History of the Filipinas Heritage Library

The Milieu

When the Philippines became a colony of the United States in 1898, the fates of the two nations became inextricably linked. Why then did their fortunes take divergent paths just before the Second World War? While the United States fell into a deep economic recession after the crash of the U.S. stock market in 1929, the Philippine economy experienced unprecedented growth and the campaign for Philippine independence also began to gain momentum.

In a way, the U.S. recession actually contributed to the Philippine economic boom. One of the measures adopted by U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt to halt the hemorrhaging of the American economy was to prohibit the exportation of gold from the United States in 1933. This triggered a mad rush in the Philippine gold industry and American prospectors made a beeline for Baguio’s gold mines in a race to fill the vacuum in the international gold market. The boom in the gold industry, in turn, sent the Philippine securities business to unprecedented highs. Lured by the business opportunities that were opening up as the economy expanded, more Americans, as well as other foreigners, arrived to seek their fortune in the Philippines.

The U.S. economic slump was also a factor in the advances made in the campaign for Philippine independence. By virtue of its status as a colony, the Philippines enjoyed a free-trade relationship with the U.S. Philippine exports, especially sugar, could get into the U.S. without any tariffs. However, as the recession in the U.S. deepened, American farmers began complaining that such exports were killing the American farming industry and putting their products at a disadvantage. This pushed the influential American farming lobby to support the call for Philippine independence and the termination of the Philippine’s special trade privileges. Eventually, the powerful lobby did lead to the passage of the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act in 1933 and its replacment the Tydings-McDuffie Law in 1934, which provided for the granting of independence to the Philippines after a ten-year tutelage in governance.

In 1935, the Philippine Commonwealth transition government was inaugurated and Manuel L. Quezon became the Commonwealth government’s first president. The Philippine economy continued to prosper, thanks to a sizable fund built from taxes collected from the Philippine coconut industry that the U.S. government turned over to the Quezon administration. The money was used for infrastructure and other development projects. The Philippines’ traditional exports—abaca, coconuts and coconut oil, sugar, and timber—were also doing very well as the breakout of the war in Europe in 1939 increased the demand for these products, especially coconut oil and timber.

It wasn’t long, however, before this period of economic and political growth came to an abrupt halt. The war clouds started to drift toward Asia. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and by 1942 the Japanese imperial forces had occupied the Philippines.



Laurie Reuben Nielson

Laurie Reuben Nielson was one of the many foreigners attracted by the business opportunities in the Philippines and moved to the country before the war. Born in New Zealand, Nielson and his American wife, Annette, arrived in Manila in the early to mid-1930s. He quickly established himself in the local business scene, setting up his own firm, L. R. Nielson & Co., and making inroads in the securities and stock brokerage business, importing, and mining. Nielson also sat in the board of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank branch in Manila.

As his business ventures flourished, Nielson also became involved in a project to build an aviation school and airport in Manila. It was an ideal time for pursuing the project because there was a real need for an airport to support the increased economic activity in the country, especially in the mining industry, and the Quezon government was encouraging such infrastructure projects. Nielson convinced several other Manila-based foreign investors to join him in the project. Construction of the airport proceeded after the group leased 42 hectares of land in Makati from Ayala y Cia. When it was finally inaugurated in July 1937, the Nielson Airport was being touted as the biggest and best-equipped in Asia.

Unfortunately, Laurie Nielson’s stay in the Philippines ended tragically for him and his family. Soon after the outbreak of the war and the invasion of Manila by Japanese forces in 1942, Nielson and his family were detained by the Japanese authorities. Nielson’s wife and two sons were brought to the internment camp at the University of Santo Tomas. Nielson, because he was British, was taken for internment in Hong Kong.

His family never saw or heard from him again. By the time the Philippines was liberated from the Japanese, Nielson’s businesses and most of his properties were all gone. Even his home had been destroyed by a direct bomb hit. After his wife and two sons left the Philippines and returned to the U.S. for good, Nielson’s only remaining legacy to the Philippines was the airport he had built.



Nielson Airport

The Nielson Airport was built on a 42-hectare piece of land in Makati owned by Ayala y Cia. Originally, the property was part of the vast Hacienda San Pedro de Makati owned by the Spanish-Filipino Ayala family. The hacienda encompassed most of what is now the city of Makati. When Enrique Zobel de Ayala (1877-1943), then a senior managing partner at Ayala y Cia. and a special aide to President Manuel L. Quezon, found out about the Nielson group’s proposal to the government to build an airport on a turnkey basis, he immediately offered a portion of Hacienda San Pedro as a possible site for the facility. It was an ideal location for the airport because Makati was then just a sparsely populated town adjacent to the capital Manila. The site was located on a hard tract of land jutting from rice fields, clearly visible from the air, allowing clear approaches from all sides. Nielson’s group took up the offer and the airport was eventually inaugurated in July 1937.

The Nielson Airport became the base of the American Far Eastern School of Aviation. More importantly, with the introduction of commercial air services at the airport, it became the primary gateway between Manila and the rest of the country and, later, between the Philippines and the world. The Philippine Aerial Taxi Company (PATCO), the first airline company in the Philippines, and the Iloilo-Negros Air Express Company, the first Filipino-owned air service, started operating from the Nielson Airport. When Philippine Air Lines was established, its very first flight took off in March 1941 from the Nielson Airport for Baguio.

Soon, however, the expansionist plans of the militarists in power in Japan became evident and began to pose a serious security threat to its neighboring countries. One of the responses of authorities in the Philippines was to set up the Far East Air Force (FEAF) headquarters at the Nielson Airport. Commercial flights at the airport were halted in October 1941 and the private carriers were asked to relocate their services to make room for the U.S. Army Air Corps.

When Japanese planes finally attacked the Philippines on 8 December 1941, the planes were actually spotted by a radar station in Northern Luzon, which immediately alerted the FEAF headquarters at Nielson. Unfortunately, by the time FEAF officers were finally able to get through to Clark Air Base in Pampanga, it was already too late and Japanese bombs were already dropping on Clark. By December 9, Nielson Airport was also under siege. After the Americans were forced to retreat from the Philippines and the Japanese occupation forces took over, the latter sequestered Nielson and turned the airport’s radio tower and passenger terminal into one of their headquarters. It wasn’t until the liberation of Manila that the Americans were again able to wrest control of the airport from the Japanese. The partially damaged airport and its facilities were fully restored and commercial air services, including international flights, resumed in 1946.

In 1948, when the airport finally ceased operations in Makati to relocate elsewhere, ownership of the airport’s permanent facilities was passed on to the owner of the land, Ayala y Cia. Although the runways were eventually converted into roads and other airport structures were sacrificed to give way to the development of the Makati business and commercial district, the owners took extra pains to preserve the airport’s passenger terminal and control tower, which came to be known as the Nielson Tower.

In the succeeding years, various uses were found for the Nielson Tower, a two-story concrete structure wittily designed to resemble an airplane from a bird’s-eye view. At one point, it served as the headquarters of a police detachment. It also housed the offices of the Ayala-owned Integrated Property Management Corporation for several years. From the late 1970s up to April 1994, a group of Filipino investors leased the Nielson Tower and turned it into a semi-private, first-class club/restaurant. In 1996, after almost two years of renovation work, the Nielson Tower finally and officially became the permanent home of the Filipinas Heritage Library.



The Filipinas Heritage Library at the Nielson Tower

In the intervening years between the end of the war and the establishment of the Filipinas Heritage Library, monumental changes had taken place in Makati. Ayala y Cia., reborn as the Ayala Corporation in 1968, had transformed Makati from a vast, flat tract of scrub growth into the Philippines’ premiere business, commercial, and residential district. The Nielson Tower found itself at the very heart of the business and financial belt. It is located within what is now known as the Ayala Triangle, a 6.8-hectare property bounded by the area’s most important streets—Ayala Avenue, Paseo de Roxas (which were the runways of the Nielson Airport), and Makati Avenue.

In the early 1990s, when Ayala Land, Ayala Corporation’s real estate subsidiary, was reviewing plans for the development of the Triangle, the issue of the fate of the Nielson Tower was raised. Demolishing the oldest standing pre-war structure in the district was out of the question. Thus, in January 1994, Ayala Corporation chairman Jaime Zobel de Ayala gave the go-signal to Ayala Land to pursue the conversion of the Nielson Tower into a library. It was an ideal location for a library because, aside from the building’s historical and architectural value, the site was very accessible to the public and yet insulated from the noise and hustle and bustle of the surrounding area. Furthermore, the Ayala Foundation was looking for a permanent home for its extensive collection of rare Filipiniana. So from 1994 to early 1996, the Nielson Tower underwent renovation work. The renovation process proceeded deliberately, with a conscious effort to strike a balance between preserving as much of the Nielson Tower in its original state as possible and implementing changes so that the library would be able to operate with the utmost efficiency and effectiveness.

The Filipinas Heritage Library, which initially opened to the public on 23 April 1996, was formally inaugurated on 23 August 1996.

The heart and soul of the Filipinas Heritage Library is its specialized research library, which is focused on conserving, collecting, and making available to the public materials on Philippine art, culture, and history. However, in addition to offering traditional library services, the Filipinas Heritage Library has also evolved into a one-stop electronic research center on the Philippines, promoting and providing access to the wealth and dynamism of the Filipino national heritage through the latest in information technology and telecommunications. Its extensive catalog of Filipiniana books and vast collection of photos may already be accessed through the Internet. Moreover, it has positioned itself as well as a gateway to other databases in and on the Philippines via its electronic linkages with other major libraries in the Philippines. Thus, just as the Nielson Tower connected the Philippines to the world in the 1930s, the Filipinas Heritage Library now links the country internationally through the information highway.

The facility at the Nielson Tower featured “public spaces” that have become favorite venues for such activities as book and product launches, lectures, conferences, workshops and trainings, concerts, and corporate and private social functions. These activities, some of which were spearheaded by the library itself, were also integral to the Filipinas Heritage Library’s existence because these transformed the library into not only a repository of the Philippines’ rich cultural heritage but also a venue for nurturing and revitalizing it.

Since the establishment of the Filipinas Heritage Library, it has contributed to raising Filipinos’ level of consciousness on the need to preserve and study the country’s heritage. It has helped usher in a new era in library development and linkages. It has provided Filipinos with a more dynamic and friendly image of libraries that has led to increased and more creative interaction with the public. For those who have visited it and witnessed its transformation from airport terminal, police detachment, office, and restaurant to guardian and vanguard of Philippine culture, the Filipinas Heritage Library has become a source of inspiration and national pride.



The Filipinas Heritage Library at the Ayala Museum

In 2013, the Filipinas Heritage Library moved to its new home at the Ayala Museum. The Library and the Museum comprise the Ayala Foundation’s Arts and Culture Division. As a one-stop digital research center on the Philippines, the Library’s mission is to spark and stoke interest in the visual, aural, and printed story of the Filipino. The Library collaborates with individuals and institutions in preserving documentary heritage with a focus on the formative period of Philippine nationhood (1930s-1950s). The Library’s Filipiniana collections are shared with the public onsite (on the sixth floor of the Ayala Museum complex), virtually (through the online public access catalogue), and through public programs (exhibitions, lectures, and educational activities).  The Library now presents itself as a modern and accessible repository of Filipiniana materials and other references on Philippine arts, history and culture—truly a contemporary space for the contemporary researcher.

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