Elizabeth House, nurses’ quarters to part of a nursing home , or will that be just a mirage?

14 07 2022

Developments around Singapore General Hospital in the last five years or so, have altered the complexion of its much storied surroundings. With that, a number of markers, which linked the area to its much storied past were permanently lost. Future developments threaten to do the same with old Alexandra Hospital, with plans to redevelop a part of its grounds as a nursing home for dementia patients recently announced. While it may seem to involve only a small part of the grounds, what it signals is the beginning of the end for the hospital campus and some of its historically significant sites as part of what will eventually be the “Alexandra Health Campus”. 

Alexandra Military Hospital

It is good that three of the hospital’s existing buildings, ones that serve as the face of the hospital, are already protected for conservation. There is however a question of context in keeping older structures, especially when they are drowned or find themselves minimised by the scale that new developments are often given.  Given the history of the hospital and the significance of many of its structures and spaces, there must be more of the campus that deserves to be considered for conservation.

The spacious, green and quiet grounds of the hospital could be overtaken by the mess of concrete in the near future as there are plans to turn it into the Alexandra Health Campus.

Alexandra Hospital’s roots lie in its construction as Singapore’s main military hospital. This came at the tail end of an effort to turn Singapore into the “Gibraltar of the East”, and a naval outpost to which the British fleet could be sent to in event that its assets in the Far East could be defended. This brought new garrisons of troops to the island. With only the aging and glaringly inadequate Tanglin Military Hospital to serve the huge contingent of European soldiers on the island, there was a need for a large enough hospital. In July 1940, Alexandra opened as the British military establishment’s most modern hospital this side of the Suez and counted among the largest medical facilities that were built for the British army.

In Alexandra Hospital’s campus, there is a mix of pre and post World War II buildings.

Tragedy was to befall the hospital within a year and a half of its opening when on the eve of the Fall of Singapore, the hospital became the scene of a most horrendous of atrocities. In spite of the hospital being clearly marked and identified as a medical facility, Japanese troops entered the hospital late in the morning of 14 February 1942, allegedly in pursuit of British Indian Army soldiers who had fired on them. What followed was the wanton killing of staff and patients over the course of two days. Estimates of those killed in the course of the two days of savagery go as high as 300. More information on the massacre can be found in this link.

One of the hospital’s ward blocks not protected for conservation. This houses the auditorium, which was a chapel during the war and one of the points of entry of Japanese troops.

Two buildings, Blocks 18 and 19, are threatened by the development of the nursing home. Even if the signs seem to point to the buildings’ retention, how that will work could involve the buildings being incorporated as parts of larger structures. Block 19, also known as Elizabeth House, is the newer of the two blocks and is particularly unique. Having been constructed in two parts to house female nursing staff in 1949 and in 1958, what distinguishes the modernist blocks are exterior ventilation blocks that serve as privacy screens.

The former Elizabeth House, Block 19, with its older and newer sections and its privacy screens.

The construction of Elizabeth House came at a time when Britain was involved in the counter insurgency efforts against the communists in Malaya in a campaign known as the Malayan Emergency. With Alexandra Hospital, also known then as British Military Hospital Singapore, being Britain’s principal military facility in the Far East, it played a crucial role in supporting the effort. New buildings were built on the campus including Elizabeth House in support of the large amount of military personnel sent by Britain to Singapore and Malaya. Elizabeth House was closely associated with nurses with the then exclusively female Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps or QARANC in short and known as tyhe “Garden Billet” to what were known as the QAs or nurses. Among the stories that have been told of the block was how its residents would sunbathe at the badminton court behind it.

Alexandra Hospital is a historical site with a plaque to recall its history placed in its gerden,

Based on what the Ministry of Health (MOH) has announced, as reported by the Straits Times on 26 June 2022, it is hard to see Elizabeth House surviving without substantial change or even demolition. While the sounds are for keeping the structure, there seems ample leeway given to the the successful tenderer (for consultancy services in regard to the nursing home development). What will be required of the tenderer is an assessment as to what opportunities there are to design the nursing home with respect to the heritage value of Blocks 18 and 19 — whatever that means. It seems quite possible that the option or a “documentation and heritage interpretation” route, with “elements of the blocks incorporated in the nursing home’s design” could be possible given the site’s constraints. If that is the case, Blocks 18 and 19 may just be a reinterpreted illusion. Without an actual form, and certainly without substance, we could just be left with a mirage that we in Singapore seem so fond of creating.

Block 18, built as the Commanding Officers’ residence.

Corridors of Block 19 – the former Elizabeth House.

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