An enlightened space

4 04 2022

Voluminous spaces amply illuminated by natural light are often a visually treat. We have quite a number of these spaces in Singapore, including several that go back to a time when harnessing natural light and ventilation for interior spaces all seemed very logical.

A view of the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

One fine example of a such a voluminous space is the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The hall features a high vaulted ceiling that rises to a height of some 21.6 metres to keep its users cool. A fair amount of natural light also streams into the space through windows placed at its roof’s gable ends and also along the sides, making it quite a joy to behold. The station is one of many designs that have flown off the drawing boards of architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. The design of the hall’s gable ends recalls the one of the firm’s earlier works, the Malayan Motors showroom on Orchard Road.

The former Malayan Motors showroom.

Designed in 1925, the building — like Tanjong Pagar Railway Station — can still be admired. It now stands at the end of a delightful row of conserved buildings opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT station and looking at it, it is not hard to see how the former showroom must have been quite an attraction on Orchard Road when it was completed in early 1927. The showroom’s façade, which is effectively a gable end, is topped by a sunburst like decorative feature that seems very much to be a call for attention. The window arrangement on this face does also seem quite similar to that of the gable ends of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s main hall, although in being dressed to act as the showroom’s street facing façade, is much more elaborately designed.

Similarities can be seen between Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the former Malayan Motors showroom.

The former showroom, which now stands as a marker of a stretch of Orchard Road that was at the heart of Singapore’s motoring trade, has long fascinated me. Other than its showroom on the ground floor, which I had chance to visit as a child when my father purchased a Morris Marina in the 1970s, I’ve often wondered what lay behind the glorious face of building and its multitude of windows. I long imagined that was a showroom or perhaps a workshop on its upper floors and I was rather disappointed to learn from the building’s plans that what did lie under the rather elaborate roof were offices — at least at the point of design. Knowing this, what now intrigues me is why all that elaboration for a set of mere offices? Whatever it was however, it must have been quite a space to marvel at.

What lies behind the face of the Malayan Motors showroom’s gabled ends.

The showroom’s construction came at a time when the motoring trade was on the up and when Orchard Road had established its place a centre for the business of getting around. The street in its post-plantation era, had become a choice residential neighbourhood and both residents and visitors needed a means to move around, especially with Orchard Road being some distance from the commercial area. By the late 1800s, livery stables from which horses and carriages could be hired, lined the street. Hackney carriages plied the street as much as taxis now do, and carriages makers and horse traders set up shop.

Stables on Orchard Road.

The introduction of the motorcar would see a change of fortunes for those involved in the trade. Some of those involved in the business of horses and carriages would become among the first to trade instead in horsepower, leading to the area retaining its place as a hub as the private transportation business evolved. New entrants to the business, with a greater capacity to respond to shifting demands, soon dominated the scene, with names such as Cycle and Carriage and C F F Wearne (later Wearne Brothers) — now household names in the trade, setting up shop in the area in the early 1900s. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, at least a dozen car dealerships had been established in the area close to the entrance to Government House — something I touched on during the Age of Locomotion tour that I recently conducted as part of a series of four historical tours of Orchard Road for Design Orchard’s “The Non Season”.

The “motor” end of Orchard Road, a hundred years apart.

C F F Wearne and Co, one of many success stories associated with the motoring trade, was founded by two Western Australian brothers Charles Frederick Foster Wearne and his brother Theodore James Benjamin (T J B or Theo). The two had come across to Singapore in 1892 and worked their way up from being apprentices at the New Harbour Dock Company to qualify as marine engineers. In 1906, with a startup capital of 700 Straits dollars that Theo provided, C F F Wearne and Co was established as a motor garage in Theo’s brother-in-law’s coach house. This was a time when there were just a handful of cars on the island. In a matter of months, C F F Wearne and Co moved into two shophouse units in Orchard Road. Having secured the agency for Oldsmobiles, the company would expand its portfolio to include makes such as Morris, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Ford and in no time, established themselves as a main player in the business with C F F Wearne and Co becoming Wearne Brothers.

The 1910 built C F F Wearne Garage

By 1924, Wearne Brothers would be producing car bodies locally for assembly to Ford car chassis shipped to Singapore by Ford Canada for the local market. A small assembly plant was established at Penang Lane to handle the work. To avoid any conflict of interests between the Ford agency and other agencies under the Wearne Brothers umbrella, a subsidiary, Malayan Motors, was set up the same year acting as agents for agents for Armstrong-Siddley, Morris, Sunbeam, Packard, Rolls-Royce, Essex, Erksine and Standard motorcars. Malayan Motors operated out of the 1910 constructed C F F Wearnes’ garage, which stood on the site of the 1927 built Malayan Motors showroom at 14-20 Orchard Road. The 1927 building does in fact have the 1910 building appended to it, having been built in front of the older structure. This is quite evident from the difference in floor levels of the older back section and newer front section of the former showroom.

The difference in floor levels between the old and new sections of the building.

Wearne Brothers, which established the first local airline to operate out of Singapore in 1937, Wearnes Air Services (Charles Wearne was also a great aviation enthusiast), would be greatly affected by the war. War not only disrupted Wearnes Air Services operations just as it was about to see returns on the investment and Wearnes’ other businesses operations, war would affect the Wearne brothers in a very personal way. Whilst Charles and Theo made it out of the very last shipping convoy to leave Singapore just a few days before the inglorious Fall of Singapore, two of Charles’ sons would become Prisoners of War. Charles also passed on at the age of 71 in Mandurah, Western Australia, a year before the war ended.

Malayan Motors made its last sale in the showroom in August 1980, after which the company consolidated it operations at its Leng Kee Road branch. The showroom was renovated in 1988 and used by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House and from 2002 to 2020, the building was used by the private school Management Development Institute of Singapore or MDIS.

The former showroom was a witness to war.

Let there be light!



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