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Looking Back: (Part 1) Laurie Reuben Nielson – Founder of the First Airport in the Philippines

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Nielson Tower is the country’s first international airport, a project of Laurie Reuben Nielson in Makati before World War II. Several decades before Makati became a city, many foreigners were interested in settling here due to the rising business opportunities. One of the first foreigners to settle in Makati is Laurie Reuben Nielson, a British man born in New Zealand who arrived here with his wife in the mid 1930s. His wife was an American named Annette and they had two sons. In Manila, his first goal was to establish a business, thus the creation of the firm L. R. Nielson & Co. He was mainly involved in the securities and stock brokerage business, mining, and importing. Nielson was also part of the board of “The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.”


Timing is Everything

He was a great businessman, but his greatest contribution in Manila is in the field of aviation, his true passion. Due to the rising economic activity in the country, Nielson envisioned building an airport in Makati to accommodate business trade and travel. His plans to build an airport in Makati were further encouraged by President Manuel L. Quezon’s government who supported many infrastructure projects in the country during that time. Creating an airport was not an easy job to do alone. For this, Nielson asked the help of other several foreign investors in Manila to join him in his airport project.

One of the people who supported him was Enrique Zobel de Ayala who was considered the most prestigious and the richest businessman in the country during that time. Zobel de Ayala was the senior managing partner at Ayala y Cia (or Ayala Corporation today). He was also a special aide to President Quezon. When Zobel de Ayala found out about Nielson’s group and their plans to build an airport, he proposed a land area at his Hacienda San Pedro de Makati as a possible site of the airport. It was a good location for an airport because Makati during the time was just a small town adjacent to Manila with a few population. There was also very good air visibility in this field. The land area is owned by the wealthy Spanish-Filipino Ayala family. Nielson and his group leased 42 hectares of land to proceed with their airport project.



Col. Andres Soriano with officials of the Philippine Airlines and crew. Photo courtesy of Filipino Heritage Library


In July 1937, the Nielson Airport was inaugurated and was considered the biggest and the best-equipped in Asia. The Nielson Airport also became the main access between Manila and the rest of the country. Eventually, it was the airport that connected the Philippines to the world. It was also remembered as the home of the American Far Eastern School of Aviation. There were three other major companies that benefited from Nielson Airport, namely:

  • Philippine Aerial Taxi Company (PATCO) – the first airline in the country

  • Iloilo-Negros Air Express Company – the first Filipino-owned air service

  • Philippine Airlines (PAL) – They had their first flight ever in March 1941 from Nielson Airport to Baguio.

Nielson Field had a significant role during the start of the Second World War when it became the headquarters of the Far East Air Force, with operations in partnership with Clark Field and Nichols Field. This airport in Makati was a very convenient air field for both military and private operations.


In Memory of a Great Expat

Laurie Reuben Nielson had an unfortunate fate like everybody here in Manila due to the Japanese occupation in World War II. Nielson Airport was bombed by Japanese airplanes on 10 December 1941. Prior to the invasion of Manila, the Japanese authorities detained Nielson and his family. His wife and his two sons were brought to an internment camp at the University of Sto. Tomas, whereas he was taken to Hong Kong, a place where they detained the British. Sadly, no one knew what happened to him after he left the Philippines. His family, however, survived the war and returned to the U.S. After the war, all of Nielson’s properties and businesses were gone. His only remaining heritage is the Nielson Airport.

Today, Nielson Airport (or Nielson Field) is now part of the “Ayala Triangle.” This building is the only remaining structure from pre-World War II in Makati Central Business District. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Asia-Pacific Cultural Heritage Awards honoured this library for the conservation of this beautiful and historical building.

I’ll write another article and tell you more about Nielson Tower and its important role today as a venue for events in the Makati Business District.







Author: Marcelle Villegas 




Photo Source:

Top photo of Nielson Tower –

Old photo of Nielson Tower – Photo courtesy of Filipino Heritage Library –

Nielson Tower today –





  1. This place is covered with trees and shrubs.