The Story of Ayala Triangle: Beginnings as Nielson Field

If open spaces are considered the soul of a city, then there is little doubt that Ayala Triangle serves as the soul of Makati, especially the central business district area. In a way, such distinction is fitting as it also happens to be an open space with a rich history of almost 80 years and counting, having undergone many transformations into what it is today, not to mention what is to become of it.

Today, the Urban Roamer presents to you this mini-series that details the past, the present, and the foreseen future of this triangular patch of land in the middle of Makati,

BIRTH OF AN AIRFIELD

an aerial photograph of Nielson Field (courtesy of Timawa.net)

The beginnings of Ayala Triangle is itself a milestone in not only in the history of what is now the Metropolitan Manila area but also in the history of Philippine aviation as a whole when in July 1937, Nielson Field was opened to become Manila’s first airport. At that time, it was already considered the biggest and best-equipped airport in Asia, having two runways which still exist today but as major thoroughfares now, Paseo de Roxas and a portion of Ayala Avenue.

How the airport came about was largely due to the vision of a man named Laurie Nielson, a British national who came to the Philippines to do business. An aviation enthusiast, he wanted to build an airport and aviation school in Manila and was looking for help to realize his vision. Fortunately, the Zobel de Ayala patriarch at that time, the first Don Enrique Zobel (not to be confused with the second Enrique Zobel who was Ayala Corporation chairman from the 1960s to mid-1980s) gave help by offering him a portion of the vast Hacienda de Makati that the Zobel family owns to be the site of the airport.

As was intended, Nielson Field became the site of the country’s first aviation school, the Far Eastern School of Aviation. (which later became known as FEATI until Philippine Airlines took control of the aviation school of FEATI, turning it into what is now the PAL Aviation School) Soon, it was also to be the home of the country’s first airline companies: the Iloilo Negros Air Express Company (INAEC) and the Philippine Air Taxi Company. (PATCO) PATCO would soon be absorbed with another airline company whjich was owned by San Miguel Corporation’s Andres Soriano Sr. in 1941. This would give rise to the airline we know today as Philippine Airlines.

Andres Soriano Sr, with the first officials and crew of Philippine Airlines (courtesy of the Filipinas Heritage Library)

WAR AND THE AFTERMATH

Shortly after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, (December 8 in the Philippines) the Japanese targeted the bombing of key installations in the country; Nielson Field was among those targets of these bombings on December 10, 1941. When the Japanese forces took control of Manila by January 1942, Nielson Field was converted into a Japanese military headquarters. Laurie Nielson was also apprehended by the Japanese, first detained in the University of Santo Tomas Interment Camp and then was sent to Hong Kong on the account that he was a British national. Sadly, he would never be seen or heard from again.

Nielson Field being bombed by the Japanese in 1941 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

American and Filipino forces managed to take back Nielson Field during the Battle of Manila in 1945. The airport structures suffered some significant damage but they were fixed up and the field was reopened in 1946. However, for some reason, aviation operations in Nielson Field would shut down for good in 1948. One can presume the disappearance of Mr. Nielson was hard for those left behind to continue the operations as a reason behind this decision.

Manila’s aviation operations would now move south to Nichols Field where Philippine Air Force is headquartered and a new airport would rise by the 1950s, the precursor of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport we know today. Meanwhile, the Zobel de Ayala family took control of the land again, electing to preserve the old Nielson Airport Tower as the family was planning on creating a new business district to rise in the area.

NIELSON TOWER: HERITAGE OF AN AVIATION PAST

The Nielson Tower found use over the years as a police station, an office of an Ayala-owned company, and a restaurant. Then in 1996, it served as the home of the Filipinas Heritage Library of the Ayala Foundation. The library eventually transferred in 2013 to its current home at the Ayala Museum. Nielson Tower reopened a year later as The Blackbird at Nielson Tower, a fine dining restaurant and events venue.

The Nielson Tower stands today as a heritage and a remnant of Ayala Triangle’s colorful past as an airfield where important moments in Philippine aviation history were made for present and future generations to appreciate.

To be continued, as we talk about the evolution of the Ayala Triangle

Acknowledgements as well to Expatch and Wikipedia

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