The sports complex at Turnhouse Road

24 06 2015

Lying silently and somewhat forgotten is a set of structures that is seemingly out of place in an area dominated by buildings of the former Royal Air Force Changi station (RAF Changi). An award winning sports complex that was completed in October 1982, the set of structures was the Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group Sports Club and had been built on the site of a previous sports facility, the former RAF Changi’s Airmen’s Swimming Pool. The S$11 million modern looking complex at 24 Turnhouse Road, one of the early post RAF Changi era interventions in the previously restricted section of Changi Point, was built to replace to the club’s facilities at the former international airport at Paya Lebar.

The former SIA Groups Sports and Recreation Club complex at 24 Turnhouse Road.

The former SIA Groups Sports Club complex at 24 Turnhouse Road.

The approach to the former club.

The approach to the former club along Turnhouse Road.

Windows into a more recent past.

Windows into a more recent past.

Erected at a time when several larger organisations were also investing in similar leisure facilities, the 2.68 ha. complex was thought of as second only to Shell’s impressive facilities at Pulau Bukom and Paya Lebar and catered for a variety of popular sports. It boasted of a seven lane Olympic size swimming pool, a children’s pool, basketball and netball courts, playing fields, three tennis courts, four squash courts, and a multi-purpose hall with three badminton courts.

The entrance to the club.

The entrance to the club.

The main staircase.

The main staircase.

The multi-purpose hall.

The multi-purpose hall.

And the seven-lane Olympic size swimming pool.

And the seven-lane Olympic size swimming pool.

The row of squash courts.

The row of squash courts.

The club’s architectural design, for which it won an award, has been described in an article on page 6 of the 18 June 1981 edition of the Straits Times:

The architecture of the complex is imaginative in concept and bold in design, featuring a four level chalet style building with sloping roofs, wide eaves and cantilevered balconies … An important aspect of the design is the viewing terrace, which links all sports and recreational areas. A roof deck on the topmost level of one wing offers superb views of the general surroundings, while a viewing balcony overlooks the multi-purpose hall and four squash courts.

A view from the sea towards the area where the former club is. The structures of its buildings stand out in the distance.

A view from the sea towards the area where the former club is. The structures of its buildings stand out in the distance.

The viewing balcony.

The viewing balcony.

The upper floor corridor overlooking the swimming pool.

The upper floor corridor overlooking the swimming pool.

What would have been a snack kiosk next to the swimming pool.

What would have been a snack kiosk next to the swimming pool.

A view out to the swimming pool.

A view out to the swimming pool.

Pipework in the club's boiler room.

Pipework in the club’s boiler room.

Besides catering for sports, the club also provided for indoor activities, other hobbies and dining. Housed within its buildings were food and beverage outlets, a gym, a reading room, a conference room, a lounge, a jackpot machine room, an electronic games arcade, as well as rooms for billiards, darts and television. An innovation of the day that the club put to use was a solar powered water heating system.

What must have been a function or conference room.

What must have been a function or conference room.

A restaurant space.

A restaurant space.

A view across the pool to the viewing balconies.

A view across the pool to the viewing balconies.

Despite the club’s enviable facilities, membership fell in its first years of operations at its new premises from a high of 5253 members in 1981 to a low of 1200, based on a 1983 report by in Suara Satu, the newsletter of Singapore Air Transport-Workers’s Union (SATU). Increased membership fees, distance and a lack of transportation to the club had been cited as a contributing factor. This saw the club open its doors to Division 1 civil servants, as well as staff of client airlines of its subsidiary Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS). There was also talk then of the club finding new premises or being opened to the public coming to the surface.

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The club did eventually move out – to its current facilities off Upper Changi Road East in 2006, leaving the clubhouse at Turnhouse Road abandoned. Today it remains unused – except for the occasional event being held there. The future of the club’s former buildings is uncertain, although an adaptive reuse may be found for the site in the interim during which time the structures will stand perhaps as a lesser known and temporary reminder of a period of Changi Point’s development that was influenced by the arrival of the new airport at Changi.

A terrace with a view to the sea.

A terrace with a view to the sea.

A view across to 23B Turnhouse Road, now a seafood restaurant.

A view across to 23 Turnhouse Road, now a seafood restaurant.

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The fire station at the 8th mile

9 06 2015

One of those things almost every young boy dreams of becoming is a fireman. I had myself harboured ambitions of becoming one at different points during my childhood; the inspiration coming from picture books and what I must have caught on the television and perhaps from the constant reminder I had in the form of the rather eye-catching Alexandra Fire Station, which was close to where I lived in Queenstown.

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station, a landmark in my many road journeys.

The fire station at the 8MS, Bukit Timah Fire Station, a landmark in my many road journeys and a fire station of old marked by a distinctive hose-drying tower.

Sadly, that station is long gone. The monster of a building that replaced it, besides housing a fire station, also has a police centre operating from it. Without the distinctive hose-drying tower and red doors, the new building, unlike the stations of old, is no longer one to fuel the aspirations of childhood, and certainly not one in which I am able to reconnect with days that I often wish to return to.

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That connection to my youthful days can fortunately be found in several other fire stations of old. Of these, the pretty red and white Central Fire Station, Singapore’s oldest and now a National Monument is still in operation. That, in the days of my childhood, loomed large at the far end of a street now lost, Hock Lam Street, along which I often found comfort in a bowl of its famous beef ball soup.

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Two others that I regularly set my eyes upon, while still around, are no longer operational. One is the red brick former Serangoon or Kolam Ayer Fire Station, along Upper Serangoon Road. Now reassembled, having been moved due to the construction of a road where it had stood, the station was one that was close to my second home in Toa Payoh.

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The other was Bukit Timah Fire Station. Sited at the 8th milestone Bukit Timah, it was close to the giant Green Spot bottle that stood tall at the Amoy Canning Factory (see: a photograph of the Green Spot bottle  on James Tann’s wonderful Princess Elizabeth Estate blog) and was at the foot of Singapore’s highest hill. The station stood out as a landmark in the many road journeys of my childhood. The pair (the station and the giant replica bottle) seemed then to mark the edge of the urban world and on the long drives to the desolate north and the wild west, the sight of them would represent the start of the adventure on the outward journey, and would signal the return to civilisation on the journey home.

The former station, just after its closure (online at http://m5.i.pbase.com/u41/lhlim/upload/22296575.DSCF0029_02.jpg).

The former Bukit Timah Fire Station has a mention in the National Heritage Board’s Bukit Timah Heritage Trail booklet. This tells us that it was in 1956, the fourth fire station to be built; a fact that I assume is in relation to the stations that were built for the Singapore Fire Brigade, coming after Central Fire Station and the sub-stations at Geylang and Alexandra. Kolam Ayer (Serangoon), built for the volunteer Auxiliary Fire Service in 1954 would have already been standing at the time. That only came under the Singapore Fire Bridage in 1961, following the disbandment of the volunteer force. Another station that would have existed, was the Naval Base Fire Brigade’s Sembawang Fire Station. Built in the 1930s, the station’s building is now conserved.

Signs of very different times.

Signs of very different times.

Bukit Timah sub-station’s appearance, is perhaps one of the strongest clues to its vintage, its clean and understated elegance is typical of the 1950s Modernist style. One of the few adornments on its uncluttered façade, is a coat of arms. That of the Colony of Singapore, it is also is a telltale sign of when the station would have been commissioning – the coat of arms was in use during the days of the Crown Colony from 1948 to 1959.

The coat of arms of the Crown Colony.

The coat of arms of the Crown Colony.

The station is designed in the 1950s Modernist style.

The station is designed in the 1950s Modernist style.

The station’s grounds, also speak of the past. Besides a sign slowing us down to 20 miles per hour, there are many other signs of the times, the most noticeable of which would be the now recoloured low-rise apartment blocks. The blocks provide evidence of days when the various services provided for the accommodation needs of servicemen and their families as well as point to a period in our history when Singapore, even if administered by the colonial masters as a separate entity, was a part of the greater Malaya. It would have been common then to find men in service hailing not just from the Crown Colony but also from parts of the Federation. The seven three-storey blocks, each with six comfortably proportioned apartments, are in the company of a single storey house at the back, which would have been the residence of the station master.

The former firemen's quarters, seen in 2010.

The former firemen’s quarters, seen in 2010.

Some of the apartment blocks today.

Some of the apartment blocks today.

A view through a wall to the former station master's residence.

A view through a wall to the former station master’s residence.

Having been in operation for close to half a century, the station was to close its red doors for good in 2005 when a larger and modern replacement at Bukit Batok Road was built. Missing from the new station was the hose-drying tower that once seemed to be the defining feature of a fire station. The introduction of machines to handle tasks such as the drying of hoses meant that stations built from 1987, starting with the one in Woodlands, would take on a new appearance.

The ladder up the hose-drying tower.

The ladder up the hose-drying tower – something firemen are no longer required to climb.

The entrance to the hose-drying tower.

The entrance to the hose-drying tower.

One of several former stations still standing, only the buildings belonging to Bukit Timah have found interim uses. These were initially leased out by the State for three years in April 2008 to serve as a venue for corporate events, adventure camps, arts, education and sports.

A world recoloured.

A world recoloured.

Letter boxes where hoses were once hung.

Letter boxes where hoses were once hung.

Since then, the premises has seen a second master tenant leasing the property on a 2+2 year term, with whom it was relaunched as a lifestyle and education hub in 2012. Besides the take-up of units in the former quarters by businesses running enrichment activities aimed at the young, there is also a food and beverage outlet that now operates out of the station’s former garage.

The former station's red doors, seen in 2010.

The former station’s red doors, seen in 2010.

A F&B outlet now operates from the former garage.

A F&B outlet now operates from the former garage.

As of today, the buildings do not have conservation status. There is hope however for their future retention, even if the current edition of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan seems to suggest otherwise. A Request for Proposal (RFP) for a Concept Master Plan for the Rail Corridor initiated by the URA identifies the former station as one of four activity hubs for which shortlisted teams are required to submit a concept design in which the buildings are retained and “repurposed for uses that complement its function as a gateway into the Rail Corridor(see A new journey through Tanjong Pagar begins).

Now a enrichment hub, will it be a future gateway to the Rail Corridor?

Now a enrichment hub, will it be a future gateway to the Rail Corridor?

It would certainly be a cause for celebration should this happen. The station, as one of the last to survive from an era during which the area developed as a industrial corridor and as a prominent landmark, serves not just as a link to the area’s development and history, but also as a reminder of a Singapore we might otherwise be quick to forget.

The hose-drying tower and one of the blocks of the former quarters.

The hose-drying tower and one of the blocks of the former quarters.

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An ‘English country manor’ in Singapore’s north once visited by the Queen

28 05 2015

From its position some 90 feet above what once was the southern fringes of the His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore, the grand and architecturally rather interesting building we know today as the Old Admiralty House would have offered its occupants with a wonderful vantage point over the area’s rolling landscape.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

The former Admiralty House, likened by some to an English country manor.

Windows into a time forgotten.

Windows into a time forgotten.

Its lofty position, and the scale of the house – likened by some to that of an English manor, tells us of the rank and status of the mansion’s intended occupant, the Royal Navy’s officer in command of the huge naval base. The house, would have been one of a trio of large residences planned for at the end of the 1930s.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

The front of the former Admiralty House.

The three were to house the each of the three commanding officers of the armed services, with what was to be Admiralty House built so as to permit the Officer in charge of His Majesty’s Naval Establishments in Singapore, a appointment held by the Commodore (later Rear Admiral), Malaya, to be moved on to the grounds of the base. The Commodore residence, had been at Navy House, located a long drive away in ‘Singapore’ at Woodstock Drive (which became the Grange Road end of today’s Orchard Boulevard).

Rather delightful looking smaller buildings around the house thought to have housed the commanders' aides.

Rather delightful looking smaller buildings around the house thought to have housed the commanders’ aides.

The porch.

The porch.

The two other residences intended, were to be at Kheam Hock Road and in Tanglin. The one at Kheam Hock Road, was to be a replacement for Flagstaff House, the residence of the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Malaya. This residence is the one we know today as Command House, a National Monument. The Tanglin residence, which I have not been able to find further information on, was intended to be the home of the Royal Air Force’s Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Far East.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Command House at Kheam Hock Road.

As with the new Flagstaff House, the design of Admiralty House was very much influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. It is widely attributed to the illustrious architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose work left a mark not just in Britain, but also in New Delhi. However, there little evidence of this.

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Thought to have been completed in 1939, in the year that followed the opening of the massive King George VI graving dock – an event that marked the completion of Great Britain’s most important naval station east of the Suez, the house first occupants would have bee Rear Admiral and Mrs. Thomas Bernard Drew, if they had not elected to stay on at Navy House. Rear Admiral Drew, who was posted to Singapore in February 1939 as a Commodore, Malaya, was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral in August of the same year.

Detail of a 1945 Map of the Naval Base showing the area where ‘Admiralty House’ is. The house is identified as the ‘Admiral Superintendent’s Residence’ in the map.

It was to be Rear Admiral Drew’s successor as Rear Admiral, Malaya, Ernest John Spooner and his wife Megan, who were to be Admiralty House’s first residents, moving into the house in August 1941. Mrs Megan Spooner, née Foster, interestingly had been a renowned soprano back in Britain.

Nelson Gate at the bottom of Nelson Road at the perimeter fence of the Naval Base along Sembawang Road (photograph used with the kind permission of Mr Chan Kai Foo).

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We are able to get a feel of how the house was laid out and decorated in Ms. Mary Heathcott’s article published in the 18 October 1941 edition of The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. Here, Ms Heathcott refers to the house as ‘Navy House’, but its is quite certainly a description of the Naval Base’s Admiralty House:

Navy House has been built for about a year, was never occupied by the Drews as they were settled in Singapore.

It is large, pillared, cream coloured and grand and when Mrs. Spooner has finished her interior decoration should be a very elegant home indeed for Malaya’s Rear Admiral.

The dining room is furnished already, with solid walnut-polished teak furniture, sober jade green leather chairs. It has an immensely long dining table for big dinners, a small round one for less formal affairs.

A long, many windowed drawing room leads off the dining room, and this Mrs Spooner plans in Empire style, with the delicate graceful studied furniture of the period, mirrors on the walls, console tables, pastel colourings. Off this is a smaller sitting room, informal and restful.

Three hundred and fifty people were recently entertained at a cocktail party in the dining and drawing room of the house and there was no crush at all, which gives you some idea of their pleasant spaciousness.

Upstairs are the private quarters of the Spooners, a big landing sitting room where Mrs. Spooner has her desk, with its photographs of their nine-year old son, now at school in England. Here too, will be a corner settee to offset the rather difficult angles.

For most rooms of the house, there is a pleasant green vista, and from one side can be seen the Straits of Johore through a cutting in the trees.

The garden is as yet a plain green lawn, but there are plans for that too.

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A balcony the private quarters open into.

A balcony the private quarters open into.

What would have been the private quarters.

What would have been the private quarters.

Possibly the reading or dining room, based on Ms. Heathcott's description.

Possibly the reading or dining room, based on Ms. Heathcott’s description.

The drawing room, used in the days of the Admiralty also as a ball room.

The ‘large, many windowed’ drawing room, used in the days of the Admiralty also as a ball room.

That it was referred to as ‘Navy House’, points to the fact that the house probably did not have an official name at its completion. There are also several references to it as ‘Admiral House’ and ‘Admiralty House’ from accounts of its early years.

The main staircase.

The main staircase.

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Geoffrey Till, in his book “Understanding Victory: Naval Operations from Trafalgar to the Falklands”, makes mention of the stay of Rear Admiral Tom Phillips, Commander-in-Chief of the hastily put together Eastern Fleet, in late 1941, at “the new, rambling, vaguely “Arts and Crafts” Admiralty House in Sembawang, Singapore”, identifying Phillips’ hostess as Mrs. Megan Spooner.

A doorway on the upper level.

A doorway on the upper level.

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We also find in another book, “Course for Disaster: From Scapa Flow to the River Kwai”, the recollections of its author, Richard Pool, of his meetings with Mrs. Spooner as a naval officer. One of these encounters was at “Admiralty House in Singapore” on the occasion of a cocktail party Admiral and Mrs. Spooner had hosted, “the day after (HMS) Repulse arrived at the Naval Base”. Pool was a naval officer serving on the ill fated HMS Repulse, and was to survive its sinking not long after that meeting.

The balcony the private quarters' opens into with the drawing room below.

The balcony the private quarters’ opens into with the drawing room below.

The front balcony.

The front balcony.

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Both the accounts, related to the events of December 1941, the month in which hostilities between the Britain and Japan very rapidly escalated. Little did Admiral Spooner or his guest at Admiralty House, Admiral Phillips, know of it then, but fate was soon to deal each with a cruel blow. Phillips fate was sealed on board his flagship HMS Prince of Wales in the days that followed. Both the flagship, which Phillips went down with, and the HMS Repulse were sunk off Kuantan in the days that followed Britain’s declaration of war with Japan.

Admiral Sir Tom Phillips (hands on hips) watches his flagship HMS PRINCE OF WALES berth at Singapore on 4 Dec 1941 (source: Imperial War Museums ©IWM (A6787)).

What used to be an open sitting area that opened up to the front balcony.

What used to be an open sitting area that opened up to the front balcony.

Admiral Spooner, whose last days in Singapore was spent organising the evacuation of civilians, attempted an escape in a motor launch two days before Singaore was to fall. The launch was tracked and attached by the Japanese and having run aground on the island of Cebia (or Tjeba) near Pulau Bangka off Sumatra, Spooner was to spend his last days there, dying in April 1942. He was survived by Mrs. Spooner, who was evacuated on 10 February, and an eight year old son James, who had been left behind in Britain to attend school.

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It was only after the war, that the house was to provide the calm its seclusion was meant to give. There are suggestions that it was used as a residence of the Commodore Superintendent of the Dockyard, although I do have my doubts. What is known is that it became the residence of the Flag Officer, Malayan Area as ‘Nelson House’ from September 1948. The transfer of the British Far East Fleet Headquarters to Singapore required the Flag Officer to vacate the residence at 51 Grange Road so that it could then be used to house the Commander-in-Chief (C in C), Far East Station, as ‘Admiralty House’.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

The house has been likened to an English country manor.

This arrangement was to last until March 1958, when a reorganisation of British forces in the Far East meant that the Flag Officer’s appointment was assumed under the responsibility of the C in C. With this, ‘Nelson House’ became the official residence of the C in C and was renamed ‘Admiralty House’. The old ‘Admiralty House’ at Grange Road was later to be demolished, making way at the end of the 1960s for Raffles Institution’s new campus. It was in the days of ‘Admiralty House’, at least in the 1960s, that open houses were to be held annually. This allowed servicemen to visit the grounds for a swim in the pool and maybe have a picnic in the garden.

Old Admiralty House in Grange Road, which was demolished to make way for Raffles Institution at the end of the 1960s (online catalogue of the National Archives).

A member of the Naval Base Police receiving an award at Admiralty House (photograph used with the kind permission of Alfa Andy).

The pullout of British forces in 1971 and the closure of the naval base saw Admiralty House become the residence of the Commander of the ANZUK Force. It was during this time, in 1972, that Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh had lunch at the house, as part of a visit to ANZUK forces in Singapore.  Admiralty House, also known as ANZUK House, as the official residence of the ANZUK forces commander,  was to accommodate only two commanders. The force was disbanded in 1975 following decisions by first the Australian, and then British governments’ to pull out of the arrangements. The last to leave was Air Vice-Marshal Richard Wakeford in early 1975, following which the keys to the house was passed to the Singapore government.

Another view of what I think was the dining room.

Another view of what I think was the dining room.

Much has happened since the house saw its last military officer. Newspaper reports in May 1976 point to it being rented by an undisclosed local company for S$4750 per month. It was turned into a restaurant and guest house that opened in 1978, which apparently was rather popular with an occupancy rate of 90%. In 1988, plans were announced to turn the building and its grounds into a country club with a caravan park. The application was not approved, and it was relaunched in mid 1989 as the Admiralty Country House. The house and its grounds did eventually play host to a country club as Yishun Country Club in 1991, and then from 2001 to 2006, as the Karimun Admiralty Country Club. It was during this time that the building was gazetted as a National Monument in 2002.

An old telephone junction box inside the house.

An old telephone junction box inside the house.

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Over the years, and changes in use, the grounds of the building has seen several changes. One change is to Old Nelson Road, the roadway leading up to the house. That used to be Nelson Road (it was renamed in the 1970s, possibly to avoid confusing it with the Nelson Road in the Kampong Bahru area – since expunged), and a through road. The south end of the road was at Nelson Gate, which opened up to Sembawang Road. The road was truncated in the late 1970s when Sembawang Road was widened and the gate removed. There would also have been a helipad in the grounds at the building’s north, probably added in the 1950s.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

Evidence of the through road seen in an old lamp post. The post is one of three that can be found on the premises.

The grounds today also see more recently introduced structures such as an entrance gate, a pond, buildings around the swimming pools. Accommodation and classroom blocks were also added by the Furen International School (FIS), which since 2012 has run a boarding school for international students on the premises. As part of the arrangement for the lease of the building, FIS was required to repair and restore the building, which they have done so rather beautifully. This required a huge investment (in the order of a seven digit number) and replacement of fittings true to the original style employed in the building, where these had been previously removed.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

What remains of a flagstaff moved in May 1970 from Kranji Wireless Station.

Windows and brass fittings had to be recreated as part of the restoration effort.

Windows and brass fittings had to be recreated as part of the restoration effort.

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Speaking of the swimming pools, one – the deeper pool, is said to have been built by 200 Japanese Prisoners of War (POWs) in 1945. There is another suggestion however, that it was the deepest swimming pool in Singapore and it was built by British POWs in the hope that their captors, who were accommodated in the house, drown during their morning swim!

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

The swimming pool said to have been constructed by Japanese POWs.

Another reminder of the war on the grounds is a bomb shelter located across the driveway of the building. This was rediscovered in 1990. The shelter is rather small and was perhaps built to accommodate the main occupants of the buildings. Light fittings can be found in the shelter as well as what remains of a squatting water closet.

What remains of a squatting water closet.

What remains of a squatting water closet.

Inside the bomb shelter.

Inside the bomb shelter.

Beautifully restored, the building, and its adjoining and auxiliary buildings are now ones we can and should marvel at. Much is in evidence of the Arts and Crafts influence, including the exposed brick seen on the house’s façade at the upper level and the “high-hipped roof” with overhanging eaves that is mentioned in the Preservation of Sites and Monuments write up on the monument. Also in evidence are the generously provided windows and ventilation openings – all designed to maximise comfort in the tropical heat and humidity.

The exposed brickwork on the upper levels.

The exposed brickwork on the upper levels.

The reception area with evidence of its generous ventilation openings.

The reception area with evidence of its generous ventilation openings.

What is particularly interesting is how some of the service rooms are attached to the main building – these typically were detached. It appears that these were where the kitchens and other service rooms were from which access was provided via the back of the main house into the dining room and to the bedrooms upstairs through a narrow staircase. Also around the main house are smaller single storey detached buildings, thought to have accommodated the aides to the commanders.

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The narrow stairway up to the bedrooms intended for the service staff.

The narrow stairway up to the bedrooms intended for the service staff.

The house today remains as a reminder of what once was. Much of the area around it has seen a transformation. The vantage point it offers is no longer ones of green rolling hills but of the structures of a growing population on an island state that has benefited greatly from the huge naval establishment the occupants of the house presided over.

The view it now commands is not one of a rolling landscape but of a strange new world that has replaced the naval base its occupant once presided over.

The view it now commands is not one of a rolling landscape but of a strange new world that has replaced the naval base its occupant once presided over.

While the building itself is protected as a monument, what surrounds it is not. What the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan reveals is that the hill Admiralty House is perched on, or at least a large part of it, will be given to much needed sports and recreation facilities in an area where the pace of public residential developments is very quickly picking up. It may not be long before much of the green around it – the setting Admiralty House was meant to be given, is lost to grey. We do however, still have that opportunity to celebrate the house and the setting it is in, before that, like in the case of many others before it, is lost to us forever.

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RAF Seletar’s last barrack block

26 05 2015

A part of Singapore that has seen a transformation in recent times is Seletar. The area was once occupied by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Seletar station or RAF Seletar, which at its establishment in 1928, held the distinction of being its largest station in the Far East. Vacated by the British during the 1971 pullout of forces, the former air base was used by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) as Seletar Camp, home to several units including ones that I was most familiar with from my involvement professionally in floating military bridges, such as the Combat Engineers.

A survivor of RAF Seletar.

Block 450, one of the last survivors of RAF Seletar.

Beyond Block 450 and a few other remnants, little is left of the oldest British Far East air station.

Beyond Block 450 and a few other remnants, little is left of the oldest British Far East air station.

The charm the area long had a reputation for and its laid back appeal provided by the  generously spaced clusters of old world military buildings and dwellings, retained even during the days of the SAF military camp, is now fast being lost. The transformation it is now seeing, involves not just an expansion of its now civilian airport, Seletar Airport, but also the development of a 320 ha. industrial Seletar Aerospace Park. These developments has left its scars on Seletar, a Seletar but for a few reminders of the old world, is one now hard to recognise.

The iconic entrance complex over the years.

The iconic entrance complex over the years.

One part of the former RAF station that serves to remind us of the old military installation is the iconic entrance  complex with its gate and guardhouse – although a two-storey building that somehow provided the camp’s entrance with some of its past flavour has since been lost. It is beyond the gate house, past what some may feel is Singapore’s equally famous Piccadilly Circus, down the Piccadilly – the road to the East Camp; even if it deceives at its start in evoking a sense of the old world, that the visitor is confronted by the changing face of Seletar.

The entrance gate in RAF Seletar days.

It was down the same Piccadilly, at least what it had been before the recently introduced confusion of roads, that a group of servicemen past and present, gathered to celebrate the past as well as a survivor of the past, a barrack building, that if not for it, might have made the celebration’s venue – now dominated by new roads and newly turfed spaces, not such an obvious choice.

The barrack building, Block 450.

The barrack building, Block 450.

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RAF Seletar was where life began for 160 Squadron.

RAF Seletar was where life began for 160 Squadron.

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The barrack building, Block 450, more affectionately referred to as “Alpha”, was at the heart of the area that was not only the birthplace of the servicemen’s unit, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) 160 Squadron in 1970, but also that of the RSAF’s air defence set-up. Its heritage, that of the RAF air station, and 160 Squadron,  Singapore’s first and longest serving air defence unit, celebrated with a heritage storyboard for which the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the 160 Anti-Aircraft (AA) Alumni and 160 Squadron came together to produce.

The 160 Squadron's 35mm Oerlikon AA gun - the onetime backbone of the AA defence system on display at Block 450.

The 160 Squadron’s 35mm Oerlikon AA gun – the onetime backbone of the AA defence system on display at Block 450.

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The launch of the heritage storyboard, by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, was the highlight of the gathering. It provided an opportunity not just to learn about the unit and its role in the air defence of Singapore – something Minister Chan emphasised in his speech by saying how, put less crudely, our young now have a greater chance of being hit by droppings from airborne beings of an avian kind than ones with more destructive potential; but also to have a more intimate look at the barrack building through the Heritage Walk @ 450 Seletar staged by the 160 AA Alumni.

Mr Chan Chun Seng and President of the 160 AA Alumni MAJ(NS) Jayson Goh launching the heritage storyboard.

Mr Chan Chun Seng and President of the 160 AA Alumni MAJ(NS) Jayson Goh launching the heritage storyboard.

An exhibit tracing the evolution of aids to aircraft recognition in one of the rooms in Block 450.

An exhibit tracing the evolution of aids to aircraft recognition, from the use of the OHP, 35mm slides and printed material, in one of the rooms in Block 450.

An exhibition of photographs.

An exhibition of photographs.

An improvised fire-alarm.

An improvised fire-alarm.

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Typical of barrack blocks built during the Far East military build-up in the 1920s and 1930s, blocks such as Alpha – of which there were at least ten in RAF Seletar, provided shelter not just for the Anti-Aircraft gunners of 160 Squadron – who moved out in 2002, but also to numerous men in the service of His (and later Her) Majesty’s Government. Built in 1930, Block 450 is the only one in Seletar to have survived, having been gazetted for conservation as part of the 2014 Master Plan together with Block 179 – the former Station Headquarters, along with 32 bungalows in the former air base.

The Heritage Walk @ 450 Seletar also offered a peek into the conserved barrack building.

The Heritage Walk @ 450 Seletar also offered a peek into the conserved barrack building.

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Architecturally similar to many other barrack blocks put up in the era – I had the experience of it from my reservist days in Sembawang Camp (the former HMS Terror)  before it was renewed, the block is an example of the tropical military architecture of the age. Those were times forgotten when it was desirable to maximise comfort levels of the buildings’s occupants, without an over-dependence on high levels of energy consumption. Measures typically employed to provide maximum ventilation and shade is seen in the wide verandahs and in the provision of ample openings, is a very noticeable feature of Block 450. Some of this is also described in the URA’s Conservation Portal:

Like the former Station Headquarters, this building was designed in the tropical Art Deco style that was favoured by the British military. The use of traditional timber windows and doors with the then relatively new medium of reinforced concrete demonstrates a combination of traditional and modern design approaches.

As a response to the humid tropical climate, the building has long and continuous covered verandahs complemented by inner facades featuring timber-louvred windows, doors and pre-cast concrete vents to promote cross-ventilation. Other features of the building include moulded Art Deco style motifs at the top of every column which help to adorn this otherwise simple yet functional building.

A view of a sister block, H Block in the West Camp, in its early days (online at http://81squadron.com).

The wooden louvred doors along the generously sized verandah. The moulded Art Deco style motifs can be seen at the top of the pillars.

The wooden louvred doors along the generously sized verandah. The moulded Art Deco style motifs can be seen at the top of the pillars.

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Abandoned by its one-time companions, which I am told in the days of 160 Squadron would have included a parade square in its shadow, as well as building housing the squadron headquaters, the ops room and also hangars where the guns were stored across the Piccadilly, Block 450 now stands alone, out of place against the now vastly altered surroundings. It may be a shame that we are are unable to hold on to spaces such as Seletar with its rich history and its unique and now hard to find charm, but we have to be thankful for the conservation of buildings such as Block 450. While it will not come anywhere close to reminding us of the beautiful space Seletar once was, we will at least have several reminders that tell us of a history that will otherwise be forgotten.

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Further information on Block 450 and conservation within the former RAF Seletar:

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The vermilion bridge in the naval base

19 05 2015

The vermilion bridge, of a style and colour that is distinctively Japanese, stands almost garishly out of place in the expansive garden of an equally generously sized colonial house. Set in an area whose flavour is overwhelmingly one of the days of the empire, the bridge, and the landscaped area it arches across, is said to have been constructed through the efforts of Japanese Prisoners-of-War (POWs). It is one of at least two structures that the POWs built in an area that was at the heart of the huge British naval base, the other being a swimming pool on the grounds of Old Admiralty House.

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The house with the bridge, is one of many in the “black and white” style, commonly employed in the construction of homes for the colony’s senior administrators and military men, to be found in the area. Along with several residences with red-brick faces influenced by the arts and crafts movement, the “black and white” houses, in lush green and spacious surroundings, served as married quarters for the base’s senior officers. The house, the largest in its cluster and located so that it commanded a view of the base’s former stores basin and dockyard, was reserved for the dockyard’s most senior officer, the Commodore Superintendent.

An aerial view of the former Commodore Superintendent's residence.

An aerial view of the former Commodore Superintendent’s residence (posted in the Old Sembawang Naval Base Facebook Group).

The dockyard passed into the hands of the then newly formed Sembawang Shipyard in 1968 and the base saw its last days in 1971 with the British pullout, and the ownership of the house was transferred to the State, but with an arrangement that it, along with several other similar property be made available for use to the United Kingdom and also to Australian and New Zealand Forces deployed in Singapore under the Five Power Defence Arrangement. It perhaps is due to this that the house, which subsequent to the pullout, served as the residence of Commander of New Zealand’s Force SEA, and the brightly coloured bridge, set in an area that the the URA’s 2014 Masterplan tells us is “Subject to Detailed Planning”,  still stands today in a part of Singapore in which the winds of change are now blowing ever stronger.





The glow in the park

12 05 2015

The quiet green surroundings of Fort Canning Hill provides the setting for the Pinacothèque de Paris’ home away from home, in a building whose best features the museum seems to have brought out, especially with its nighttime illuminations. The rather majestic looking building, looking resplendent after a huge makeover, dates back to 1926, beginning its life as a barracks block of the Malaya Command Headquarters. The Malaya Command HQ occupied a large part of the grounds of a mid-18oos British fortification, of which part of the wall and a gate, the Fort Gate, remains. Named after Lord Canning, the Governor-General and Viceroy of British India at that time, the fort was also what gave the hill its modern name.

The new glow at the formerly very dark cemetery at Fort Canning.

The new glow at the formerly very dark cemetery at Fort Canning.

I first got to know the three storey building that is now the Pinacothèque in my days of youthful adventure when the hill was a draw for as much for its seclusion of the hill, as it was for its mystery. Known also as Bukit Larangan, the Forbidden Hill, it was so named as it was the abode of the ancient kings both in life and in the afterlife. The dark and uncertain slopes, desecrated by the ornaments of the new order the most noticeable of which were the reminders of Singapore’s first Christian burial ground, seemed more forbidding  then than forbidden.

Fort Canning Centre at the start of its transformation into the Pinacotheque de Paris.

Fort Canning Centre at the start of its transformation into the Pinacotheque de Paris.

The monuments on the hill to the garrison no one imagined could be defeated, were less forbidding. In former barracks block, then converted into the “world’s largest squash centre”, Singapore Squash Centre, one was never without company. Established in 1977 when the game of squash rackets was at the peak of its popularity in Singapore, the centre boasted of 25 courts and as a facility for the game, was well used up until the 1980s. Unfortunately, the good times were to be brought to an end at the end of the 1980s. Plans were announced in 1985 to revamp Fort Canning Hill into a focal point for cultural and recreational activities in the city, with the barracks block serving as its hub. Following the expiration of the centre’s lease for the building in 1987, the building was renovated and unveiled as the Fort Canning Centre in 1991 into which arts related tenants such dance studios and theatre groups moved.

The building in the 1980s (National Archives of Singapore).

Overlooking Fort Canning Green, the site of the former Christian cemetery, the Pinacothèque de Paris, which opens its doors on 30 May 2015, adds not just a stunning backdrop to the now open-air concert venue, but also provides a good reason to head up a hill on whose slopes much of our early history was written.





Signs of the times: the final Halt

28 04 2015

What perhaps is the final “Halt” in Singapore is to be found in the area where the former Loewen Camp, part of the former British Tanglin Barracks, was located. The former military camp, used in the post 1971 (British military pull-out) era to house Singapore Armed Forces units such as HQ Medical Services (HQMS) and the 9th Division (9Div) HQ, has recently been refurbished with the buildings found within it being put to new uses. One of the things that, rather surprisingly, can be found in the midst of the old buildings, is a remnant of times when traffic was brought to a halt.

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The halt found in a road marking comes from days when “Halt (at) Major Road Ahead” signs were in use rather than the red octagon Stop signs we are used to seeing these days that are supplemented by “Stop” road markings. The previously used “Halt (at) Major Road Ahead” signs were originally introduced in the United Kingdom in 1935 and its use was then extended to Malaya and Singapore in the same decade.

Halt Major Road Ahead sign and road marking seen at the junction of Transit Road and Sembawang Road in Nee Soon Village, 1966 (photo from David Ayres’ wonderful collection of Singapore and Malaya in the 1960s on Flickr).

I am not quite certain when the more internationally recognised “Stop” signs we see today replaced the “Halt” signs, but it would have been in the very early 1970s. The new “Stop” signs had their origins in the United States, having taken its form and colour in the 1954 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD). It was one of two variants specified under the 1968 United Nations Vienna Convention Road Signs and Signals and has since been widely adopted in many parts of the world.

Highway Code for Learner Drivers – 1950s to 1960s.








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