Windows into the past: where Percival and a President once resided

11 05 2016

A rare opportunity to have a look inside the former Command House came over the weekend when it was opened to the public. Organised by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) as part of their Celebrating Places and Memories photo contest, the open house, unlike a previous visit I had previously arranged, allowed me the freedom to roam through the interior of the beautifully restored former residence, the last occupant of which would have been Mr. Ong Teng Cheong in his capacity as the President of the Republic of Singapore.

A window into a rather interesting past.

A window into a rather interesting past.

Now in use as the UBS Business University, the house has had a colourful past that goes far back beyond its use by the Republic’s Head of State, much of which can be found in a previous post: The very grand house that Brewer built. Built in 1938 in a style influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, it is one of the grander residences built by Singapore’s colonial masters. As a replacement for Flagstaff House, the official residence of the GOC, Malaya’s chief military officer, it was to see a string of top military commanders take up residence, the last leaving at the point of the British pullout in 1971. This was however not before the third GOC to be accommodated, Lieutenant-General Arthur E. Percival, put all delusions the British may had held of their invincibility to an abrupt end  in a conference room in Bukit Timah one February’s afternoon in 1942.

As Flagstaff House in 1957, when it housed the most senior British Military Commander in the Far East (online at the Royal Green Jackets and Former Regiments Photographic History pages).

The pullout, by which time the house had already taken on the name Command House, saw ownership pass on to the Government of Singapore. The house first became the official residence of the Speaker of Parliament. Only one Speaker, Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng,  would use it. Two of Dr Yeoh’s successors declined the use of the house before renovations to the Istana prompted its temporary use as the official residence of the President from 1996 to 1998.

The road up to the former Command House.

The guardhouse on the road up to the former Command House.

The guardhouse in 1957 (online at the Royal Green Jackets and Former Regiments Photographic History pages).

Much of what we see of the house today, would be from its days as the President’s residence. Even with the interventions made by its tenant since 2007, Swiss based financial services company, UBS, for use as a place of instruction, much of the grandeur and dignity the house must held had during the days of the President, is still very much in evidence.

A view from the second floor.

A view from the second floor.

The entrance hallway, which one steps into entering the house, is dominated by a grand staircase coloured by the earthy hues the wood of its wall and balustrade panels that are thought to have been added in during its time as the President’s house. The hallway opens up on either side to what would have been a verandah, typically seen in the many examples of colonial architecture adapted  for the hot and steamy tropics, that provide access, ventilation and insulation to the rooms found in each of the house’s two wings. Two large rooms dominate each wing and that would have been where the house’s dining and reception areas would have been arranged.

The grand staircase.

The grand staircase.

A large room that may originally have served as a dining room.

A large room that may originally have served as a dining room.

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Another room in its wings.

A room at the end of one of its wings.

A room at the end of one of its wings.

The verandah in the wing.

The lower floor verandah in the east wing.

One of the large rooms found in the wings.

One of the large rooms found in the wings.

On the right side of  the staircase, a door separates what is intended to be seen from the unseen – spaces used by hired help that is hidden on both levels at the back of the house. The spaces, connected between floors by a narrow staircase, would have had access to kitchens, larders, cleaning and maintenance stores and the servants quarters, housed in the annexes and in separate buildings at the back of the main building and on the terrace below.

The servant's staircase.

The servant’s staircase.

A view down the servant's staircase.

A view down the servant’s staircase.

A garage on the lower terrace.

A garage on the lower terrace.

Buildings that could have served as servant's quarters on the lower terrace.

Buildings that could have served as servant’s quarters on the lower terrace.

The back of the house - an external staircase has been added at each wing for escape purposes.

The back of the house – an external staircase has been added at each wing for escape purposes.

At the top of the grand staircase, the most beautifully furnished of the house’s spaces, a very homely looking lounge, comes into sight. Arranged in the space above the house’s porch,  three of the space’s furniture – a television cabinet and two chests, are thought to have survived from the days of the President. As with the hallway below, access to the rooms in each wing, is provided by a what would have been a verandah that is now enclosed by windows. The President’s private rooms, a study, a walk-in wardrobe and a bedroom, as I understand it, were located in the east wing. The west wing on the other hand would have been where a guest room and a children’s bedroom would have been found.

The lounge area.

The lounge area.

A view out the front windows.

A view out the front windows.

A window at the side of the lounge.

A window at the side of the lounge.

A view down the grand staircase.

A view down the grand staircase.

The balcony outside the former President's bedroom.

The balcony outside the former President’s bedroom.

The verandah on the upper floor.

What would have been a verandah on the upper floor.

What would have been the President's bedroom.

What would have been the President’s bedroom.

A view from the bedroom into the verandah.

A view from the bedroom into the verandah.

The view through one of its original windows.

The view through one of its original windows.

Exposed brickwork on its arches and voussoirs is clearly evident in the house. It is a feature that Frank W. Brewer employed in his Arts and Crafts influenced designs.

Exposed brickwork on its arches and voussoirs is clearly evident in the house. It is a feature that Frank W. Brewer employed in his Arts and Crafts influenced designs.

More exposed brickwork.

More exposed brickwork.

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Besides the former Command House open house, the will be open houses at two more venues that SLA is holding this month. One is the regular public holiday open house at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station on Vesak Day. The second will be at old Kallang Airport on Sunday (15 October 2016) from 10 am to 1 pm. The open houses and the Celebrating Places and Memories photo contest (details here) are being held to create awareness and appreciation of State Buildings. Details on how to register for the Old Kallang Ariport open house can be found in this post on SLA’s Facebook Page. More information on the contest and State Buildings can also be found in this post: Celebrating Places and Memories – a photo contest by SLA.

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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).