Daily life in Bangkok was very different in 1869 when the Bangkok Ladies’ Library Association was first founded. Most of what is now today’s modern city was then a lush network of swamps, khlongs and small settlements. Such would have been the case for the Silom (Windmill) area; Surawong Road itself was not to be built until later in 1897. At this time King Rama V was a young man, recently crowned and destined to lead Siam through many changes.
Life for early Western residents could be harsh. Devastating epidemics were frequent. Western luxuries such as books were treasured items; a precious connection with home. Until the opening of the Suez Canal, freight from Europe or America could take six months or more to arrive in the Kingdom of Siam.
Thirteen resourceful British and American women established the Bangkok Ladies’ Library Association in 1869, with the aim of circulating and sharing books. Initially staffed by volunteers and only open one day a week, by 1897 it was open every day (except Sunday) and a paid librarian was employed. Originally housed rent-free in various personal homes (and later in a chapel), by 1914 it was clear that a dedicated building was required. A plot of land in Surawong Road was purchased.
Around this time, one of the most active Board members was Jennie Neilson. Danish by birth, she had lived in America and then entered Siam as a protestant missionary in 1881. Hearing that two suitable young American doctors were on their way to Bangkok, Jennie and a friend were said to have selected their respective future husbands prior to the gentlemen disembarking! Dr Thomas Heyward Hays became Chief of the Royal Thai Navy Hospital. Jennie Neilson Hays served as President of the Library three times and was a mainstay of the organisation for twenty years.
A letter sent in 1904 by the Crown Prince, later to become King Rama VI, to Dr Hays offers an intimate glimpse into communication between Thai royalty and expatriates during this period.
Sadly Jennie passed away suddenly in 1920 – possibly as a result of cholera. Dr Hays chose to honour his wife by commissioning a new library to be built in her memory, using the plot of land purchased earlier. The result is our elegant neo-classical building; opened on 26 June, 1922.
The Library thrived in its new and permanent home for many years, until a set-back in 1941 when the Japanese forces used it for billeting troops. More than 1,000 rare volumes were shipped to Japan during this time, along with precious architectural blueprints. Many books were subsequently returned, but some of the rarest books and blueprints are still missing.
Designed by Italian architect Mario Tamagno, this harmonious, symmetrical building wisely incorporates practical features such as double walls to help keep the books well-ventilated and dry. It displays a wealth of classical features such as stucco decorative motifs, columns and teak fixtures and fittings. Numerous original details still survive; many are still in active daily use. The architectural highlight is a beautiful Italianate dome, once the imposing entrance and now a unique art gallery. At the time of its opening The Bangkok Times described the building as, “… a grand palace on a small scale”, and it remains so today.
Mario Tamagno, in association with another Italian architect, Annibale Rigotti, also designed the prestigious Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall. An additional example of his work is Hua Lampong Railway Station, another impressive reminder of a past era.
The building was awarded the status of “Historic Landmark” in 1986 by the Association of Siamese Architects. As one of the few remaining examples of secular period architecture in Bangkok, it is to be hoped that the building will always be treasured by both the Thai and expatriate communities.
A major achievement was the installation of air-conditioning in 1999. This has greatly enhanced comfort and the sense of oasis from the heat and traffic outside.
For more detailed architectural information about the Neilson Hays Library, please read Catherine Clover’s informative article in ‘Electrum Magazine’.
With thanks to Mari Scott Miyashita (Sawasdee Magazine: Q1, 2010) and Eric Lim (http://www.tour-bangkok-legacies.com/neilson-hays-library.html) for much of the preceding information.