The original title of this article, which first appeared in a 2012 issue of Cocoon Magazine (part of Inquirer's Hinge Publications), was "This lovely casa is here to stay." Due to the latest developments in Baguio that threaten the continued existence of this landmark building, I've asked the permission of editor Thelma San Juan to re-post this piece in this space. The photos are from the public Facebook pages of Casa Vallejo and Hill Station.
To find out more about what's happening to Casa Vallejo, please go to Change.org, particularly this site, and if you have time and you agree with the petition, do sign and make your voice heard. To paraphrase another passionate lover of Baguio, fellow blogger and theater and film artist Karlo Altomonte, we can't let Baguio turn into "a highland Divisoria."
Casa Vallejo remains Baguio’s oldest building, as old as the city, in fact. Despite its place in the city’s history, it had fallen into disrepair until some adventurous developers, who’d rather be unnamed for the time being, saw the possibilities of turning this grand dame of city landmarks into a fine example of architectural adaptive reuse.
Today, it is not only a hotel with 24 remodeled rooms (standard, family, deluxe and honey room) and 21st-century amenities like flat-screen TVs and Wifi, it has become a well-located hub of culture on Upper Session Road, overtaking a giant mall on Luneta Hill and big universities that are supposed to feed the students’ souls apart from their minds.
Inside Casa is the two-year-old Hill Station of Mitos Benitez that has earned for Northern Luzon and the Philippines a place in The Miele Guide for 2011-12, a annual regional guide for the best Asian restaurants.
It’s an honor that moved restaurant Filipinas Salazar to tell the staff in more piquant Filipino: “Hey, take note, we’ve gone international so our standards have to be raised. We’re not just for the locals anymore.” The staff is motivated to improve on all points from service to testing new dishes.
Hill Station was described as “like stepping back in time” with its warm wooden beams and large windows. It menu was also cited for “a hearty repertoire” that “meanders from Old World Europe to New America and Asia.”
For Benitez it was a citation far from any dream she had when the revived Casa Vallejo and its partner restaurant opened. The resto itself occupies 300 square meters that include the main dining hall and two function rooms named after Salvador Vallejo and Justina Vallejo Garcia, the grandfather and mother of columnist-heritage advocate Maribel Garcia Ongpin, respectively, and a garden for outdoor events like weddings where 80 people can fit comfortably under parachute tents.
Benitez, who had served the family-owned Mario’s Restaurant since she was 22, was offered the space for the restaurant. She recalled that “aha moment”: “The minute I walked in, I said to myself, ‘This is it! It’s meant for me.’”
For the interiors of the hotel and restaurant, Gerard R. Mendoza, who has done Manila Sofitel and other projects in Boracay, Australia and England, was tapped. The only big change in the dining room was the addition of a grand staircase, which Benitez privately and jokingly calls “The Titanic,” to connect it to the hotel upstairs.
Before Mendoza started work on the interiors, Benitez gave him a tour of her house where she wanted the wooden floor-to-ceiling French windows with little squares replicated.
He removed the dining hall space’s low ceilings of and exposed the original beams, never touching the original wood, except having them painted brown. He retained the posts, some windows, the fireplace with a full-length mirror by its side, the slanting art deco supports by the doors. No cement was used for the restoration work for which began in earnest in July 2009 as the city was celebrating its centennial.
Casa Vallejo and Hill Station opened in March 2010, and when Ongpin saw what had been done, Benitez recalled, “she loved it—the look, the menu—and was very proud.” Her children and grandchildren make frequent return visits when in town.
Photographer-cinematographer Boy Yñiguez, Benitez’s spouse, told Mendoza, “The walls are mine.”
Forthwith, he set up on the bar’s walls his personal collection of black and white photos from the ’70s and ’80s by his friends, mainly photographers with Baguio roots or ties like Tommy Hafalla, Butch Perez, Mannix Santos, Wyg Tysmans. Somewhere on those walls is an Ansel Adams print. Benitez likes to make guests play a guessing game of identifying it. The fairly new Vallejo-Garcia function room also has on its walls photos and paintings from the Benitez-Yñiguez collection.
Benitez’s personal touches can be found in the leather place mats that she asked Rhona Carrantes to design and execute. The floral design is repeated on the menu. The dining and serving plates are all from the kiln of Lanelle Abueva Fernando, Benitez’s chum from their university years. For the Sunday buffets, the staff brings out the pots hand-thrown by Sagada women Tessie Baldo and Siegrid Bangyay.
In keeping with the building’s natural ambience, Benitez also has a pot shaped out of petrified wood by Greg Sabado, always with fresh flowers in season (a bunch of Alstroemeria, a kind of lily, at the time of Cocoon’s visit).
Landscape artist Marita Manzanillo has tamed the once unruly garden at the back of the building. Like Benitez, she doesn’t believe in an instant garden so the old pine trees co-exist with 28 younger ones and new plants and trees like the jacaranda. Capiz lamps are lit for Christmas and special occasions. A trellis was set up so the sanggumay can slowly creep on it and cover an old water tank. There are abundant large gabi leaves in one spot and an herb garden planted to rosemary, oregano, pandan, among others, for use in the restaurant’s kitchen.
With all the acclaim Hill Station is receiving, Benitez has remained committed to “pleasing the locals from Day One. The white guys, those on work detail in the city and are frequent customers, too, come and go.” - Elizabeth Lolarga