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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The National Gallery, naked

7 05 2015

It has been a long four and a half years since two architectural icons of a lost age went into hiding, cloaked for a large part in a dark shroud. That was to permit a huge and costly transformation of the two, the old Supreme Court and the City Hall, to be performed, a transformation that would turn the two  into a jewel that will crown Singapore’s coming of age. The massive 64,000 square metres of floor area that the two buildings share will provide Singapore with the grandest of showcases its huge National collection as the new National Gallery Singapore. The collection numbers some 10,000 works. Composed primarily of the art of Singapore and of Southeast Asia, it is the largest collection of its kind in the world.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The restored historical lobby of the Old Supreme Court.

The re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The new shine of the re-tiled corridors of the Old Supreme Court.

The buildings, both National Monuments and ones that for long characterised the city-scape, hark back to the days of the empire. With significant chapters of our history written within their walls, the two are monuments not just of the nation, but also to the nation and what is nice about the transformation, although it may have altered some of the buildings’ characters, is that its does allows an  appreciation of the buildings’s historic and architectural value by providing us and our future generations with access to them and more importantly to their many conserved spaces.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

My favourite space in the two buildings, the Rotunda Library, seen in a new light.

I had a chance to look at how the transformation has been managed when the buildings made their debut as the National Gallery without the art during the recent series of Naked Museum tours. Having had a look at the two during the open house held just prior to the closure in late 2010, I was especially interested to see how the character of the many conserved spaces within the two have been preserved.

The gathering of local artists and guests at the launch of the National Gallery Open House in 2010 prior to the renovations (National Gallery photo).

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The beautifully restored Foyer of the Old Supreme Court.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

The old stairway that now leads to a new heaven.

One of the first things that did catch my eye however, was how the two have been made to become one. A large part of this, is seen in the interface between the two at the former open plaza. Here, we see one of the larger intervention of the architect, Mr Jean François Milou, in the large enclosed space that has been created, encased by glass panels on a framework of steel. The framework is suspended over the two monuments through the use of a rather intriguing looking tree-like support structure. The space is best seen when the sun shines. That is when it takes on an almost magical quality in the soft light that filters through the specially designed screen of perforated aluminium panels.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The atrium between the two buildings.

The moment of inspiration for the screen came on a sun baked afternoon as the architect pondered over how the buildings could be unified sitting on a plastic chair in the Padang. The play of light and shadow through the patchwork of glass and steel, its tree-like support that is also replicated up on the roof of the old Supreme Court, and the sky bridges that allow communication between the two buildings finds meaning as a whole in providing a stunning visual spectacle in which the new is very much in harmony with the old.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

A view of the sky bridges between in the atrium created the two buildings.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The upper level sky bridge that connects at Level 4.

The interventions on the roofs of the two buildings, are also best appreciated from the inside. On the previously empty roof of the City Hall, we now see two reflecting pools over the building’s former courtyards. This, found on Level 5, will be lined with F&B outlets. The upper level (Level 6), is where one can now gaze across the Padang to where the generations before once gazed at the lights of the old harbour from a viewing deck that will be opened to the public.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The lower level (Level 5) of City Hall Rooftop will see F&B outlets lining two reflection pools.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The view across the reflecting pool of the City Hall Rooftop towards the new Supreme Court.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The City Hall Rooftop viewing deck on Level 6.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

The view through the aluminium panels of the roof.

It was the roof across the sky bridge that I found especially appealing. Previously an inaccessible are of the old Supreme Court, it is where one finds the minor dome. The skylights on the dome is what casts the delightful glow on the beautifully Rotunda Library below it. The now covered space has a roof similar in construction to the glass enclosure of the atrium between the two buildings, and it is here that in the sunshine, that we also are able to see the gorgeous play of shadow and light it can create.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

The Supreme Court Terrace.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Another view of the terrace with the rotunda dome.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

Reflections on the Supreme Court Terrace.

It is under the two domes of the old Supreme Court that one finds the most wonderful of conserved spaces, including what certainly is my favourite of all spaces, the beautiful Rotunda Library. Also conserved and restored are spaces such as Courtroom No. 1, the beautiful corridors on the second level and their skylights, the main staircase, the Historical Lobby and the Grand Foyer.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda Library.

The Rotunda, see from the ground.

The Rotunda, see from a lower angle.

Courtroom No. 1.

Courtroom No. 1.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

The beautiful light of the Old Supreme Court main staircase.

A skylight.

A skylight.

The corridors now feature gleaming marble floor tiles, laid out in a pattern that mimic that of the toxic asbestos filled rubber tiles that had to be replaced. In the area to the left of the staircase one also finds two holding cells, the only ones that have been retained. In the cells, we see a hint of a very necessary sanitary fitting, its opening sealed in cement. When operational, that could only be flushed outside the cells. What would have been nice to see conserved are the narrow caged passageways along which the cells’ occupants could be led, via a trap door, to the courtrooms. These however, were nowhere to be found.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The eight sided foundation stone under which there is a time-capsule that is meant to be opened in the year 3000.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

Inside one ofthe  two holding cells that have been retained.

Inside one ofthe two holding cells that have been retained.

Prisoner holding area.

The caged passageway through which a prisoner would be led to the courtroom.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells during the War Crime trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

Another caged relic I would have liked to see, was the cage lift that I remember from a visit I accompanied my mother on in my childhood to a verbatim reporter friend she would sometimes have lunch with. This proved once again to be to be elusive, although I am told that the lift is still there and in working condition.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

A look up to the underside of the main dome.

One part of the court building I did not have a chance to see previously is the underside of the empty main copper clad dome. That I got to see by special arrangement. With the ceiling that previously obscured it now removed, there is no more need to ascend the spiral staircase to have a glance at its bare underneath and the riveted steel beams that provides support. This view will be one of the treats we can look forward to when the new gallery opens its doors in November.

A voew of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London's St. Paul's Cathedral.

A view of the distinctive copper dome from City Hall Rooftop. The dome is said to be a smaller scale version of the famous dome of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

A view from the balcony towards the pediment. The space left by a missing coat of arms, thought to be removed during the Japanese Occupation, will be left as it is.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

New galleries in the old building. The old Supreme Court wing will be used to house the South-East Asian collection.

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The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

The pediment of the old Supreme Court on which Justice is not blind in Singapore.

A pigeon's eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

A pigeon’s eye view from the balcony of the old Supreme Court.

The City Hall also has several conserved spaces of importance, the most important of which is City Hall Chamber. Once said to be the grandest of rooms in all of Singapore, the chamber witnessed several momentous events of our past, one of which was the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945. Another significant event that took place there was the swearing in of our first Prime Minister in 1959. In its refurbished state, the chamber retains much of its character. The entrance to it is now via side doors that previously were windows to the courtyard.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

City Hall CHamber, a.k.a. the Surrender Chamber.

The courtyard the doors now lead to had been an open-air served car park. It now finds itself under a reflecting pool (the same pool on the roof terrace) and air-conditioned. As the DBS Singapore Courtyard, it will be used for the permanent display of a collection of Singapore art from the 19th century to the present when the gallery opens.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The former courtyard of City Hall.

The courtyard will be a new exhibition space.

Shadows from the steel framework of the glass roof over the courtyard.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

Moving stairways to the new heaven.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall's façade.

The Cor­inthian columns of the former City Hall’s façade.

The central staircase of City Hall.

The central staircase of City Hall.

In a year during which there is much to look forward to in a Singapore that celebrates its 50th year of independence, the gallery’s opening in November is something that will certainly enhance the celebration. The gallery will by itself be a celebration, one not just of art and culture, but also of our nationhood and of our history and heritage.More information on the National Gallery and the history of the buildings can be found at the National Gallery’s website and some of my previous posts, which contain photographs of how some of the spaces looked before the refurbishment.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.

A last look at the Rotunda Library.





The last of the grand Teochew mansions

4 05 2015

Occupying a prominent position at the corner of Penang Road and Clemenceau Avenue, an old temple like structure stands on its own, seemingly out of place in the surroundings of the modern city. The structure, a house that in its past has often been referred to as “Temple House” for its resemblance to a southern Chinese house of worship, will for those of my generation, be remembered as the headquarters of the Salvation Army.

The last of the "four grand mansions", the House of Tan Yeok Nee on Penang Road.

The house once known as “Temple House”, once served as the Headquarters of the Salvation Army.

The house is a traditional southern Chinese courtyard house, one of a handful that were built in Singapore in the 19th century, a fact that makes its survival all that more remarkable. Built from 1882-1885 for a wealthy Teochew merchant, Tan Yeok Nee, its stands today as the last of its kind on the island, the last of four houses of Teochew merchants that have collectively been referred to as the “four grand mansions and has since 1974, been listed as one of Singapore’s National Monuments.

The House of Tan Yeok Nee, the last of four grand mansions of Teochew merchants.

The House of Tan Yeok Nee, the last of four grand mansions of Teochew merchants.

The three other grand Teochew mansions have over the course of the 20th century, all made way for redevelopment, the last being the former Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCCI) building on Hill Street, which in 1964 was replaced by the current one. That, had started its life in 1878 as the House of Wee Ah Hood.

House of Wee Ah Hood used as the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, c. 1930s. (Photo online at the National Archives of Singapore catalogue).

The first to go was Tan Seng Poh’s 1869 house at the corner of Hill Street and Loke Yew Road, which came down in 1904. The second to be built, the 1872 house of Seah Cheo Seah (one of the sons of Seah Eu Chin) was along North Boat Quay.

House of Seah Cheo Seah along North Boat Quay, c. 1913 (Photo online at the National Archives of Singapore catalogue).

It is probable that Tan Yeok Nee’s house might have suffered the fate of the other three, well before its architectural and historical value could be recognised in 1974, if not for the transfer of its ownership following Tan’s 1902 passing (some would attribute its survival to the house’s good feng shui). Acquired for use by Singapore’s first railway, it served as the residence of the stationmaster from 1903 when the first section of the Singapore Kranji Railway, which terminated at Tank Road, opened. That lasted until 1912, after which it passed into the hands of the Church of England when it was used as a home and girls’  school. The Salvation Army was to take over in 1938. Except for an enforced break during the Japanese Occupation, the house was where the organisation had its headquarters until 1981.

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The house must surely have been a symbol of its owner’s wealth and standing at the time of its completion, both of which Tan Yeok Nee had no shortage of. Having had humble beginnings as a cloth peddler, Tan was quick to find success, making his fortune from the gambier and pepper trade as well as the lucrative opium, spirit and gambling franchises or farms in Singapore and in Johor.

The first courtyard.

The first courtyard.

Tan’s successes in Johor were possible due to close relationship he had established with the man who would be the first modern day Sultan of Johor, Maharaja Abu Bakar. This had its roots in Tan’s days as a cloth peddler, when the then heir to Temenggong Ibrahim, resided at Telok Blangah.

A side courtyard.

A side courtyard.

Tan held multiple rights to kangchus in Johor, all of which were granted by the ambitious Abu Bakar and served at one point as a Major China. He was also conferred a “Dat0-ship” by Abu Bakar and is also known as Dato’ Tan Hiok Nee across the Causeway. A street, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee in Johor Bahru, is named after him.

Layout of the House of Tan Yeok Nee.

Layout of the House of Tan Yeok Nee.

The Central Hall

The Central Hall as seen from the first courtyard.

Temple House, as one would expect, has its halls laid out symmetrically along a central axis as is typical of southern Chinese architecture. Also typical of such structures are the elaborate decoration work that the house is known for, seen in places such as the walls, roof ridges and supporting structures. An example of this is found on the wooden beams in the Central Hall, which feature gold painted decorations as well as intricately carved creatures. One such creature is the aoyu (鳌鱼), a carp with a dragon head that as myth would have it, is one of few carps who are transformed after successfully swimming against the flow and leaping the waterfall of the Dragon Gate.  The creature is often is used to symbolise courage, determination and accomplishment.

The mythical aoyu (鳌鱼) craved on a wooden beam bracket in the Central Hall.

The mythical aoyu (鳌鱼) craved on a wooden beam bracket in the Central Hall.

The entrance into the first courtyard, as seen from the courtyard. The roof ridges of the house are decorated with a particular method referred to as 'inlaying porcelain'.

The entrance into the first courtyard, as seen from the courtyard. The roof ridges of the house are decorated with a particular method referred to as ‘inlaying porcelain’.

A side courtyard.

A side courtyard.

The Inner Courtyard.

The Inner Courtyard.

Seeing the house, there will be little doubt of Tan Yeok Nee’s accomplishment. This can be seen not just in the symbolism of its decorative elements, but also in a rather explicit expression of it that is seen above the house’s entrance portal. There, the characters 资政第 “Zi Zheng Di” are prominently displayed, giving us a sense of its occupant’s high ranking. The characters, which tell us that the house is a residence of a Qing Dynasty Second Ranked Official, also remind us of one more thing – how ties with the lands of the ancestors were maintained by many who embarked on their journeys into the new world, all with the hope that they would find success and bring that back home with them.

The main entrance with the words 资政第 of Zi Zheng Di, denoting it as the residence of a second-ranked official of the Qing dynasty.

The main entrance with the words 资政第 of Zi Zheng Di, denoting it as the residence of a second-ranked official of the Qing dynasty.

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A window into its roof supports.

A window into its roof supports.





The very grand house that Brewer built

2 04 2015

Perched on a small hill just south of hills given to the those who have passed on at Bukit Brown, is a place built as a dwelling for the living, so grand, that it has had members of royalty, a president as well as many powerful military men, find shelter within its walls. The dwelling, Command House, is well hidden from the public eye. It only is on the incline of its long driveway, well past the entrance gate at Kheam Hock Road, that we get a glimpse of its scale and appearance; the drive in also provides an appreciation of the expanse of the sprawling 11.5 acre (4.5 ha.) estate the house is set in.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

Command House at 17 Kheam Hock Road.

The scale of the mansion, built in 1938 with six bedrooms with bathrooms attached, a huge wine cellar as well as servants quarters and other service buildings laid out over its grounds, must impress. It however is its simple but aesthetically pleasing design that catches the eye. Said to have been inspired by the Arts and Craft movement of which its creator, the well respected Singapore based architect Frank W. Brewer, once of Swan and MacLaren, was a keen follower of, the mansion features elements of Brewer’s interpretation including the distinctive exposed brick voussoirs that is also seen in other Brewer designed houses (some examples: 5 Chatsworth Park and 1 Dalvey Estate).

Many of Brewer's work feature very distinctive exposed brick voussoirs.

Many examples of Brewer’s work feature very distinctive exposed brick voussoirs.

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Several recognisable architectural contributions have been attributed to Brewer. In Singapore, these include the Cathay building and St. Andrew’s School. Visitors to Cameron Highlands would not have missed another of his works, the Tudor style Foster’s Smoke House, a landmark in the popular Malaysian mountain resort.

A Google Maps satellite view of the grounds and the surrounding area.

A Google Maps satellite view of the grounds and the surrounding area.

Built as Flagstaff House, the residence of Malaya’s most senior military commander, the importance placed on its intended occupants can be seen in the house’s grand appearance, as well as in its expansive setting and its somewhat lofty position. Flagstaff House’s completion had come at the end of decade in which the emphasis was on building Singapore up militarily to support its role as an outpost for the British in the Far East.

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

The back of the mansion.

The back of the mansion.

Laid out on a “butterfly plan”, commonly seen in the architecture of the early Arts and Crafts movement, the mansion and its beautiful grounds must be as perfect a spot as any in Singapore for a dream wedding. While that may not be possible today given the current use of Command House, playing host to a grand wedding reception was in fact what Flagstaff House’s very first act was, shortly after its completion. In September 1938, Flagstaff House played host to a reception for a wedding described in this Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Adviser article of 8 September 1938 as being “the biggest military wedding yet seen in Singapore”.

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The wedding was of Lieutenant O C S Dobbie and Ms Florence Mary Dickey, held just a month or so before the house’s intended occupant, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Malaya, was to move in. This was possible as the groom, Lieut. Dobbie, was not only the GOC’s aide-de-camp, but also his son. Lieut. Dobbie’s proud parents, Major General W G S Dobbie, had then still not moved from the older Flagstaff House at Mount Rosie.

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Two other GOCs were to occupy the house before the Japanese made nonsense of the illusions the British held of their invincibility. The last before the inglorious event was Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, the unfortunate face of what has been described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”. Based on an account by an eyewitness, Herman Marie De Souza, an officer in the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, at his interview with the National Archives, the last time Percival set foot in the house would have been on Saturday 14 February 1942:

“On a Saturday afternoon, I was at Flagstaff House ground when I saw a large car approaching. I jumped to the road and stopped the car. And there was Percival in the car. I recognised him, I had met him before. And I said, I don’t think you place is very safe, because the shells are flying all the time. You hear the whizzing over. But he said he had something to do there.  He went in there, and I didn’t realise he was burning his papers. And there I was holding, looking after him, sort of, until he finished what he had to do and went off. He wished me goodbye and went back to Singapore.”

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Following the fall, the mansion is thought to have been used to accommodate Japanese troops. The British military commanders returned to live in the house after the occupation ended. Lord Mountbatten, the uncle of the future Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, was one, he stayed in the house in his capacity as the Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command, in 1946. Prince Philip, the consort to the Queen, was also to stay as a guest later, doing so during a visit to Singapore in February 1965, by which time, the property was already referred to as Command House.

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In all, Flagstaff / Command House was to see some fifteen commanders pass through its doors as residents; Commanders-in-Chief of the British Far East Land Forces in the post-war period. The pull-out of British forces in 1971 gave the Singapore government possession of the property and it continued its distinguished service when it became the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament. Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng, who held the position from 1970 to 1989, was the only speaker to have taken up residence at Command House. Dr Yeoh’s successors, Mr Tan Soo Khoon in 1989 and Mr Abdullah Tarmugi in 2002, decided against using the official residence.

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It was during Mr Tan’s tenure as Speaker that Command House was briefly made the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore, who was then Mr Ong Teng Cheong. The move was necessitated by the extensive renovations to the Istana that took place between 1996 and 1998.

Command House, when it was used as the official residence of the President. Here, we see the then High Commissioner-designate of Zambia at his ceremonial welcome in 1997 (Photo: National Archives of Singapore online catalogue).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Command House after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

Today, Command House, stands not as a residence, but as a place of learning, the UBS Business University. Its tenancy was taken up in 2007 by UBS, a Swiss based financial services company, who initially used it as the UBS Wealth Management Campus-Asia Pacific, before relaunching it as the Business University. Command House was gazetted as a National Monument on 11 November 2009.

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An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

An view of the interior after refurbishment in 2007 (photo courtesy of Singapore Land Authority).

 





Connecting to reconnect with the convent

10 11 2014

Several hundred girls from CHIJ Toa Payoh secondary and primary schools found themselves back in school on Sunday, not in the familiar surroundings of Toa Payoh, but in ones once familiar in Victoria Street. It had been in Victoria Street some 160 years ago, that four nuns of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus’, having arrived following a long and arduous journey from Europe to the Singapore via Penang, began their mission in Caldwell House with just a bed, 2 mats, 2 chairs and 2 stools, establishing the convent in February 1854.

Back to school in once familiar surroundings.

Back to school in once familiar surroundings.

The convent was to grow, establishing within the walls of its expanded premises on Victoria Street,  not just an enlarged physical presence that was to be defined by the wonderful examples of architecture built to the glory of the supreme being, but also as a leading institution that provided both care for many in need as well as one that has and continues to play a significant role in providing education to girls in Singapore.

Late for school - 30 years too late! The schools moved out from the premises of the former convent at the end of 1983 after almost 130 years.

Late for school – 30 years too late! The schools moved out from the premises of the former convent at the end of 1983 after almost 130 years.

While it is sad that the magnificent buildings erected for the nuns to carry out their mission can no longer be used for the purpose – the convent having had to vacate its oasis in the city in 1983 (the schools in the premises moved to Toa Payoh in 1984 and a third school, CHIJ St. Nicholas, to Ang Mo Kio), and even sadder that the complex has been repurposed in a way that trivialises the original intent; it is good to see that there is still a connection that the schools can make with their spiritual home, now called CHIJMES.

Once familiar scenes returned for a day to the corridors of the old convent.

Once familiar scenes (except for the mobile devices) returned for a day to the corridors of the old convent.

The girls, dressed in the familiar blue pinafores, made more than that connection yesterday. Together with their teachers and members of their alumni, a physical connection was also established, with 402 lining up, tallest to the shortest, with hands joined to form what is believed to a world record for the longest human chain (tallest to shortest) – subject to confirmation by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Confirmation  of a Singapore Record.

Confirmation of a Singapore Record.

Primary school participants being arranged in order of height.

Primary school participants being arranged in order of height.

Hand-in-hand for the world record attempt.

Hand-in-hand for the world record attempt.

Part of the schools’ commemoration of their 160th Anniversaries, the apparent success of the effort dubbed IJ Link, was celebrated in song and dance immediately after. Along with the world record attempt, which surpasses the previously held record of 311, a bazaar, brunch at the former chapel and arts performances were also held on the grounds of the former convent.

The celebration after ...

The celebration after …

An assembly held in the field behind the chapel.

An assembly held in the field behind the chapel in the good old days (photograph: National Archives of Singapore).

Happy days were here again!

Happy days were here again!


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Get a sneak peek at the refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall

10 07 2014

Event Listing

Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall Open House Weekend

For one weekend only, the curtain is up for a sneak peek at the refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall! On 19 and 20 July, be among the first to discover what’s new at Singapore’s oldest performing arts centre through a series of guided and self- guided tours. Enjoy special performances by the Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir, T’ang Quartet and other arts groups.

An artist impression of the refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (courtesy of W-Architects).

An artist impression of the refurbished Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (courtesy of W-Architects).

What’s Your Victoria Story?

We are on the lookout for your favourite memories of Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall! Do you have stories of your first dates, backstage jitters, or were you part of the mass weddings held there in the 1950s? Share your old photographs and memories of these well-loved spaces at our irememberVictoria collection booth!

Snap your most creative shot of the refurbished venues and hashtag your photos to #irememberVictoria!

A recent peek at the building.

A recent peek at the building.

Event Details:

Date: 19 & 20 July 2014 (Saturday & Sunday)
Time: 10am – 7pm

Location:

Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place, Singapore 179555

Victoria Concert Hall, 11 Empress Place, Singapore 179558

Admission: Free

irememberVictoria is a collaboration between Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall with the Singapore Memory Project.

Visit www.vtvch.com for more information.





The flicker of tradition

21 04 2014

It is in the flicker of the sea of candlelight that illuminates the compound of the Church of St. Joseph in Victoria Street, that we see a side of Singapore that seems lost to us, one that lies buried behind the narrow definitions that we now use to define the Singapore of today.

Candles lit for the annual Good Friday procession at the Church of St. Joseph.

Candles lit for the annual Good Friday procession at the Church of St. Joseph.

The flicker is of an annual procession, part of the commemoration of Holy Week, that borrows from the Portuguese tradition – the church was established by the Portuguese missionaries and came under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese Diocese of Macau until as recently as 1981. And, it is in its very visible commemoration that we are made aware of one of the many cultural and religious influences that has given Singapore as a whole, a very unique flavour.

Participants in the procession fill the compound of the church in anticipation of the procession.

Participants in the procession gather outside the church in anticipation of the procession.

The procession comes at the end of a Good Friday service during which the Passion of Christ is commemorated through the Stations of the Cross, following which the crucifixion and the lowering of the body of Chirst  is reenacted. During the procession, a bier carrying the life-sized representation of the body of Christ is carried around the church, followed by a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows and the clergy and congregation as well as the many who have gathered holding candles outside the church.

The reenactment of the crucifixion inside the church.

The reenactment of the crucifixion inside the church.

The representation of the body of Christ being lowered.

The representation of the body of Christ being lowered.

The procession attracts many thousands of Catholics each year, and beside the 1500 or so who make their way into the church, and the many more who gather inside the compound, the crowd does also spill over to Queen Street and Waterloo Centre, the second floor of which does provide an excellent vantage point. It was on Queen Street, that we did once see many candle vendors, hawking long candles – some taller than the height of a person which had to be supported by a backbone of wood, adding to the colour of the occasion.

The bier being carried during the procession.

The bier being carried during the procession.

Members of the church dressed as Roman soldiers (Jerusalem was a colony of Rome during the time of Christ).

Members of the church dressed as Roman soldiers (Jerusalem was a colony of Rome during the time of Christ).

The procession, as well as the commemoration of Holy Week in this manner in Singapore, is thought to have had its origins in the early days of the church, which was originally established in the 1850s. It is one of several such similar commemorations that is seen across Asia where the religious influences of the Portuguese remain strong, such as in Macau and close-by in Malacca, which was a former Portuguese colony and where many of the Portuguese Eurasian community found in Singapore have their roots in. The Church of St. Joseph, which at some point was referred to as the Portuguese church,  is perhaps the last bastion for a community that is rich in tradition and one of the many that has made Singapore what it is today.

Altar boys at the head of the procession.

Altar boys at the head of the procession.

Archbishop William Goh.

Archbishop William Goh, followed by members of the clergy.

A member of the church playing Veronica showing the 'Veil of Veronica'.

A member of the church playing Veronica showing the ‘Veil of Veronica’.

Flower girls.

Flower girls.

The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The statue of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Reflections of the procession in the rain.

Reflections of the procession in the rain.

The crowd seen through a reflection off a traffic mirror.

The crowd seen through a reflection off a traffic mirror.

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