Bangkok’s restored Neilson Hays Library wins top UNESCO award

Photo: Neilson Hays Library
Photo: Neilson Hays Library

A century-old library in Bangkok’s Silom area has won a top award by the United Nation’s cultural agency.

The restoration of the Neilson Hays Library, which took place from 2016 through 2018, received an Award of Distinction at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

“The project sets a welcome benchmark for the restoration of early twentieth-century buildings of western architectural design in humid tropical environments,” the UNESCO jury said in a statement.

The Neilson Hays Library was built in 1922 by Mario Tamagno, the same Italian architect responsible for iconic structures such as Hua Lamphong, the Government House, and the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. Its architectural highlights include an Italianate dome, symmetrical layout, stucco decorative motifs, columns, and teak fixtures and fittings. 

Though many original details survive today, the building was in obvious disrepair by 2016, leading the library’s board to enlist architectural restoration experts. They found that the damage that was visible was due to much deeper systemic problems and concluded a major restoration was critically needed.

The site was fully renovated from top to bottom, including repairs to the floors, bookcases, roof tiles, and drainage system, as well as upgrades to its garden and parking lot. The cost was estimated to be around THB10 million (USD$287,000), much of which was underwritten by the Singha-beer barons at Boon Rawd Brewery.

Nalin Vanasin, the library’s association president, called the renovation “a labor of love” by people coming together to “dedicate themselves to preserve a piece of history and to propel their beloved library forward.”

The library was among 13 projects from six nations – Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Nepal, and Thailand – recognized by an international jury at this year’s awards program. Restoration of Mumbai’s century-old museum, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, received the Award of Excellence. 

With the generosity of members, volunteers, and donors, the library underwent a two year, multi-million baht renovation fully funded by donations in time and money from the Neilson Hays Library community worldwide.

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