A church once occupied by Sin

19 03 2013

I took a walk by what, for a short moment, appeared to be a church in the woods. In an area in which woods in any form would have long abandoned – the corner of Waterloo Street and Middle Road, the building which resembles a small village church has for the better part of a century not actually used as one. Together with an adjacent two storey building, the church is now part of the Sculpture Square complex, a space dedicated to the promotion and development of contemporary 3-dimensional (3D) art.

A church in the woods?

A church in the woods?

My memories of the buildings are ones which date back to my younger days (of which I have actually written about in a previous post). The church building itself was always a curious sight each time I passed through the area, whether on the way home from church in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or from school in the late 1970s, when it had been occupied by Sin. The walls of the building were then coloured not just by the colour of its fading coat of paint, but also by streaks of motor oil and grease, having been used by a motor workshop, the Sin Sin Motor Co. My mother remembers it being used as a motor workshop as far back as her own days in school (she went to St. Anthony’s Convent further down Middle Road in the 1950s). The building next to it, which is built in a similar layout as many in the area which might ones which have been homes of wealthy merchants, had in those days been used as the Tai Loke Hotel (previously Tai Loke Lodging House) – one of several rather seedy looking budget hotels found in the area.

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/)

The church building when it was used as a motor workshop and the Tai Loke Hotel next to it, seen from Middle Road in 1987 (source: http://a2o.nas.sg/picas/).

While not much is known about the building which the Tai Loke occupied, there is enough that is known about the church building which was erected from 1870 to 1875, based on information on a National Heritage Board (NHB) plaque at the site as well as on Sculpture Square’s website. It first saw use as the Christian Institute. The Methodists were in 1885, invited to use the building and it became the Middle Road Church (or Malay Church) after a transfer to the Methodists was made in 1892, until the church moved to Kampong Kapor in 1929. Interestingly, the building also housed the Methodist Girls’ School which was started at nearby Short Street for a while until 1900. According to information on Sculpture Square’s website, the building had apparently also seen life as a Chinese restaurant, the “May Blossom Restaurant” during the war.

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s - after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square's website).

A photograph of the abandoned church building in the 1990s – after the motor workshop had vacated it (from Sculpture Square’s website).

Following years of neglect, the former church building when it was vacated by the motor workshop possibly at the end of the 1980s, was left in rather a dilapidated condition and it was a local sculptor, Sun Yu Li, who saw its potential for use as an arts venue which was opened as Sculpture Square in 1999.





Lost in Space

16 10 2012

The Bencoolen Street that I am familiar with is the one that I became acquainted with over the many trips on the bus to school at the end of the 1970s. The street today bears little resemblance to that street I knew. Much has since changed with many modern façades replacing the rows of what primarily were rather old pre-war shophouses that had populated much of the area around the street.

Lost in Space – the ceiling of the fire escape of The Villa at 81 Bencoolen Street. A magical new world set in an old.

Even if not for the ongoing work on the Downtown Line MRT which has closed the section of the street from Middle Road to Bras Basah Road, there seems little that is left to identify the street with the one I had been familiar with, including that Thai restaurant that could not be missed. A figurine on the face of its second level – that of a traditional Thai dancer, made it an instantly recognisable landmark in the area. That along with other landmarks including the old Bengkali Mosque on the other side; the shophouses where the Camera Hospital and K Ratna Sports were; and the Soon Chong Leong Building, have long since made way for the new.

Reflections of the old in the new.

Among the few that did survive, some, such as the former Asia Radio Building now reincarnated as a budget hotel (which has achieved notoriety with its association with a scandal of sorts that has recently been played out in the Courts), bear little resemblance to their former selves. One survivor is one that is immediately recognisable – a large two storey house closed to the junction of Bencoolen Street with Middle Road, No. 81 Bencoolen Street.

A 1982 photo of 81 Bencoolen Street – then the Kian Hua Hotel. From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009.

The new world that is today’s 81 Bencoolen Street.

It was a house which rather intrigued me. What did look like a very spacious two storey house, it was certainly one that must have seen better days. I imagined it to once have been the home of a rich merchant. Many similar houses in the area had been, including the ones found at nearby Waterloo Street which runs parallel to Bencoolen Street. Like a similar house next to the former Middle Road Church, the house was one which a hotel had occupied, the Kian Hua Hotel. On the hotel, I have found little information. Other than several newspaper advertisements in the National Library’s wonderful archives of newspapers that told me only that told me that the hotel had occupied the building at least as far back as 1953, the isn’t much on it except of an apparent suicide – a 26 year old ex-journalist had been found hanging from a ceiling fan in one of the hotel’s rooms one morning in early 1988, with a nylon rope around her neck.

A much grander looking 81 Bencoolen Street today – restored perhaps to its original glory.

The house is now in what has to be its fourth incarnation, having for a while after the hotel’s closure, masqueraded as the gaily decorated Cleopatra Karaoke Lounge. A lot more sober looking today, it does seem to have its former glory I imagined it to have been in, restored, having as part of a S$50 million makeover which involved extensive work on the cluster of old buildings at the corner of Prinsep Link and Bencoolen Street it is a part of to, to restore it as well as transform the house and the adjacent buildings – a more modern commercial building at No. 77, and two units of conservation shophouses at No. 71 and No. 73, into what is today the SPACE Asia Hub, a huge 40,000 sq. foot gallery for premium furniture.

The building at No. 81, as well as two sets of buildings: two storey conservation shophouses at Nos. 71 and 73; and also a modern building at No. 77 has been transformed into the 40,000 sq. ft. Space Asia Hub.

The work, undertaken by local architectural firm WOHA Architects Pte Ltd, is one that has won it an award in the 2012 edition of the URA Architectural Heritage Awards. It was because of this that I had a chance to join a very informative guided tour that was organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of a series of tours which also include guided tours of the other 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards winners.

A glass cube – the Glass Block has been created around the existing frame of No. 77 which is next to No. 81 and serves as the focal point of the spacious showroom.

While the tour did not provide me with the information I had hoped to obtain on the original owner or when the house at 81 Bencoolen Street was built, it did give me a chance to take a look at the interiors of the beautifully restored heritage buildings: No. 81 which is now called ‘The Villa’; and Nos. 71 and 73, the ‘Heritage Houses’, as well as the transformation of No. 77 into what is called the ‘Glass Block’ – the focal point of the gallery.

Inside the Glass Block – the existing frame can be seen with floors and walls removed to create a sense of space.

The tour started off at the Glass Block, laid bare by the replacement of its exterior walls to create a beautiful space around its existing frame of concrete columns and beams. What was really interesting was the spaces and access routes that were created, which included a joyous courtyard at the rear with a glass ceiling and a glorious wall of green, an open terrace on its third level and the addition of a wide staircase and a glass encased lift shaft. What was nice to see was in the midst of all the glass, there is the warmth of the colour of bricks to be found – the original bricks of the wall that separates the Heritage Houses from the adjoining Glass Block.

The exposed bricks of the original wall separating No. 77 from No. 73.

The vertical garden at the glass topped courtyard of the Glass Block.

The reverse view of the courtyard.

The open terrace of the Glass Block.

The guide showing the interior of no. 77 prior to the work done on it.

The staircase added into No. 77.

What is notable on the work done on the Heritage Houses is the replacement of a concrete column and beam structure that held its roof up, with two sets of steel trusses which carry the weight of the roof’s now wooden structure over to the walls strengthened for the purpose. This not only frees the spaces below from the previous mess of supporting columns below, but also enables the creation of two very interesting and very usable spaces between each set of trusses, which were referred to as ‘hanging attics’.

The new timber roof supporting structure of the Heritage House at Nos. 71 and 73.

A view through one of the new trusses which free the space below of the numerous columns that had previously been used to support the roof.

One of the hanging attic created between a set of the new steel trusses.

The freed up space below the steel trusses.

The Villa was the last of the three buildings we visited, and the one that interested me the most. Now an exclusive showroom, access to which is only by appointment, the visit provided the opportunity not just to step inside the showroom, but also to have a view of its restored interior. There were a few details on the restoration that were of note, including that of the house’s roof in which the attic was removed to allow the newly installed timber trusses and original masonry structures to be seen. Another design feature of note is one that was added – that of a hollow column of rusted steel – à la Richard Serra I suppose, only thinner guage and supported by internal steel angles, which serves as a fire escape required by the building code. This was added to a glass extension to The Villa which also serves to connect it with the Glass Block next door. More information on the awards and on SPACE Asia Hub, which opened in November 2011, can be found at the SPACE website and also at the URA 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards website.

The upper level of The Villa.

Sliding shades are used for the upper level windows.

The lower level of The Villa.

The fire escape is built into a hollow rusted steel column.

The rusted steel column as seen from the outside.





75 feet above the harbour

30 03 2012

From a vantage point 75 feet (about 23 metres) over Singapore’s former harbour, officers with the Harbour Division of the Preventive Branch of the Department of Customs and Excise (which later became Singapore Customs), stood watch over the Inner Roads of the harbour for more than three decades. The vantage point, a panoramic lookout tower that we still today, was part of the Customs Harbour Branch Building built over an L-shaped pier along the waterfront at the end of Collyer Quay. The building and pier, built at a cost of S$1.8 million, was completed in October 1969. The complex housed the 300 strong force of the then Harbour Division, as well as provided berths and maintenance facilities (which included a slipway) for some 35 launches and speedboats of the Division when it first opened. The building also provided cargo examination facilities and its construction allowed the Division to move from its somewhat makeshift premises in a godown in Telok Ayer Basin.

What is today a posh dining destination, Customs House, with its very distinct 75 foot lookout tower, was formerly the Customs Harbour Branch Building. It was completed in October 1969 and housed the Harbour Division of the Customs Preventive Branch.

The Customs Harbour Branch Building in 2006 (source: URA site on Conservation Matters).

Collyer Quay in July 1974 seen beyond the Detached Mole, a breakwater that sheltered the Inner Roads from the opened Outer Roads. The Customs Harbour Branch Building and its distinct 75 foot tower is seen on the extreme left of the photograph (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).

While 75 feet in the context of what now surrounds the former Customs complex, the tower allowed customs officers to keep a round-the-clock watch over the harbour for small boats attempting to sneak dutiable goods into Singapore. The octagonal shaped and fully air-conditioned watch tower which is supported by a cylindrical base provided a panoramic view which extended beyond the Inner Roads to the mouth of the Singapore River, the Geylang River and Tanjong Rhu. Officers spotting a suspicious boat could then alert their colleagues manning the speedboats which were on standby by the pier who would then head out to intercept the suspicious boat.

A side elevation of the former Customs Harbour Branch Building with its very distinct lookout tower (source: URA site on Conservation Matters).

At the bottom of the 75 feet climb up a spiral staircase to the lookout tower - reminiscent of climbs up several lighthouses I've visited.

In between heavy panting, I managed to appreciate the view halfway up.

At the end of the 75 feet climb - a view of the lookout tower's ceiling.

Looking down at the cause of my heavy breathing.

Use for the building and the pier in its intended role ended with the construction of the Marina Barrage which cut what were the Inner Roads of the old harbour off from the sea and the building then under the Maritime and Port Authority’s charge was passed over to the Singapore Land Authority in 2006. Customs House was given conservation status in 2007 and was reopened as a dining destination under the management of Fullerton Heritage, which also manages the former Clifford Pier and the Fullerton Hotel. The tower itself is however disused and remains inaccessible to the general public.

At the top of the lookout tower.

The lookout tower no longer commands a view of a harbour littered with bumboats, twakows and tongkangs, but of the new world that is Marina Bay.

Show me the money! An interpretation perhaps of the new view - as seen in the reflection of a window of the lookout tower offered by one of the installations for i Light Marina Bay 2012 - Teddy Lo's MEGAPOV.

Seeing double - BIBI's Bibigloo and a reflection of it as viewed from the lookout tower.








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