indeed, Pablo S. Antonio, a true visionary, deserves his National Artist recognition and the house, its latest plaque and honor.

Yet to me, above all those things, the house at 2650 Zamora was simply the home of my grandparents.

Growing up nearby, my earliest recollections are mainly of the kitchen and also of the ponds where many interesting creatures swam. Since I spent my toddler years watching my mom Malu Veloso make wedding cakes, the kitchen was my playground. Never mind that my siblings and cousins were out in the garden, I was content to spend my time baking little messes.

And messes those first cooking attempts were! I remember making a banana pie that had no butter in the crust, only my Lolo Pablo would eat it. And while he was choking on that dry crust he declared that it was delicious nonetheless. Encouraged by my (sometimes only) fan, who looked forward to a new dessert every day, I got hooked on baking.

I remember always having to sidestep around the gowns my Lola Marina was working on in the house. There were crusty old kustureras that had been there forever and I was intrigued by my lola’s sampaguitas made of fine ribbon and dainty rosebuds of rolled organdy. Decades later, when I got married, I had my wedding gown embellished with those same flowers.

I knew my Lolo Pablo was an architect, whatever that was, and whenever he fetched us from school at Assumption Herran and brought us to La Cibeles for churros he would inevitably sketch on the paper napkins. One time, I remember stepping into his house and straight into some kind of uproar. Apparently, while my lolo was at the office my Lola Marina fancied tearing down part of a wall, making way for additional dining space.

Walls — or the lack of them — are a trademark of the Antonio house. As you come in, two of the walls in the living room consist of slanted screen windows with a seating area beneath, letting in the breeze and a vista of greens and garden wrapping around the house. You could sit and just enjoy the sound of leaves rustling, watch the bulbol (nightingales) playing, fish splashing in the pond — and feel not in the city at all.

And speaking of greens, the garden is a veritable orchard with jackfruit, guyabano, atis, macopa, balimbing, chico, tamarind and santol. The tamarind tree yielded sour sampalok for sinigang, for my Lola Marina never used an instant mix. Inexplicably there are date trees at the beginning of the cobble stoned driveway, which used to yield fruit until the gardener Paquito became too old to prune the fronds.

In addition to fruit trees, fragrant ylang-ylang and rosal also flourished in Zamora. My Lola Marina, an avid gardener, planted all kinds of seeds and not just those that produced fruit, flowers or fragrance — she and my Lolo Pablo sowed the kind of seeds into their brood so that after them came generations of architects, designers and landscape artists, even cooks — just like them.

As a child, I was fascinated not just by the flora but also the fauna at Zamora. The ponds were full of fish and tadpoles, turtles that would creep out of the pond and wander into the house but which would quickly scamper back at the sight of us. Whoever said turtles moved slowly? And there were a pair of peacocks my Lola Marina kept. A section of the garden belonged to them and they occasionally had eggs which never hatched.

Some animal inhabitants of Zamora were more alarming. There was a time when the screens in the slanted windows were replaced with glass because an escaped monkey kept showing up there. Then there were the adorable but mischievous grey squirrels that fly from tree to tree and pelt the roof with fruit from the palm trees.

In the ’80s when my sister Letlet and I were partners in fashion design, we usually joined my Lola Marina and other friends for lunch every Tuesday. We feasted on my lola’s adobo and tokwa with taogue, such ordinary fare that were sublime in my Lola Marina’s hands. She could even make her rimas (candied breadfruit) and candied camote taste like maron glace.

Design and architecture, fashion and flowers, food and friendships, all sorts of interests and inclinations bloomed in that Zamora house. My Lola Marina loved to entertain and her fashion career was more social than it was business. I remember her fittings with clients were followed by merienda and plenty of lively conversation. A frequent visitor to the house, I dimly recall, was a white-haired lady named Nenita Verzosa — a portent of things to come. One of my Lola Marina’s best friends, she was the grandmother of my future husband Roberto.

Didn’t I say all sorts of things bloomed in Zamora? Love certainly did. Zamora was the last place where I lived before I got married. I had been apartment hunting when my Lola Marina called and asked if I had found a place to live.

“Not yet,” I replied.

“Well,” she replied, “your next address is 2650 Zamora!”

So I lived with her, and she encouraged me to have parties there and make use of all the china she had accumulated from decades of entertaining. And Roberto courted me while I was living that house. When he would bring me home at night and we had to come in through the back door the air was sweet with the scent of dama de noche, which bloomed right there.

Eight years after I got married, my Lola Marina passed away and my mom has maintained the house as a by-reservation dining destination which she calls My Mother’s Garden. All these years she has painstakingly maintained the house and garden, not an easy task given its size. Early mornings find my mom in the garden snipping off all the dead leaves and just enjoying the sunshine, the breeze and the antics of those naughty squirrels.

Today, my mom and my sister Letlet also have their ateliers in Zamora. My Mother’s Garden continues to take in as little as two people and as many as 50 for small weddings and other intimate affairs. Brides and debutantes shoot their videos in the house’s many picturesque corners. Occasionally I give cooking classes there for adults when not busy with my own school Tiny Kitchen. The house is also included in tours of Pasay City and Manila.

In the face of ever increasing heritage losses in the Philippines, I set up the Pablo Antonio Ancestral Home Project whose aim was to promote the house with activities that would help with its upkeep. So two years ago, we marked my Lolo Pablo’s death anniversary with an art exhibit featuring the prints of Pandy Aviado and the launch of my son Joshua’s Vibrant Art Studio. To this day the Yellow Room of the house carries drawings, prints and sculptures by Joshua and his best friend Nigel Villaceran. Then, in September that year, we marked my Lola Marina’s birth anniversary with a retrospective fashion show. Just last year, French designer Clivia Nobili had a lovely show at the Zamora house.

It was maybe three or four years ago that I wrote to Jeremy Barnes, making a case for the inclusion of the Zamora house among the National Museum’s list of Important Cultural Properties or National Cultural Treasures. Representatives were duly sent to the Zamora house to inspect it and a panel of experts deliberated on its merits. There were delays as a member of the panel, the late Toti Villalon, was already quite ill. But in the end, all the efforts were worth it when we were notified that the house had indeed been declared an Important Cultural Property, possessing “exceptional cultural, artistic and/or historical significance” to the Philippines.

When I was a child the Zamora house was my playground and test kitchen, then in my twenties it was a source of fashion inspiration. It later became my home for a season and the place where romance was sealed. And as the years have passed it has fallen upon me, the first and eldest Antonio grandchild, to preserve this architectural treasure.

It has and always will be, a house where dreamers dreamed and where dreams come true.